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Maria Slavova on Studying in England

Posted: 4th May 2020 13:30

Growing up on the Black Sea Coast as a child meant most of my days were spent trying to communicate with children of different nationalities and language backgrounds. I remember one particular instance when, in desperation to find a friend to play with, I tried to talk with a blonde girl who greeted me with a very British ‘hello’. I had taken a couple of trips to my parents’ workplace at the time where I learnt a little English, yet by the time I had actually memorised ‘Do you want to play with me?’ the girl had already disappeared. When my mum signed me up for English classes at the age of seven I could not wait until my first class. So when people ask me why I chose to study in England, those are the memories that resurface – a challenge that turned into a passion. The right question for me personally is not “why England?”, but rather “why English?”

Why England?

In Bulgaria, choosing a high school is as detrimental, as choosing a university is, if not more. I have an affinity for languages so I knew I would choose a language school, but I had already mastered English, so I was looking for a new challenge. I chose German and, consequently, I was expected to study in Germany or Austria – it is just what everybody did. Medicine in Vienna or Berlin would have been the most obvious choice, so when I chose to study English and Creative Writing in Birmingham, I was met with puzzled looks.

In my country, creative writing does not exist as a degree – you are either born as writer or you do not write at all, and the idea that you would spend years of your education studying something that is ‘more of a talent than a profession’ is bewildering to most. My grandfather is still in the process of understanding my course; after our last conversation he concluded that I am studying ‘fast-paced writing’.

Choosing to study in England was mostly based on my love for English language and literature, the opportunity to develop my own writing, and perhaps a healthy dose of obstinacy against expectations. And although Berlin is a mirage for writers itself, I could not imagine myself anywhere else, but at the birthplace of Dickens, Byron, Shelley and Tolkien. All my favourite writers were British, so I endeavoured to find that same inspiration which formed them artistically, and England seemed like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

The University Experience

The English educational culture is massively different from the Bulgarian one. It is highly practical and does not bother you with unnecessary details, and it is based on practice, rather than memorising notes for exams. I was also shocked when asked to communicate on a first-name basis with my lecturers and tutors, and could not quite grasp the sense of familiarity and friendliness that I had not previously associated with education.

Seminars were my biggest fear at first – I remember coming up with pre-written answers every time I had to take part in a discussion and nervously stuttering through a statement I would have easily made had I been talking to my friends. But that is the thing – in university everyone is your friend, including professors. In fact, during those discussions I learned more than I would have from any book or exam preparation. My fear of being the odd one out – considering that my course is mostly studied by native English students – was entirely ill-founded. If anything, being an international student can sometimes be an advantage when drawing on different sources for your studies and essay writing.

Spending most of our time on campus allowed me to meet all kinds of people. The Guild is the meeting place for students, in which you can find everything from yoga classes and vintage markets to book sales and parties. Different interests are encouraged and stimulated through various societies, no matter how unconventional – the tea and the baking societies are just as popular as the business and the accounting ones. However, it was the Bulgarian Society where I found family away from home, although I knew I could always count on welfare officers, who are genuinely interested in students’ prosperity and wellbeing.


Because of the constant rain, a usual conversation starter like ‘the weather is great today’ doesn’t quite cut it in the UK. However, you can always try sparking a conversation about Shakespeare, Harry Potter or the Queen, both the band and the monarch, depending on who you’re with. And in fact, I found that English people, contrary to popular beliefs, are quite chatty. It might be just my luck, but every time I sit next to somebody on public transport, they turn out to be rather engaging companions.

A stereotype that has proven to be true however is that English people are incredibly polite. Thanks to a very particular teacher I once had, I already had the habit of saying please, thank you and excuse me at the beginning and at the end of every sentence, which can be perplexing for many Bulgarians. That being said, I was still surprised when a cash operator asked ‘Have you found everything you were looking for today?’ at checkout. For what purpose, I still do not know as my answer has always been affirmative, but it is nice when people acknowledge you in a polite way. For that, England has no rivals.

Travel & Exploration

Situated almost in the middle of the country, Birmingham is a great starting point for many trips. England is in fact rich in places to visit, and the convenience of transport choices makes it possible to travel anywhere within the UK in just one weekend. There is so much more to England than London, which despite being one of the most famous and beautiful cities in the world, is still a city. The quintessentially British charm is actually best captured in the little nooks and corners of the country.

A must on your travel list should be the Lake District. Recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the region encompasses quite a few lakes, guarded by mighty hills, which are mirrored in the crystal-clear waters. Having inspired Wordsworth’s poetry many a time, the Lake District brings peace and tranquillity to all of its visitors and stands on par with Italy’s Lake Como in terms of beauty.

And if you want to visit a slightly more urban setting after a hectic week in university, Oxford and Cambridge are a great choice. The small towns are lively and authentic with multiple tiny cafes, bustling with tourists, locals and sleep-deprived students.  Be sure to visit Cambridge’s King’s College and Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Harry Potter fans will surely recognise some of the iconic sites the movies were shot at, and the deep history and need for knowledge that are synonymous with the two cities are sure to stimulate any overworked student.

I can also guarantee you that not everything in England is about bad weather. Bristol is one of the warmest and sunniest cities of England and, being situated on seven hills reminds me very much of Lisbon, while at the same time alluding to the vibrancy of Naples with its colourful buildings. If even that is not enough, just off the coast of Cornwall are the Scilly Isles, bringing the tropical warm currents of the Caribbean through the Gulf Stream.


I have to admit that, being far from a gourmand, I have hardly any experience with typical English cuisine. Aside from the traditional English breakfast and fish and chips, I barely knew of any other English dishes prior to studying in England.

If I now had to describe a cookbook of selected British recipes though, perhaps most of it will consist of various types of pie. The image I personally associated with the word ‘pie’ recalls an image of Snow White sprinkling apple crust with sugar. However, the traditional Yorkshire pie is filled with a mixture of different kinds of meat, as are the Shepherd’s pie and Haggis. If you, like me, have the simple, yet pretentious tastes like those of a five-year old, you will probably not go far into the exploration of traditional food either, especially if you are offered a Black Pudding or an Eccles cake, both of which do not include chocolate. A safe option would be bread and butter pudding.

In England you can try different international cuisine as well – in the vicinity of just about everywhere, you are sure to find an Indian, Chinese, Thai or Italian kitchen. However, if you do want to stick with the British experience, just visit the closest pub – get a glass of cider and some fish and chips, or if you are a meat-lover just ask for whatever the specialty is.

Overcoming the Challenges of studying in the UK

Just like with any new beginning, starting university is a nerve-racking experience, even more so if you decide to study abroad. Either way, you will be overcome with doubts and challenges, which will no doubt build our perseverance and character further than any educational institution ever could. Being an international student means not only opening a new chapter, but starting a new volume. Being far from home and everything you consider safe and familiar, is scary, but it also allows you to experience the world through entirely new lenses. It is an experience in which the advantages outweigh the hardships.


English can often be underestimated. Although it is easy to learn, you can never know a language in its entirety, and studying in England will definitely prove that. In the first week of my studies, I was constantly asking people to repeat their questions and blamed myself for not understanding them to the point I questioned my choice of course. The locals’ dialect was far from anything I had heard before, which often left me puzzled and frustrated with myself. It did not take me long to realise though that even native speakers fail to understand each other at times.

Top Tip: England has many different dialects and accents to confuse you with. The best way to deal with it is to just have patience. As simple as it sounds, a language is best learned when practised. Do not discourage yourself to communicate and do not hesitate to ask for people to repeat something, if you do not understand. Few people would actually mind, and you will be surprised how little time it takes to get a grip of the language.  

Feeling Homesick

It is natural that you will feel homesick the first few weeks. I am already used to living abroad, but I still have times when I just wish to be home. Being an international student is sometimes lonesome – you miss your friends and family, your home and pets and perhaps even your favourite pillow. Everything is different – the street you live in, the food at the supermarket, the traffic directions, the language and the culture.

Top Tip: A common mistake for students who feel homesick is to become closed off. The more you hesitate to explore the new environment and to come out of your shell, the harder it will get. The best way to deal with homesickness is to just stay busy and socialise – find new friends by joining student groups and societies or join a sport you are passionate about. However, do not give up if an attempt does not turn out with a satisfactory result.

Studying in a foreign language

I have come to realise that however good one’s level in English might be, all international students struggle when it comes to their course preparation. Very often though, the problems stem from the fact that we lack confidence when it comes to expressing ourselves in an environment where English is spoken fluently by everyone. I often held back from speaking in classes because I felt insecure in expressing myself in front of other native speakers.

Top Tip: Nothing comes easily to us without us trying to improve ourselves and without patience. Sometimes it takes longer to improve your confidence and skills but you will find that as long as you put effort in it on a daily basis, a positive result is guaranteed. Speak with people as much as possible, take notes in seminars, write down even the littlest things, and do not hesitate to speak up when you have something to say. You will find that the most criticism you receive is the one you point towards yourself.

Saving money

Studying abroad can often be an expensive endeavour. You suddenly become independent and all the costs that are otherwise covered by your parents are all of sudden your responsibility. It is usually when you realise how much resources it take to live comfortably in today’s highly commercialised world. Whether you take a side job or are focused solely on your studies, there is a certain sense of guilt when it comes to spending money.

Top Tip: You will find that in most European countries, as it is in the UK, being a student has a lot of perks and advantages. If you research properly you can find that most shops, supermarkets, food chains and other services offer student discounts. If you need to catch some type of public transport to reach your campus, you would probably benefit from having a student travel card for a reduced price in tickets. Taking advantage of those benefits, however small they might seem, will save you a lot of money in the long term.

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