The vast majority of students are young people and often, going to a college or university away from their parental home represents their first experience of living independently. This was my own experience when I left home to follow an undergraduate degree in Applied Chemistry at (what was then) Kingston Polytechnic on the fringes of London in the UK. The course I took included a full year of industrial experience as part of the degree study and I was lucky enough to work for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority’s Harwell laboratory, not far from the dreamy spires of Oxford.
Being exposed to the world of work and having the responsibility of looking after myself away from the family home was, undoubtedly, a life-changing experience. Between the ages of 18 and 23, just about any experience you have is probably life-changing anyway! Both environments allowed me to meet new people, try new experiences and visit new places. I will never forget my visit to the Joint European Taurus (JET) project at Culham whilst I was at Harwell and I have an abiding love of the theatre which was born of cheap “student standby” tickets when I was at Kingston. JET brought scientists from all over Europe to Oxfordshire to engineer a fusion reactor that creates energy by fusing hydrogen atoms together at incredibly high temperatures and in extremely small spaces. I shared a house with one of the people working on the project and he was present when fusion was achieved for a few milliseconds. Fascinating stuff - even to a chemist. Almost thirty years later, scientists from around the world are now coming together at Cadareche, in Southern France, to try to engineer a pilot plant that will generate electricity through the fusion process. But I digress.
A few years later, whilst I was working at Southampton, I had the fortune to be able to complete a Master of Philosophy degree, by research. For my sins, I had strayed into the new discipline of plasma mass spectrometry, a technique then in its infancy that offered the chance to extend trace metal research to ever lower levels and to open up the field of trace metal speciation for research. In those days, there were less than a dozen groups working on the technique around the world. I was working on the measurement of lead isotopic ratios in blood and environmental samples with a view to understanding which sources of lead were most responsible for the lead body burden in UK children.
Through my participation at Plasma Spectroscopy conferences, I was offered the possibility of continuing my research abroad at Ghent University in Belgium. At that stage the European Commission was trying to encourage young European scientists to study within the EU, as a means of slowing the exodus of scientists to the USA which paid much better (at the time) than Europe. I was awarded a “Sectoral grant” which allowed me to experience the benefits of post graduate studies abroad.
Living in a foreign country is truly a life-changing experience! I very quickly found that my Flemish colleagues were a very friendly bunch who spoke embarrassingly good English (and French and German) and were only to pleased to help me with renting an apartment and setting up a home. Curiously, many of the Belgians (well, at least the Flemish) chose to go to the closest university to where they lived, so an itinerant Englishman was a subject of some interest to them. Everybody I met (pretty much without exception) was very open and welcoming. During my stay, I met four other “guests” from outside Belgium and formed some of the closest friendships of my life.
I spent three years in Flanders and got to know the region quite well. Whilst I never managed to learn Flemish sufficiently well to claim any real fluency with the language, I did manage to understand it by the time I left, complete with my doctoral degree.
These days, there are many options for spending part or all of your study at a foreign university. It is well worth investigating the possibility and the funding which is available to you.