The foreign student experience: From Norway to the University of Hertfordshire

[Marie Land Andersen | Contributing Writer]

I have spent four and a half years at the University of Hertfordshire. A rather unusual time frame as most people tend to graduate after three, but I had a change of heart and switched courses half way, in case you were wondering! This extended period has allowed me to witness the evolution of the university – For example, back in 2010, there was no Law Building on deHavilland, and there used to be a walkway on the left hand side of the EleHouse.

When I came to this country in the autumn of 2010, I had expectations and fears but nothing at all could have prepared me for what I would actually come to experience. Culturally, the United Kingdom and Norway always seemed very similar, going from the literature, TV and films you exported, but as soon as I set foot on this island, the communication issues became apparent!

As a people, it is my experience that you are extremely polite to most strangers. I use the word ‘extremely’ because upon my arrival and subsequent introduction to my course on deHavilland, as an English Literature student, I spent four days in the wrong course and not a soul out of those approximately 150 people that joined me, had the heart to point out my clearly sticking out as a sore thumb.

Here is why: When the induction week started, a branch of the Primary Education course they teach at the university had taken up the rooms on deHavilland where the School of Humanities is based. I had yet to master StudyNet at the time, and hadn’t discovered that the introduction week was being held in the huge lecture theatre on the other side of the building. I spent no less than four days making an abject fool of myself, talking about wanting to be a writer and all sorts of things, and actually saying, SAYING, the words “I just don’t want to be a teacher”, and you polite, sweet Brits – not ONE of you questioned that statement, despite that career being the aim of that course.

I finally discovered my error at the end of day four when we were all gathered in a hall at the Sports Village and someone handed me a goodie bag with a cup in it that read “Teacher’s Union”. I looked at the girl sitting next to me with a frown and said “Is that my only option then? Teaching?” upon which she looked extremely confused. She too, was too polite to say a thing. And then, finally, after four days of building models of the school using play dough and clay and random crap we found in nature, and talking about our dreams and hopes etc., did someone pass around a student register.

It will come to no surprise to you, dear reader, that nowhere on that list was the name Marie Land Andersen. I had to put my hand up and ask why my name wasn’t on the list, if there was another register. About seven faculty members looked extremely confused, and then one of them came up to me and said, “What course are you meant to be doing?”

“Humanities,” I answered. “English Literature, creative writing etc.”.

A look of understanding dawned on her. And then a room with approximately a 150 students burst out laughing.

Crap model of the University during my 4 days on the wrong course 2

The realities of being a foreign student soon dawned on me though. Aside from a slight miscommunication issue that often took place, the real problem seemed to be my American accent. I have been told as much by people who knew me back when I hadn’t changed it to British. that they pre-judged me a little and made some assumptions about me based on my very non-British behaviour in classes and so on – I often arrived to early morning lectures in my pyjamas, and would happily, though quietly, eat a full meal during, for example. It was, at first, excluding as I struggled to find a niche and friends, but soon became a funny quirk as I was able to correct people on their assumptions.

I joined the Drama Society after about a month and a half of loneliness, which I will admit is the longest period of my life here in England, simply because I felt so isolated. I wouldn’t tell my parents or any of my family as I didn’t want them to tell me I’d made a bad choice in taking this gamble. I stuck it out and it turns out that quirky meshes well with quirky because four and a half years later and I’m still a member of the Drama Society.

Rehearsal of Hade's Court with Anders Enge Berg and Marie Land Andersen

2015 Drama society

The social aspect was crucial to emerging myself fully into the British Culture. I learned about the southern versus northern divide, how the Welsh have a certain predilection towards sheep, how you add sugar first, then hot water, then tea bag, leave to infuse and then milk at the end.

I also learned that when the English ask how you are, you’re not actually supposed to give them an answer. This was not something that immediately fell into place though – it took two years for someone to explain that to me, after I pointed out how uncomfortable they looked every time I answered that question with sincerity. Similarly, it was very frustrating when I asked people, who were clearly not doing well at the time, how they were, and they would only respond with “good, how about you?”

The notice board in my room in Telford court my first week in England

The notice board in my room in Telford court my first week in England

There were many unexpected experiences that followed my dive head first into the United Kingdom, and one came from the very high expectation for British students to attend university. This takes away from the achievement that academia actually is.

In Norway, attending higher education is considered a very respectable choice and people tend to have great respect for those who opt for studying at university, as we are a nation where we encourage our young to pick a trade instead. My older brother went to a trade school and became an Electrician, for example. Most people in my middle school class went on to become mechanics, electricians, painters, carpenters, hairdressers, cooks, butchers and so on. Trade schools in Norway are a serious business – Two years of basic education and three years in training before you get certified. Those who attend do not pick their trade lightly. Only a handful studied university preparation courses.

So, perhaps with that perspective in mind, you might realise that to me, attending university is (or, was) a very big deal. I faced depression and anxiety, which was partly caused by the trivialisation of obtaining a degree in higher education that this country partakes in. Since “everybody” does it, it isn’t special and only the best of the best deserve recognition and respect, it often feels like.

If outsiders understood the sacrifices that go into obtaining a degree, the amount of dedication it takes, the work that goes into it, or even if insiders, actual university students took a step back and looked at their achievements by sticking to doing something that they hope will ensure them a future, the looming anxiety as they face the fact that they may never get a job in their field, I think they might be inclined to change their view. Although I come from a culture where what I’ve dedicated four and a half years to is considered very respectable, the British have rubbed off on me in this aspect as well. I am nearing the end of my degree now, and because of emotional and physical issues and a general lack of faith in my own abilities, I am having doubts I will graduate with a degree that people will respect me for. I will even admit to you that part of me is actually a little ashamed and embarrassed of herself and her degree.

Do I regret coming here though? No. I know, deep down inside, these negative feelings will go away. I am happy I did this. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world. I know that what I have achieved, as a foreign national, as a student in general, is something to be proud of.

If people approach me and ask if they ought to study abroad, I always say yes. I explain that periods of depression might occur, that isolation is something to look out for, and to never set your expectations too high, but on the whole you will return a completely different person, and in my opinion, a better person.

University of Hertfordshire, you received me well. It will be hard to bid farewell.


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