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5 Things I Wish I Knew as an American Coming to NI for Graduate School

Moving abroad for university can often be a daunting time for students. Public History student Molly Elspas provides a few words of wisdom for those who are making the big move from the US to Belfast.

Group of 3 students at the Queen's Union Bar
Queen's offers a wide variety of on-campus events to help new students settle in

I always knew I wanted to study abroad. When I received my acceptance to Queen’s I was overjoyed at the prospect of becoming an international student. This was my first time abroad and I couldn’t wait to explore Belfast along with anywhere else I could get a plane ticket for. I did, however, run into quite a few obstacles I hadn’t anticipated before arriving.

Everyone’s experience is going to be different and I can’t claim that my tips will apply to all Americans who move to Northern Ireland. But after living here for 9 months, I want to share 5 things I wish I knew before coming to Belfast, or more specifically to Queen’s University:

1. Pack light:

I am a chronic over-packer, but shipping a whole apartment worth of things over here can be both expensive and time consuming. I also found that half the things I came with I hardly use. It’s really tempting to pack up your whole life and bring it with you, but I would recommend taking less than you think you need and then purchasing other essentials when you arrive. Not to mention that you’ll want to collect things from your new life here too.

The weather in Belfast is often kind of rainy but the temperature has a much more limited range than in the States. I would suggest bringing clothing that you can layer to fit the season and shoes that will keep your feet dry. Additionally, you’ll likely be doing quite a lot of walking from place to place so bring shoes that are good for walking.

The Giant's Causeway

The Giant's Causeway is a must-visit

As for household items, definitely bring a few things that remind you of home. Pictures don’t take up space and you can hang them anywhere. If there are medications or beauty products you like that aren’t sold in the UK, be sure to pack those (you can look this up online most of the time).

Here are some things I would NOT bring again: notebooks or school supplies because you can easily buy them here, mugs (even though they’re sentimental they’re a pain to pack), high heels (I never wear them), or more than 1 – 2 books. There are plenty of places to get new books here and if you’re like me, you will end up with a much larger stack than when you arrived.

2. Classes are structured differently:

This is specific to my major, public history, but could apply to others in the humanities. I was used to having many classes during the week in undergrad, but here there are only 1 – 2 seminars or lectures per week. I also anticipated many assignments, but for most modules you only have one or two assessments in the form of a test or a paper. Throughout the course there are suggested readings, but your grade hinges on the assessments.

This was a shock coming from the American system. Neither is better than the other, but it is something to get used to. I know that having the freedom to read and research what I wanted within each topic was helpful, but I was also very stressed by the small number of assignments. The good thing is that all the courses are oriented towards helping you complete the assignments and will provide you with useful sources, writing advice, and other counsel throughout the semester.

Student standing in front of Lanyon

Happy to be at Queen's!

Any time I had trouble, my professors were easy to contact and would give a lot of great suggestions. Overall, the courses here are more independent than in the US, but this also gives the student time and space to really engage with their own interests.

3. The importance of school events:

So this is another one that might be specific to me, but school-sponsored events were not popular when I was in undergrad unless it was a sporting event. At Queen’s, however, there are a wide variety of on-campus events that happen almost every week.

As an international student, it can be a little lonely starting school in a new place. On my first day alone in Belfast, however, I went to a new student brunch and met some people who would become my closest friends here. I have been to trivia nights, holiday dinners, and even a punk rock music concert that were all incredibly fun.

Bus tour of West Belfast showing a mural on wall

Bus tour of West Belfast

Queen’s has a multitude of clubs and societies that host events, the Student's Union Bar holds a lot of concerts, and each programme has its own events too. Even if you’re nervous, take advantage of the events on campus and try new things. You won’t regret it.

4. Use public transport:

Coming from the US where there is hardly any public transport outside of large cities, the public transport system in Belfast shocked me. There are a lot of ways to get around the city: buses, taxis, and trains. Queen’s actually has a partnership with Valuecabs where they can drive directly to the accommodation to pick up students. If you want to take the bus, it’s super cheap and easy to navigate among the different routes. If you want to know schedules, there is a Translink app tracking all of the routes. You can even download the mLink app where you can buy train and bus tickets online so you’re ready to go before you travel.

I have gone on many little train trips to nearby cities in Northern Ireland. Carrickfergus is just 30 minutes north and Derry is less than 2 hours away. You can even catch a train down to Dublin for less than £25. It’s so easy to hop between towns and I would highly recommend taking that chance whenever you can.

Derry Girls Mural in Derry/Londonderry

Derry is less than 2 hours away by train

5. It’s okay to not be okay:

I did a lot of research about student life abroad before flying to Belfast and thought I’d be an expert by the time I got here...

I was VERY wrong. Even if you think you’ll have it all together on the first day, life will still throw you curve balls (which are extra scary in an unfamiliar place). Don’t expect to have everything settled in the first week. It takes a while to find your footing, but that doesn’t mean you’re struggling. Once you find a routine, friends, and maybe a favourite coffee shop, then it gets a lot easier. Don’t let those bumps in the road deter you from exploring. My biggest advice would be to take chances when they come to you. It may be scary, but it could lead to somewhere you’ll never regret choosing. 

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Molly Elspas

MA Public History | Postgraduate Student | Maryland, USA

I am currently in my first year of a Postgraduate MA in Public History here at Queen’s, but I am originally from Frederick, MD in the United States. This is my extended period of stay outside of the US and I love exploring a new city and the many cultures that come along with it.

I live in a 3 person Willow Walk apartment and I like to spend most of my time either traveling the city or exercising at the gym. I am very into food and to either bake/cook at home or trying new cafes each time I go out. When I'm not studying or writing papers, you could find me out on a hike or catching up on the latest movies at the Queen’s Film theatre.



Molly Elspas