Transitioning to Living in Another Country by Emily Childress

Sunday 1 November 2020

Hey WaMStAs*!

Whether you’re a prospective or current student in the Joint Degree Programme, one of the first things you’ll hear a lot about is the ‘transition’. This is one of our favorite words — if you begin at William & Mary, you’ll even take a course that is literally entitled ‘Transitions: W&M’. So what is it that’s so special about the transition, and even more importantly, how does one survive it? I think there are three main transitions you’ll have to face, so read on to find out how to tackle them!

The Academic Transition

Arguably the most daunting of the three, the academic transition between universities is not for the faint-of-heart. Everything from the class structure to the way you write essays is different between the schools. To learn more about the specific difference in academics, keep your eyes peeled for a blog post on the topic coming soon.

As for dealing with the transition, if you want my advice? Don’t be afraid to fail. And no, I don’t mean in the literal grade sense; I mean in the learning sense. Many JDP students experience the lowest grades of their entire academic experience in the first semester of their second year (I know I did). There is a learning curve, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it. Instead, you should focus on preparing yourself the best you can, and not beating yourself up if you slip a little.

Whichever school you’re at, your professors and tutors are there to help you. They might be slightly more available at William & Mary, but your tutors at St Andrews will still have office hours, and they’ll still be willing to meet with you if you ask. The most important thing you can do when you’re struggling is to ask for help; simply explain your situation and ask how they want you to proceed.

Making the academic transition from William & Mary to St Andrews is arguably harder, as W&M is accepting of more different academic styles than St Andrews is. Individual graded assignments also count for less at W&M, giving you more space to adjust. That’s why if you’re a W&M home student, the best way to prepare yourself for the academic transition is to ask your peer advisors and older students in your first year, and start learning early about how to write essays in the St Andrews style. You should also work on your time-management skills, as St Andrews places a much higher emphasis on self-sufficiency and learning than W&M does.

The Social Transition

I won’t lie to you: it’s hard when you make a bunch of really great friends your first year, and then you have to change schools and repeat the process all over again. The good news is, if you’ve done it once, you can do it again. And if you didn’t do so well your first time around, you get a fresh start to try again. It’s actually much easier to make friends at St Andrews, in my opinion; whereas parties at William & Mary can be intense and nerve-wracking, going out at St Andrews can simply mean getting some drinks at the pub with a couple friends.

My freshman year, I was almost scared to get involved or make friends. I was so excited to move to Scotland that I didn’t want anything (or anyone) holding me back. Please, please, learn from my mistakes and definitely do not do that. It can be hard to get involved with something you know you’ll have to leave, but it’s even harder to not have anything at all. I ended up joining the crew team my second semester at W&M, and I wish I had joined it sooner!

Me with my teammates on W&M’s crew team!

The easiest way to make friends, of course, is to join clubs and societies. There’s something for everyone at both schools, and there are lots of similar activities to get involved with at both schools to help ease the transition! It’s also very helpful to rely on your fellow WaMStAs — be careful of only having friends in the program, though. In order to get the full experience at each university, make sure to push yourself out of your comfort zone and meet new people!

For me, the easiest way I made some fantastic friends at St Andrews was to join an academic family (if you don’t know what that is, check out this blog post for more information). While some people choose to have JDP families (which is totally fine!), for me personally, choosing to be part of an academic family of regular St Andrews students allowed me to really root myself at the University. Now I can say I have friends from all around the world! Not only that, but the best way to meet people is through mutual friends, and I’ve met some amazing people at St Andrews because they were friends with my academic sisters.

The bottom line is this: put yourself out there. It’s cliché advice, but it’s true. You don’t need a ton of friends or to be in five different societies, but try for at least one activity at each school. And remember that your fellow WaMStAs  will always have your back, and understand what you’re going through.

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Me and my academic family getting ready to leave for a night out!

The Cultural Transition

Finally, we reach the cultural transition. It’s funny, because when moving between Virginia and Scotland, one might think that they’re massively different. And sure, in some ways, they are. But there are actually a lot of ways in which the two universities are similar. I’ve definitely found myself on more than one occasion thinking that they are well-matched for a dual-university program. Both schools are among the oldest in the United States and Scotland respectively, both have incredibly strong academic cultures, and both are located in tourist-heavy towns with an emphasis on the past.

However, there are some pretty big cultural differences as well. For starters, drinking is a big part of St Andrews culture. There will be wine and cheese nights for networking, and even beer and nacho JDP meetings at the pub! One easy way to get to know someone is over a pint (though most people are also up for a cheeky coffee date if drinking isn’t your thing), and if you want to know where someone is on a Wednesday night, your best bet is the Student Union’s very own club, Club 601 (yes, the University owns and manages a club and several bars). Travelling is also a big part of St Andrews culture; having other countries be so easy and affordable to travel to is a major perk of living abroad.

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Me and some fellow WaMStAs on a trip to Dublin our first month at St Andrews!

William & Mary, on the other hand, has its own culture — pulling all-nighters in the library, having your bloodstream be 99% Swemromas coffee, tagging your friends in posts on the College’s Facebook meme page. You’re in class for a whole lot more time at WM than you are at St Andrews, so the academics are a much bigger part of the culture, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.

The easiest way to ease your cultural transition is to make friends, actually! I was able to understand Scottish culture a lot easier when I made actual Scottish friends; suddenly, if I had a question or didn’t understand something, I had someone to ask! Google is also your best friend — I can’t even count the amount of hours I spent online searching things like ‘What to know as an American moving to Scotland’ or ‘Differences between Scotland and America’.

At the end of the day, one of the great parts of this program is the ability to call two amazing places ‘home’. So when you think you’re leaving one home, you might just realize that you’ve arrived at another. The transition won’t necessarily be easy, but it will be worth it!

* ‘WaMStA’ is our self-given name that stands for William and Mary St Andrews, if you’re new

If you have any questions, you can contact Emily at [email protected]

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