Renee’s Postcard from Birmingham

Renee Yong recently graduated from her Bachelor of Science (Physiology) degree. Renee spent Semester 1, 2020 studying at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Why did you choose this host institution and destination?  

I’d been to the UK previously and had always been intrigued about what it’d be like studying there as opposed to being on holiday.

The academic standing and how the university ranked was really important to me. The combination of the University of Birmingham being one of the 24 renowned Russell Group universities and the high praise of the institution from my advisor played a big part in my decision to go with Brum.

Birmingham is the second largest city in the UK, but it’s quite different to what we’re used to at Melbourne – the campus isn’t in the city centre, it’s about 10-15 minutes out. It was pretty refreshing to get away from all the hustle and bustle but uniquely convenient to get back to whenever you want – it’s the best of both worlds really!

I think many students get caught up in just wanting to go to London whenever the idea of going on exchange to UK comes to mind – I personally relate to that very well; I was one of those students! Credit to my advisor Aaron, I gradually became more open minded to the prospect of venturing to other parts of the UK. You’d be surprised at how many options there are.

My teachers at Birmingham were all researchers well respected in their fields so it was a privilege to be in their classes. I took 3 subjects crediting as electives towards my BSc back in Melbourne, so I was able to relate more and enjoyed hearing about their research and was able to draw comparisons to what I’m used to doing in Melbourne which was very interesting.

I’d intentionally planned for all three subjects to count as electives because this would give me more flexibility while on exchange. Initially I’d wanted to do a core subject in UK, but found this quite stressful and challenging to find an equivalent. I’m really glad things ended up going the way they did though, I really feel it made the whole experience all the more enjoyable!

What was it like when you first arrived, was it what you expected? What was your biggest culture shock moment?

It was really different to what I was expecting actually. I was amazed how you could be in the city centre one minute and then be away from all that city buzz after hopping on a 10-minute bus ride and be on a vast campus brimming with student life.

It was also really cold! It feels quite silly saying this now, but back then I’d thought coming from Melbourne, infamously known for having 4 seasons in a day I’d be pretty well prepared. UK didn’t fail to prove me wrong! Truly underestimated how very cold, wet and windy it could get. Pro-tip? Don’t bother opening an umbrella in Birmingham when it’s rainy and windy because it’ll just get blown away.

What is your favourite memory from your overseas experience?

That’s a really tough one…it’s impossible to pinpoint just one favourite memory, but one that’s up there for sure is definitely meeting so many people from all over the world. Whenever I think about how I now have friends from countries I haven’t been to before – it blows my mind every time!

I feel so giddy with excitement and determination to travel to all these destinations in the future, and really look forward to reuniting with the friends I made. I don’t really know how to explain the feeling other than it being such a warm and fuzzy feeling of being so connected to people across the globe. I can’t wait to cross off all the places I want to travel to on my bucket list.

Share one piece of advice you wish you knew before going on exchange.

I guess you just never know what’s going to happen, and this year is a great example of that. I wish I knew not to put things off until after my exchange semester!

Obviously grades are still important during exchange, but if I could go back in time I really think I’d take things easier and go off travelling more during my off-days and weekends. I did get to travel some, but not nearly as much as I’d have liked.

What’s one key lesson you have learnt from the experience?

Time really doesn’t wait for anyone. One of the big reality checks when I got home was that exchange truly is a once in a lifetime experience. You can always go back to these destinations on holiday but studying there is a totally different experience altogether.

It’s true that you meet loads of people from different walks of life at your home university, but meeting people in this context on exchange is just so different! There’s a unique bond – I think you’ll know what I mean once you’ve actually experienced it.

Being truly independent was another big part of exchange for me. In Melbourne, I live with my family and have always been in a bubble where I’m with familiar faces. Living in student dorms was definitely foreign and a challenge, but it really grew on me and I miss it sometimes.

It was bittersweet being away from family – quite weird really! But even today, I still feel that it really helped me grow more as a person to be able to handle more responsibilities and hone my skills in time management and planning. True independence was a challenge but also a priceless experience especially because it was in an overseas exchange setting. Although just for a little while, living and studying in a different country is an experience I’ll never forget!