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Foreigners Reveal What Shocked Them About British University

"Local students here can really party. They're very resilient."

by Ammal Hassan; photos by Emily Bowler
06 August 2019, 8:58am

Photos: Emily Bowler

Growing up in Britain, you know roughly what to expect the day you arrive at university.

There will be rugby boys in WhatsApp groups destined to be described by a tabloid headline as "vile". There will be Home Counties horse girls reinventing themselves with a pair of Air Max 95s. There will be an extraordinary amount of alcohol, which you are expected to consume as if it's a newly discovered health tonic.

If you didn't grow up in the UK, some of this stuff can come as a big of a shock. We spoke to a few people from overseas who went to – or are still at – British universities to see what shocked them the most.

british students

Alexa, 21, Kenya

I've lived in the UK for five years, and I think what's really shocked me is the looseness of how people are. Back home, if you go out and throw up, it's not something to be proud of – but in Britain throwing up is seen as a sign of a good night out. To me, that's really weird.

Another really weird thing to me is how people don't like to share anything – everything here is very much your own. Back home, if you buy cigarettes or drinks you share with everyone. For pre-drinking you wouldn't just bring a bottle for yourself; you'd bring to share. In the UK, you bring drinks for yourself. That was definitely not what I was used to.

Elie, 19, Lebanon

The entire student life shocked me – the night out life, especially. I was told by a lot of people before I came [to the UK] that it was going to be crazy, but I wasn't expecting it to be like this. I wasn't expecting the whole fresher's week vibe and going out several times a week, every week and weekend. I mean, it's great, just not what I was expecting.

Also, I disagree with the stereotype that British people aren't very friendly and nice. A lot of my friends are British. Before I left home, my family told me, "Be careful, British people are very cold – don't take it to heart," but I didn't find that at all here. I don't even think it's because I live up north in Leeds. I've been down to Southampton, London and Devon, and I find the people quite similar in terms of how friendly they are. In London, people are a little bit colder, but I think that's just because it's a city. You could expect that from, like, New York or Dubai, for example. Everyone's in a rush and busy, but I think generally people here are quite warm.

cocaine and weed

Malebo, 20, South Africa

The main thing that shocked me is how the students here who have cars never offer lifts. It could be raining or snowing, and even if you're going to the same venue, nobody would ever be like, "Oh, just hop in." I found that so strange, because I know that in South Africa a person may even risk getting a ticket for having too many people in the car.

Also, I don't know if it's because I go to quite a small university or not, but everyone here is really just to themselves. But at the same time, here at university your lecturers can kind of befriend you, or get to know you on a personal level. That might be because my university is so small, but in South Africa there are so many people in a class there's no way you could interact with your lecturer on a nonacademic level.

It's also really weird to me how British people are a lot friendlier in the summertime. I literally felt like I was in a new country. For example, if you live in any kind of city as a student, you'll still meet people that are older than you. In South Africa, it's customary to greet any older person you see. You don't have to know them to greet them, you just do it as you pass by. I remember my first few months, which were during winter, I'd see an older person and greet them good morning or good afternoon, and they'd just look at me like, 'What are you doing?' But in summer, it's them who approach me and say hi or tell me I look really nice.

Raha, 21, Malaysia

The most shocking aspect about uni life here for me was the party culture. Something I've noticed while living here as an international student is that local students can really party. Obviously, not everyone is like that – there are some who don't like the crowds and going out drinking, but the will to party is still a little extreme. I know someone who started their weekend at 9PM on Friday, followed by a long night out, and then woke up on Saturday morning and started day drinking throughout the day, and then went out for another night out that night. I find it really funny – I think the local students here are very resilient.

I also noticed that local students here tend to stay among themselves. [When I started], I don't think they knew I could speak English quite fluently, so they didn't really seem approachable at first. But that changed; by the time I was in final year, all my friends were British. But it's kind of like you have to approach them or they won't approach you. You have to be the one that initiates the conversation. It's fine, but it shocked me.

Another really shocking thing to me was the walking culture here. I grew up with the weather being 35 degrees usually in Kuala Lumpur. Because of that, walking to get to places was definitely not possible, because it's just so hot and humid. So I've grown up accustomed to only walking certain distances. When I started here three years ago, I experienced a completely different culture where people actually enjoyed walking, even when it was snowing. That's one shocking aspect that I've grown to like. I’m a changed person – I'd say I enjoy walking now.

girl kissing girl on forehead

Amanda, 22, USA

In my first year I was put in a flat with only British people. Normally, international students are placed together, but everyone in my flat was either from Liverpool or London. I did feel really out of place with them at first. It was shocking because they were different to anyone I'd ever been exposed to. I really wasn't used to the culture – it's a very heavy drinking and going out culture, and acclimating to this was really hard for me, because it was like we went for drinks after everything.

All the societies are also heavily based around drinking, and it was the one thing that made me feel like a little bit of an outsider, because naturally I'm not one to go out like that all the time. I found myself comparing my life back home to here, with all of these British people who were heavy on drinking, heavy on taking drugs, heavy on going out. In the end it was really good and we had a lot of fun, but since I came from an international school previously, being put somewhere that was so British like that was like, "Woah."

I also find that most of my friends at university are also international; it was really shocking how British students very much like to stick to their own. I don't want to group everyone together and generalise, but I did feel like a lot of local students would stick to people they know and things that they were comfortable with. Very few of my friends are actually British students who have lived here their whole lives, just because I feel like they can be a little standoffish and almost a little judgemental sometimes. But I do know that not all British people are like this – maybe it's just the ones I've encountered at my university.

Afra, 20, Germany

London can get quite hectic and tiring at times. It gets challenging to keep up with uni, work and socialising. People don't want to miss out on any of these aspects, but it's shocking that I've had many people offering me synthetic drugs that allegedly help you adapt to the fast pace of city life. Even on university premises, "study drugs" – micro-dosed LSD or prescription drugs like ADHD pills – are always accessible. Maybe I've just been naive to this before, but I've never experienced something even close to this back in Germany.

Also, plagiarism and getting work done by others is obviously considered as academic misconduct and has severe consequences for students, and yet it's shocking that there's a variety of student services masked as "tutoring programmes" and "helplines" that are being offered in nearly every corner, in parks or even at university. They get your work done for a hefty price. It's just not possible for authorities to watch and regulate each one of these services, so some people actually get to hold a diploma at the end of their studies without even having to work properly for it.

two boys drinking beer

Rady, 21, Egypt

I was really surprised during fresher's week how much people here drink. I grew up on American media, so I thought university life was that kind of American university life – like frat parties. But the British take it to another level. Every day we had people blacking out and stuff from alcohol. I really had no idea that was what it was like.

Also, it was shocking how appalling the mental health support services for international students are. There are some services where you'll get therapy services for free based on your circumstances, but I was told those were only available for British and EU students. They do offer counselling services, and there are extra supplementary services, like teaching advisors or therapists, but they told me that wasn't available for me.

Gurteg, 24, Canada

My eye is always drawn to the way people dress, and what I've noticed about uni life here is that people dress very casually. Universities in Canada always have some professional schools – like a Med School or a Law School – attached to them, and [students there] tend to dress professionally, with shirts and dress shoes, etc. Students here will wear sweats or trainers, so I feel like I had to adjust my style to fit in.

When I first came, I stood out like a sore thumb, because I was wearing shirts to class and would carry around a messenger bag. People were looking at me like, 'Is this guy teaching the class or is he sitting with us?'

The drinking culture was also shocking. I noticed when I moved here that alcohol is sort of like the oil that keeps the machine running; everyone is always drinking. I'm not used to having so many pubs on campus, especially because you'd never find them empty at any point throughout the day. Whether it was 10AM or 10PM, the bars were always filled with people. Someone always has a reason to drink for something.