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A Student Guide to Living and Study Abroad in Scotland

Article and photos by Lex Voytek

A waterfall in the Highlands of Scotland
A waterfall in the Scottish Highlands.

In 2014 I graduated with my B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. My friends asked me what I was going to do with such an “impractical degree.” I told them, “I’m going to travel the world and write stories.” I subsequently decided to apply to study abroad for my master’s at the University of Stirling in Scotland for the 2015-2016 year.

Stirling was the greatest decision of my life, but there are formalities to address when living and studying abroad. The first time I waltzed into the U.K. I thought I'd have all the mundane formalities sorted by week two. Was I wrong!

Practically speaking, here are some of the major considerations when applying for University and arriving in Scotland:

Costs

There were many reasons I chose to apply for education abroad, but first, let’s talk costs, as money and funding are often issues that can hold us back from pursuing our goal. The tuition costs, even as an international student, and even with the exchange rate from pounds to dollars very favorable. Direct study abroad remains much cheaper than every school I applied for in the U.S. There are a few caveats to this statement, of course. Though the tuition was cheaper, I found that scholarships available for my program were a harder to come by as an international student from the U.S. The scholarships that are available remain very competitive. The deadlines to apply are usually in the fall of the year before the program starts, so it is necessary to plan ahead. I ended up having to pay out of pocket, but it was possible to receive federal student loans.

Cost of living is mixed. Some things are cheaper, including basic foods such as dairy products, bread, and vegetables, and some things are way more expensive. Gas (petrol), was almost four times the cost of gas in the U.S., which extended to utility cost in the home. Also, the cost of alcohol and cigarettes (don’t smoke!) is high because of steep taxes. As I mentioned, I used loans, but while some people buy fancy new cars, and I bought an education and the experience of a lifetime. I regret nothing.

Visa Processing Time

Initially, another reason I chose the University of Stirling related to being able to bring my long-term partner with me. You should consider this personal requirement if you do have family or partners that you cannot leave behind because it can make the visa process more complicated. In our case, we were both accepted into the school, lucky for us. We applied for separate, but compatible student visas, so we were allowed into the country at the same time, and we were allowed to remain the same amount of time.

The actual visa process takes a while, so get on that ASAP. Do not wait until the last second to apply for acceptance into a school, or for scholarships, because all of these stages will be separate, but must include dependent applications. My visa, since I did wait a little longer than I should have, cost a few thousand dollars in general fees as well as expedited processing so that I could receive my visa in time to depart. We both received our visa the day before our plane took off. We were nervous wrecks that final day, of course.

The visa does include membership to the NHS, which is their healthcare system. Side note, my partner contracted pneumonia while we were there and he was seen and immediately by attended to by doctors for free. He was fixed up in less than a week, so even though we were forced to buy into the NHS with our visa, it ended up being well worth it.

As well, because of political conflicts within Europe, our visas limited our ability to work as students more than they typically would have even a year prior. Normally, students are allowed to work 20 hours in term and 40 hours out of the term. However, to discourage too much immigration, the policy was tightened until further notice. Currently, work is allowed 20 hours during the term and 0 hours outside of the the term. The new policy makes it almost impossible to hold a job. We had a few weeks where we ate nothing but frozen pizzas to balance our lack of budgeting for this possibility.

Banking

Acquiring a bank account involves a whole song and dance that I had not rehearsed. If you don't have previous U.K. credit or a U.K. address then you can't get a bank account, but if you don't have a bank account you can't rent a place to get an address. This was one of the biggest initial headaches I faced once I landed in Scotland. I solved this by going to the bank located on campus, and the bankers ended up helping me to find a workaround. Usually, that is how I got myself out of jams — I showed up, explained my situation, and made contacts where I needed to. It’s simple, and not a guarantee, but sometimes faith in humanity, being social and friendly, and asking for help can be the best way to solve an issue. The Scottish people made it easy, though — more on that soon!

Housing

Our coach house and conservatory in Scotland
Our coach house and conservatory.

If you plan to live in student housing, which many do, then the next passage will not be relevant. I chose not to opt for student accommodations because I was a graduate student, not as well-suited to dorms anymore, and I had a partner that would have had to get separate accommodations if we chose that route. Since student housing is quite expensive, we decided to find off-campus housing.

Houses are hard to find with most Scottish students rushing for accommodations at the same time. I lucked out with a great place — the best place I've ever lived — in the "posh side of town." As I mentioned previously regarding banking, it was necessary to be very diligent, not give up, and show that I was a friendly and trustworthy person. But, it was a little scary for the first whole month wondering if I was ever going to stop living in hostels and B&Bs.

I had booked a week’s worth of hotel accommodation upon arrival in Scotland, thinking that was even a little excessive. I ran into the first snag with the banking situation. Then more trouble came when I discovered that most renting agencies have a bias against students. I had to fall back on a pretentious graduate student performance. I assured agencies that I spent nights quietly drinking whisky and bantering about current events with my partner (actually true) and that I was too old to participate in "Freshers," which is what they call the first week of the semester where all the students come back to "Uni" and party at the clubs. Just meeting with my landlord was enough to convince him that I was not going to burn his place down in a crazy house party, but it was touch and go as my options for housing were incredibly limited.

In the end, it all worked out and rent, especially for our gorgeous coach house nestled among pristine Victorian mansions, walking distance to the town center and the Stirling Castle, was very affordable for two people at £750 total. The rent included two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a backyard, a beautiful sunroom (they call a conservatory), and unlimited free access to the castle as well.

My advice is to look into all options well ahead of time and try making contacts with agencies and landlords immediately — if you can, try to do this even before you arrive.

Transportation

Now for the good news! First of all, transportation is great. The buses are a bargain – £1.50 round trip for students to get from the town center to campus and all stops in between. The trains are wondrous and you can easily travel all across the U.K. quite cheaply. Many places are also within walking distance. Even cabs are decently affordable in a pinch – especially if you’re out with friends who can split the fare. I even bought a car for a mere £350! It was a 2002 Toyota Yaris with 75,000 miles. It was a great car, but that came from making friends in pubs — which will be impossible not to do unless you go out of your way to shun people. Having a car isn’t necessary, but I found advantageous to explore more of Scotland in my own time. Plus, you can drive for up to a year on an American license before having to get a U.K. license. Clearly,  the differences in driving alone (on a different side of the road, for example) could be the source of an article!

People

More good news! The people are some of the most friendly, helpful, and genuine I have ever met. I met lifelong friends who were willing to do things above and beyond when I was in any need.

My first friend, who has come to be part of my Scottish family, was made after walking into a whisky shop. I knew my stuff about "scotch" and even that the Scots don’t call it scotch — they call it whisky — without the "e." The man working at the shop instantly developed a liking for me and invited my partner and I to a little pub nearby. From there I was invited to meet more people through whisky tastings, and more pub gatherings. Soon I was invited to Hogmanay — the Scottish New Year celebration where friends and the whole village come together in one of the most genuine displays of generosity and merriment of which I have ever been a part. I brought tamales, which was a rather adventurous choice, but my Scottish friends loved it, even with the spice. They made haggis, and I tried it, and much to my surprise liked it!

My advice is to be willing to try new things, participate when even you can, and things will more easily fall into place. In my experience, once I was willing to join, laugh, and learn, then people were almost always willing to be there for me when needed.

The author in Islay, Scotland, embarking on distillery tours
The author in Islay, embarking on distillery tours.

Education

Finally, a few brief words on the educational experience in the classroom that complements the experiental learning outside of the academic world.

I found studying in the U.K. to be a very different experience to studying in the U.S. Much more independent study is involved than what I was originally used to at home, so it can be tempting to become lazy and just enjoy the extended vacation. There are typically only two assignments — a midterm and a final exam — with no explicit homework. I found this approach difficult to balance at first but ultimately ended up learning more.

With the education gained I have been set up for success as a writer that I have not previously known. I have placed in a big writing contest, found some success as a freelance writer, and set myself up for my future Ph.D. studies in Scotland — again, achievements worthy of a separate article.

In the End

For anyone who is willing to take a plunge into the unknown, loves adventure, accepts the challenges involved in stepping outside of their comfort zone, I recommend studying abroad. It takes creativity, willingness to take on the unexpected, and resilience when things don’t work out as planned, but in the end it is worth any headache endured and every penny spent.

In my case, I was transformed during my studies and adventures, and am far better as a writer and a person for having experienced the journey.

Slainte mhath!

St. Andrew, North Sea
The North Sea, St. Andrews.

Lex Voytek is from Albuquerque, New Mexico and graduated from the University of New Mexico with her B.A. in Creative Writing. She has a long-time love of the U.K. and Ireland from her travels abroad as a teenager. For this reason she applied to master's programs in these countries and made her final decision to study in Scotland at the University of Stirling.


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