Around this time last year, I spent two months of packing, unpacking, and repacking my belongings to prepare for another phase of my academic life: starting university in the fall. I was hoping then to channel the blues and excitement after graduating from the International School of Beijing into something useful. I had imagined hundreds of scenarios of how my life would change, but it wasn’t after several months at university did I realize that there’s life beyond the little bubble of an international school.
I felt a mix of emotions my first couple of weeks at university: nervousness, homesickness, anticipation, and delight to name a few. But I was mostly just tired from jetlag after flying half way around the world. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I knew that I should take advantage of the calm before the storm of assignments. This was the perfect time to start settling in. I arranged my belongings in my dorm, explored a little bit of the campus and the city, set up my bank account, borrowed useful books from the library, and did some shopping for necessities like stationery, coat hangers, electrical appliances…oh, and obviously snacks. There were also orientation activities taking place, which helped new students like me learn about city and university life, and allowed us to meet new people.
Throughout secondary school, I took comfort in the fact that most of my peers have experienced the expat life like I have. After just a few weeks at university, I gained tremendous insight into the lives outside that of expats. I hadn’t put much thought before into the fact that an overwhelming amount of people around the world have grown up in one country, one province, or even one city. Most of the people I’ve so far met made their biggest move when coming to university. So, unlike between students at international schools, a mutual understanding about an international lifestyle was rarely present.
As an embassy kid, I have had the luxury of living in seven different countries, so it is not surprising that I dreaded being asked the question “Where are you from?” whenever I met someone new. Considering my nationality, I would respond that I am from India, even though I feel as much connection to Beijing as I do to my hometown. I would hope that the conversation of my background would end there, but most of the time, I would receive a look of puzzlement followed by a question or comment related to my accent: “Oh, why don’t you have an Indian accent then?” I would watch people’s fascination grow as I explained how my family and I would move countries every few years, and how my international schooling gave me an “international” accent. I needed to explain my expat background so many times during my first year at university that I had prepared a little speech to recite any time people would ask me about it. “I’m from India, but I moved to here from China…” “No, I’m not Chinese…” “My dad works at the embassy, so I moved around a lot…”
The first year of my university education felt like a natural transition from high school senior year, like entering International Baccalaureate (IB) Year 1 after 10th grade. Having endured several IB exams and one Advanced Placement Calculus BC exam, I didn’t have too much trouble settling in academically. But reaching my academic goals still required more hard work than in high school. For example, obtaining academic success in university requires better time management. Instead of having classes from 8:.30am to 3:.30pm every day, my classes were spread out throughout the week, most during the day and a few during the evening. Because of that, it was a little harder to balance studies, work, and chores. I felt a heavier workload too, but that could have also been because I had to do a lot of things on my own, like cleaning, doing laundry, shopping, and cooking when the meal hall wasn’t open.
Because of some added responsibilities, it was important not to fall behind on things that need to be done. Most of my professors did not make lectures mandatory to attend, so it was easy to fall into the trap of skipping classes to get a few more minutes of precious sleep or to write a few more lines of an essay assignment due the next week. Also, with the extra freedom and independence from parents, it wasn’t too hard to overdose on fun. I had to quickly learn to schedule effectively, so that all tasks could be completed on time.
Having studied at an international school has prepared me for many of the challenges I was going to face during my first year at university, but it was impossible to be ready for everything. Starting university may feel like a big change, but it opens the doors for a plethora of opportunities. I’ve only completed one year of university, but I’ve already met many amazingly talented people, and learned about numerous fascinating topics. It was important to prioritize everything effectively to make the most out university life.