Navigating the Rocky Waters of my Kiwi Study Abroad

(featured photo by; All post photos by Justine)

“Oh my god—what is Magnolia Bakery like?”

“New York in the winter seems so fabulous. All those fur coats!”

“Wait, you said you’re from New Jersey? Do you know anybody in the mob?”

These were the questions I faced on my second day of school in Auckland, New Zealand, thousands of miles away from New Jersey. They may have been the same questions as my first day, only I couldn’t quite understand the accents just yet, comprehending requests to state my name and directions on where to sit in my classrooms.

I had recently moved from an uncertain life in Jersey to an even more unknown chapter in New Zealand. Back in the US, I had just started my sophomore year in a new school, only to be told in December that my mom wanted to go on an adventure and take my younger sister and I to New Zealand, where she had family. Leaving our father, I found myself a few months later in February unpacking my single suitcase in a new apartment, new city, new country, new time zone.

Looking back on it now as a recent college grad, I could have—and should have—handled the move differently. I mean, who would have been unhappy if they woke up to this view at their grandparents’ house?


..or to walk up these steps every morning and be taught by Oxford-educated instructors?


…or to know that this scene, free of any magical Instagram filter, would only take a quick hop on the freeway?


But those condensed two years in New Zealand—I was deemed bright enough to skip a year and spent my junior and senior years there—were probably the darkest years of my life. Part of it was due to personal struggles in not being strong enough to handle such a move. Since my dad was back in America, I had to be the one my mom relied upon around the house, be it gardening, making sure our utilities were taken care of, or keeping track of our finances. However, one reason for my unhappiness in the Land of the Long White Cloud is because I expected too much.

Now, even though I had visited NZ as a tourist visiting family, a visitor’s experience of life in a country abroad (although they share your common language!) is still drastically different than calling it home. As an American teenager, I had simply waltzed through my school doors on my first day expecting people to like me and to want to get to know me. I’d expected that things people would be “like Americans, but different”—straight-shooters who were warm and open.

What I found instead was a society where people were friendly, but reserved. In fact, I had a teacher later tell me, after I had confided in her that I felt like I wasn’t making close friendships (something that everybody wants in high school, am I right?), that Kiwis were people who kept their inner feelings and even personality traits a secret, even to their oldest friends of decades. After a semester at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I found this very similar to the British way of life as well.

And in hindsight, the slightly disappointing experience I had could have been completely circumvented if I had come through those arrival gates at Auckland Airport with an open mind, free of expectations. I should also have done more research instead of assuming everything would work itself out seamlessly. To my credit, some of the discomfort I encountered was due to college preparation stress: my classmates were coasting on their assignments, aiming to attend the local Auckland University, or if they were really ambitious, maybe overseas at an Australian institution. I had the additional obstacle course of navigating a new curriculum in addition to taking the SATs overseas with zero outside help like tutoring.

Most importantly, I should have enjoyed the great moments that did eventually happen. I am incredibly, deeply grateful to my parents for the opportunity of such a life experience. Once college actually rolled around, I felt infinitely more prepared than all the other freshmen, knowing that I now had the strength and grit to face whatever was coming my way. Because of college, we all ended up moving back to the US, but fortunately as a permanent resident, I have the freedom of returning to NZ whenever I like.

Thanks to this episode in my life, it pointed out what my career aspirations could be like. This international experience opened my eyes to the importance of communications and public relations that could resonate with a variety of markets. As such, it led to my interest and subsequent internships at places like the Senate and even Al Roker Entertainment, helping develop reality shows. This drive to succeed and attention to fostering relationships has awoken my interest in pursuing a career in PR, consulting, or possibly even diplomacy–it’s true, the struggle you’re in today develops the strength you need for tomorrow.


Justine Yu

Justine is a recent graduate of Rutgers University looking to get started in the public relations, diplomacy, or entertainment industry. If you don't want to keep up with the Kardashians, you can join her journey in navigating the post-graduate world at


Tips from My Scotland Study Abroad

(Featured photo by; All post photos by Justine)

As a newly-minted Rutgers grad, one question I’ve fielded a surprising number of times concerned my “best memory of Rutgers”. Even more surprising is my answer: the time I studied abroad for a semester at the University of St Andrews.

If you’re not familiar with Rutgers, you should be: founded in 1766 as America’s eighth-oldest college, it is the public research university of New Jersey that’s a member of the Big 10 Conference with alums that include governors, senators, vice presidents, and even media figures like Mario Batali (we’re really proud of you, Mario!). It’s also one of the best universities in the world in terms of diversity, having a sizable chunk of its undergraduate population as the first in their families to attend college.

During my fall semester of junior year, however, I longed for a different experience–the grass is always greener, right? I wanted to experience an international life where I wouldn’t have a terribly difficult time assimilating, nor an unforgivable time difference, and an environment where I could hit the ground running, so to speak, especially if I were only to spend a semester there.

The University of St Andrews was the perfect choice. Situated in St Andrews, Scotland, it was picture-perfect, nestled in a sleepy “town-and-gown” area that 1. was English-speaking 2. had a doable time difference to keep in touch with family and 3. was centrally located enough to reach the touristy bits of London/Edinburgh/Europe but also was isolated and special. I mean, how many people do you know have been to Scotland, even though it’s so accessible? St Andrews is also famous for its golfing, hosting a myriad of golf tournaments that provide for some great celeb-spotting, and the student clubs even get in on it by having golf outings or just holding their special events at the line of hotels on the shore.


From January to June 2013, I was in an amazing, bizarre, grandiose, and illuminating bubble that helped open my eyes to the workings of the world, and I’d already thought myself to be a pretty solid world traveler. First of all, the school itself will demand rigorous attention. I’m very happy that I chose to attend St Andrews over other study abroad programs where I could have floated through my academics. I really didn’t mind the fact that I was taking courses that factored into my GPA because I got to attend classes in halls like these:


In fact, one of my favorite nooks for knocking out essays was in the Classics department, which was situated on prime real estate because you had views like this:

And yes, that’s the ocean you’re seeing!


Since it was such a small university, student life can be quite inhibitive if you’re used to being on a huge campus, like I was. But it was the perfect opportunity to thoroughly explore the town, and if I ever got bored, I could always dip out for a weekend. Students usually busied themselves by indulging in the sophisticated foodie/bar scene thanks to the higher-end hotels in town, or with the societies (student orgs/clubs) that they joined. London was a six hour train ride away, and the nearest major airport (Edinburgh) could take you to a plethora of other European countries for jaw-dropping prices. I bought a ticket to Berlin at only £25 (around $40). I usually got started with a jog on the beach. Literally across the street from my dorm was water and sand in front of me! Fun fact: my friend told me that he was able to watch Rowan Atkinson film his Chariots of Fire skit for the London 2012 Olympics from his room–in the same exact spot where the movie was actually filmed.


Now, making friends is something people fret over right before a big life change. A study abroad experience is no different. Before arriving, I hadn’t realized just how large the American population there was, in terms of study abroad students like myself, or others who named it as their home university. Regardless, if you wanted to fit in with the Brits, an American accent just won’t cut it unless you have an interesting background. Needless to say, I played up my schooling in New Zealand in order to add to my American study abroad friend group. Regardless of that, the town itself is comprised of posh students who fuel their club meetings with port and cheese instead of the old pizza standby, and any party you were invited to was usually implicitly black-tie…sometimes even white.

Studying abroad teaches you so many things that college in your home country doesn’t: how to take care of yourself in a foreign land, how to really pack your day, and how to make new connections with unfamiliar people. In my case, it also taught me a stronger self and to not be afraid to be alone. For spring break, I ended up traveling by myself for three weeks to Milan, Venice, Berlin and London. Believe me, nothing will tell you how independent and strong you actually are like ducking out of honeymooners’ photos near the Grand Canal in Venice or trying to find your hotel at 10pm in a deserted Milanese street!


Justine Yu

Justine is a recent graduate of Rutgers University looking to get started in the public relations, diplomacy, or entertainment industry. If you don't want to keep up with the Kardashians, you can join her journey in navigating the post-graduate world at


5 Ways that Studying Abroad is a Learned Skill

(photo by

In life, some experiences are intuitive and some are not. What I didn’t realize during my study abroad planning is that studying abroad is one of those experiences that aren’t instinctual; it’s a learned skill. There is nothing about expat life that is intuitive but once you learn it, it seems like you could’ve known it all along. Transitioning into a new culture, language and college environment is like the first few months your grandparents who got a smart phone. Do you remember how they were so confused by all the apps and buttons? Or how they would get so frustrated when they couldn’t send a text or they got on the wrong setting in photos? Cultural/linguistic immersion in a study abroad is just like your grandparents learning the ins and outs of a new smart phone. It’s not intuitive for them as they have no prior experience with it. Then when they just start getting comfortable with the phone, there are still little things that come up from time to time that they don’t understand.

Instead of your grandparents going through the frustrating learning curve with their smart phone, wouldn’t it have been useful if the smart phone came with a guide? Or even better, what if they knew a smart phone user who could show them the ins and outs of the phone? That would make the learning curve less steep and help them to start using it more effectively much quicker. Studying abroad is just like your grandparents learning their new smart phone. But this time, there are guide books that exist and people who can show you tips and tricks to lessen your frustration. Just remember, there will always be little things that you’ll figure out on your own, even with someone showing you the main tips and tricks. What the guide (person, book or both) does is help you to avoid unnecessary confusion and frustration. It’s still up to you to become comfortable in your study abroad experience but having that guide as reference can make all the difference in the world. Now that we know studying abroad isn’t intuitive and that it is a learned skill, let’s take a look at some of the things you need to learn for your study abroad:

1-Doing Something New: Humans are creatures of habit. We have to teach ourselves to do something different because it doesn’t come natural to us. Studying abroad is all about doing something, heck, everything new! I can assure you that doing something new is a learned skill and one that should be learned before you go abroad; not when you already arrived.

learn-something-new(photo by

2- Going back to the beginning: If you’re studying abroad and the host country has a different language, be prepared for your language skills to be below par. You’re going back to basics. Be prepared for every 5 year old to speak better than you and you reverting to hand signals and lots of pointing to get your opinion across. But it’s not just communication; you’ll also have to go back to basics for simple, every day tasks. Your way of doing things may not be normal to the host culture so you need to learn a new way of doing the same things.

3- Being wrong: This is similar to going back to the beginning. You’ll find out that you’re wrong or at least what you’re doing is perceived as wrong. It can be difficult to find out that things such as making pasta or smiling to a stranger is now a no-no and that the way you’ve done things for the past 20 years is no longer the norm.

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4- A new way of learning: This onegoes with doing something new but it’s different because it deals with taking classes at a foreign university. You will have to learn in a new way. You’ll find yourself taking notes in a foreign language in which you have barely mastered its elementary basics on a topic that you barely understand due to language barrier. Talk about difficult!

5- Being independent: Being independent is really not intuitive. Even if you’re a loner or an introvert, being independent is not the same as being solo. Having to make decisions on your own without your parents’ input or direction is really scary. What if you make the wrong decision! Studying abroad is all about growing up and figuring out what it means to be independent. It’s the unknown and terrifying but we all must do it at some point. And trust me, it’s better sooner than later.

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Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: A Day in the Life

(All photos by Alexa)

I ricochet between indulging in the life of a little old French lady (you know, the one that spends an hour strolling through the arrondissement’s marché en plein air on Sunday to meet their little old lady friends, just before strolling home to a three-course déjeuner, followed by coffee, laundry and some light reading) and hitting the high notes of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” at expat bars (you know, Chez Georges).

This afternoon, I selected the former. The temperature has hovered around seven degrees with a slight drizzle for a week. My French friend told me she wears dresses in the summer, and the same dresses with tights in the winter. Inspired, I donned my fleece-lined stockings and purple lipstick and struck out to the street.

I was aimless. I thought of some research I did for my Theories of the Photographic Image course, re: Guy Debord. Debord was a member of the Situationist International in the 1960s, which is a puffed up version of Dadaism and Surrealism. He and his philosopher pals developed the idea of dérive, or drift, which is an unplanned tour through an urban environment. They basically wandered around in Paris in order to find patterns of emotional and atmospheric forcefields. Psychogeography. Mumbo jumbo, maybe, but there’s something malleable about Paris that makes the idea seem plausible, like the city’s been trapped in a slow-cooker for the past few hundred years.


(Detail on the Notre-Dame cathedral in Reims, taken on a day trip. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this church is where kings of France were crowned. The older church, destroyed by a fire in 1211, was the baptismal site of Clovis in 496. Before that, it was the site of Roman baths.)

 I ended up at the church next to metro Jourdain, the closest portal to transport me from my little mountain to the Seine. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Paris is made of castles and churches. This one, deemed Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, is almost medieval-looking, or maybe just a bit unloved. The right side always smells like piss, but rain helps.

I had my reuseables with me, so I decided to head in the general direction of the Monoprix and look for a gift for Alessandro’s family, in return for shelter and copious amounts of pasta this upcoming holiday season. I didn’t get far before someone clutching flyers spotted me. I prepared my “Non, merci” and delivered it gracefully to the man. He responded by laughing, insisting, “Je ne vous attaque pas!” He had friends, some playing music, so I smiled politely and repeated my refusal.

Once I ducked inside the closest thing Paris has to an American supermarket, I found a bag of Révillon chocolates. Last year, when I lived in an off-campus apartment in New Brunswick, my Lyonnais-native flatmate was overjoyed when her family mailed her the candies and informed me that these were the quintessential French treat for New Years. Moving on, I couldn’t decide if dried fruits sprinkled with sugar screamed holiday cheer or bizarre gift, so I bought them for myself instead. I also bought dates. At certain Monoprix, you need to weigh your fruits and vegetables (and dates, if fresh) on the scale before you get to the register. I always, always, always almost forget to do this, and it has caused so many awkward jogs around the store.


(I really like candles. Especially in churches without an internal heating system.)

Back outside, I fished my receipt out of my bag and realized that the Christian-enthousiast had tucked his flyer inside as I passed. It was a home-made creation, featuring a drawing of the church on the front and wishing me “Joyeux Noël 2014”, followed by a quote from “Jn 3,16” about how God is everyone’s friend. On the back of the card, there was a program for upcoming weeks: confession, midnight mass, a weekend block party. I took not two more steps before reaching the front of the church.

A flock of Parisians congregated around the entrance, which is now dripping in white and blue lights. Nobody in France celebrates the religious aspect of Christmas (in fact, my host brother laughed out loud at the question) but Parisians really know how to deck out a city. I realize, now, the true origins of that infamous nickname.

A woman offered me fresh-baked chocolate cake, which melted in my mouth as I stood in a puddle between French chatter and costumed children caroling on the steps of the church, wondering how I’m going to study for my last final exam of the semester, pack my suitcase, and say goodbye to my friends who aren’t returning to Paris in January.

I finally feel like I’m settling in. Not in a total old-lady way. Only sometimes.



Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.