Just like any person, studying abroad has long been my dream since I was a kid. Having a big dream and goal since you are young is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing that you know what you want to do in the future. However, it is also a curse because deep inside you know that you have to achieve it no matter what, no matter how thorny and arduous the road is to make your dreams come true.
After years of hard work and sacrifices, I managed to attain the best academic results at school, which led me to receive a full-ride scholarship from the Romanian government for my bachelor’s degree.
Yey! It is a mission accomplished, right?
Little did I know, it was actually just a start. Contrary to the romanticised idea of studying abroad, all the ‘glory and fun’ of living thousands of miles away from home, is just a tiny piece of reality. Especially when you are doing your degree in a completely foreign language that you’ve never learnt before.
Since I’m receiving a scholarship from the Romanian government, it is mandatory that I join local classes with other Romanian students. So, before I started my degree, I took the Romanian Language Preparatory Year (APLR) program at the Bucharest University of Economic Studies (ASE). In fact, I only get to learn the language from scratch for 7 months before starting my bachelor’s program in Biochemistry at the University of Bucharest. I was utterly anxious and worried about the language barrier, but thankfully I managed to complete my first semester with flying colours!
Here are some of the tips that I used.
Get to know your professors
This might seem like a simple and trivial thing to do, but is actually very crucial! As the only international student in the class, it is important to let your professors know about yourself and your language difficulties at the beginning of the semester. By doing this, your professors will be aware of your struggles and might offer you some help; being given study materials in English, textbook recommendations, or even sharing/handing their contact information so you can visit them during office hours.
Also, it is very important to ask for extra materials (whether it is in the target language or English) that you can read before classes. This will not only help you in becoming more prepared for classes but also give a good impression to your professors due to your eagerness and dedication to put in the extra effort!
Read before class
Learning in a language that isn’t your first (in my case, a third) can be quite daunting and a significant challenge to overcome. Compared to my other local friends, I am not only one step behind, but tens or even hundreds of steps behind since I am unable to comprehend anything in the class. Even after completing one semester, the most I can understand in a lecture is only up to 35%. Since I am studying biochemistry, the terminologies used in lectures are very foreign to me and rarely used outside of class. So, I gear myself up by reading ahead of the lectures beforehand in order to make sense of what’s going on in the lecture.
Usually, before the class, I will read English sources because they are a lot easier to comprehend. After the class, I will read back the notes I made in Romanian to memorise the vocabulary and terminologies used. Reading textbooks takes a lot of time (which I do not have), so I also make use of my commute time on the subway to the faculty by watching short lectures on YouTube.
Unfortunately, the Romanian language is not spoken by a large population of people, meaning there is less information and fewer sources on the internet to find. So, my secret weapon in studying biochemistry in this language is making my own ultimate study guide; taking effective notes from the lectures! Obviously, I can’t understand everything in the class, especially if the professor is talking at a rapid pace. So what I do is jot down the keywords—the repetitive words mentioned during the lecture. I note them nicely in a little section of ‘Keywords/Vocab’ at the start of my notes for every lecture. Afterwards, I will borrow my kind Romanian friends’ notes and write down everything at home.
I organize my notes to be well put together and use textbooks or other sources recommended by my professors to make a comprehensive study guide for myself. Though it is a really overwhelming and time-consuming process having to summarise the notes of eight hours worth of lectures daily, it does help me save a lot of time revising before the final exam! I would say my notes are my holy grail and lifeline to passing my exams.
Verify your knowledge
Understanding only part of a language can lead to misunderstandings, so it is important to verify what you learn from the lecture with your professor or friends. I always take the chance to ask my professors questions after the lecture to clarify some topics that I find difficult. This will help you make sure you are on the right track in following the lecture. Doing this not only helps me to have a clearer concept and to retain the information better, but it also helps me practice conversing in Romanian!
Exams – Just write!
The exam period is the most stressful part for me because I know that even if I have studied and understood everything, my answers are useless if I am unable to write them in the target language. Maybe some people would say that you can just study in both languages, your native and target languages. Well, it is easier said than done.
Firstly, you can’t really afford the time to study both languages, and secondly, it can be very confusing! Particularly for biology subjects that require a lot of memorisation of all the minuscule details, studying in multiple languages causes the information to be tangled and convoluted in your brain. Though I am sure I gave my professors a headache trying to fathom my unintelligible writings in my poor Romanian, at least I tried my best to write in a foreign language that I am not fluent in!
So, the takeaway from this is to not be scared and just write as much as you can. Even though you are anxious and insecure about your flawed language, remember that not everyone can take on the challenge of doing their degree in a totally foreign language just like you.
I learnt a lot during my first semester here. Of course, it wasn’t an easy feat for me. I would love to encourage students to chase their dreams of studying abroad, but, I would also like to shed some light on the reality of living abroad because some people tend to only focus on the romanticised side of it. Not to mention that aside from the academic struggles, you also need to survive living alone and away from the comfort and emotional support of your loved ones.
However, just because the reality is difficult and daunting, it doesn’t mean that it is impossible. Coming here lets me grow more as a person, lets me test the limits I’ve put on myself, and lets me explore more of the other side of the world. I am grateful for every opportunity that I had. Surely, the language barrier is the biggest hurdle of all, and I am still trying to work my way through that. But if anything, the biggest lesson I learnt this semester is that hard work will not betray you. I acknowledge the shortcomings and inadequacies on my part, so I pour my blood, sweat, and tears to overcome them.
Quoting Dr. Sarang Choi from her inspirational talk at WHY NOT, have you ever heard of the saying ‘pouring water into broken pottery’? It means that it is impossible to fill broken pottery with water; it is a wasted effort. However, what if you pour more water into the pottery with an even faster velocity? With constant effort, it will eventually turn into a waterfall, and the pottery will always be filled with water.
So, that’s actually what I am doing right now. I am trying to juggle studying for my degree while also studying the language in the limited time I have. I am not always the brightest and fastest when it comes to language; in fact, it is my weakness. But I believe that if I work hard and harder, I will become that waterfall that is able to fill my broken pottery.
Interested in knowing more about studying abroad? Find me on Instagram at @heybara and read my posts (a.k.a struggles) in H E Y B A R A!
Feature image by Haseeb Jamil on Unsplash.