I spent spring semester at the Jordanstown campus near Belfast, Northern Ireland, so my tips are specific to that campus and area, but some of the information applies to all study abroad students, so I hope this is helpful for everyone!
Clothing- Before I talk about clothing, I should talk about weather. Expect it to be around 40-60 degrees most of the time, with intermittent light rain and moderate to heavy wind. You’ll find yourself usually dressing in layers, since in a day the weather can vary a lot. What I found most useful was a lightweight, semi-waterproof fall/winter coat. Sometimes it does get quite cold there, so be prepared with scarves, hats, and gloves. Also consider how waterproof your shoes are, since fabrics like suede and canvas will be quickly ruined by the weather. The rain there is quite different from in the US- it is almost always a mist-like rain blown around by the wind, and it rarely “pours” there, and there usually aren’t many puddles. Because of this, raincoats, rain boots, and umbrellas are not especially useful or popular. Don’t bother bringing shorts, sandals, or sundresses- I promise you, it will not get warm enough. However, if you plan on going to bars and clubs in the city, know that both girls and guys dress up much more than Americans, and girls tend to wear skimpier outfits. The UK is also very fashion-forward, so don’t be afraid to try outfits that may seem outrageous here.
Other important items- This list of items may seem odd, but I really wish I had known to pack them. The first is a small, battery-powered alarm clock set to Northern Ireland time (5 hours ahead). Your first few days you will be very jet lagged and still expected to show up to orientation, so this is a must! Your cell phone will not work there, even as an alarm, unless you have some kind of special international card. Bring school supplies since they are pretty expensive to re-buy: stapler, tape, scissors, folders, etc. Bring your own DVDs from home to watch on your laptop, since if you try to buy or rent movies there they are a from a different zone and will not play on your laptop. Also bring a backpack. It comes in handy for bringing groceries home on the train and is a perfect carry-on for traveling. Definitely bring medicines you commonly use like sudafed, benadryl, motrin, etc. The brands are different there and medicine is more expensive. Especially stock up on tylenol if you like it, since they do not sell it at all there. Something else you might find useful is a coin, purse with two sections- one for the 1 and 2 pound coins and one for the smaller coins. If you don’t have one I suggest you buy one there, since the money is difficult to sort through and you use 1 and 2 pound coins often. Another really important thing to bring is a few basic dishes- a plastic plate, bowl, a few pieces of silverware, sharp knife, spatula, etc. Many people had good luck with roommates letting them use dishes, but mine locked their cabinets and never offered to share. Also keep in mind that you will most likely be in a temporary room for a few days, so a couple of dishes and some silverware is essential. They don’t have affordable plastic dishware there, so if you don’t come prepared you might end up carrying a full dish set back from the grocery store (like I did). Plastic dishes are not that bulky or heavy so I really suggest you pack some! Also bring some spices you commonly use like salt, pepper, garlic powder, etc. Again, these things are expensive to re-buy! If you are looking to save money, bring sheets and a small blanket, like a fleece one, for your first few nights there until you get out to buy a real blanket and pillow. They will offer you a set of sheets and comforter when you get there, but they are very expensive and scratchy with a flat pillow, and if you can rough it out until you get to Ikea then you will save a lot of money and get better quality bedding. Bring a towel too! A few other people that went stepped out of their first shower to discover they didn’t pack one! An insider tip is to bring plenty of extra deodorant if you like the stick kind… the preferred kinds there are roll-on and spray-on, and the stick kind is harder to find and more expensive. Here’s a couple last tips for girls- do NOT bring appliances that heat up like blow dryers or straighteners. The voltage is much higher there and they will literally melt! Instead just buy your bare minimum there- I found a straightener at the grocery store Tesco for 5 pounds. Last but not least, you will save a lot of money by buying enough makeup here to last you the whole time and packing it… makeup is very expensive there.
For those of you living in the dorms at Jordanstown, you should know about the internet. The server that provides for the dorms is different than the one that provides for the rest of the campus, so there is no tech support unless you call the company (which is very expensive and not very helpful!). It operates through ethernet, NOT through wireless, so make sure you test your ethernet port before you leave! I had a damaged ethernet port and had never noticed since I always used wireless, but when I got to Jordanstown I couldn’t get on the internet and contact my family because only ethernet connection is available there. If you have computer problems this is what I suggest- go to the basement of the main campus building where the campus tech support is. They are not technically supposed to help you, but when I explained I was an international student they were very helpful and gave me free tech support.
The best advice I can give you is to connect with the international students! More than anyone else, they really know what you’re going through and it’s a lot of fun to discover Northern Ireland together. It’s also an amazing opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Some of my best experiences were to learn cultural differences and really get to know people from all over the world. Start meeting people right away by getting a group together to go grocery shopping or check out a Belfast club together.
If you run into any problems your first few weeks there, I suggest you contact the international office instead of the residential office. The ladies at the international office are very sweet and helpful, and they know exactly what you’re going through. Many international students and I had negative experiences with the residential services staff, so you may want to try the international office first.
In orientation they will talk about the Chaplaincy, which is an Christian organization on campus that reaches out to the international students for the first few weeks there. They have a night where you can pick through dishes that were left behind, and they have free dinners for international students once a week. Many of us took advantage of this the first few weeks, but quite a few of the Chaplaincy members were pushy about their religion, and this bothered many of the non-Christian students. I also knew people who made lots of friends through this group and were able to go on free trips with them, so check it out and see what you think.
Before you leave I suggest you set up a Skype account and get a webcam and microphone. Skype is free, and although it’s not always perfect, it was great to be able to see and talk to my friends and family when I got homesick.
Public transportation is a little bit difficult for Americans to get used to, so for your first couple times exploring it I suggest you pair up with some European friends to help you. Your options for getting around are taxi, train, bus, and walking. Taxis are most expensive, but are most convenient, and are necessary in some circumstances. Abbey Cabs are what we found to be most affordable. You’ll need to take them if you want to go anywhere after 10:30 or 11pm. They can also be useful if you get a group of four people together to go to the Tesco (grocery store) at a small shopping mall called the Abbey Center. It will be only about 2 pounds there and 2 pounds back if you have a group of four, and it’s nice not to have to carry your groceries on the train or bus.
The bus is not an option I used often, but it has its benefits. There are several places you must take the bus to rather than the train, like Belfast Castle, Ikea, the Abbey Center (shopping mall) and the Odyssey (hockey, movie theater, restaurants). When you take the bus, you will take the 2G route and get on and off at the Whiteabbey Village or Jordanstown Road stop. If you are taking more than one bus (i.e. taking a bus to Belfast center then another bus to Ikea) then it is cheapest to buy an all day pass. Those are on the Translink Metro bus. There is also a University-link bus that goes directly from University of Ulster at Jordanstown campus to Queens University campus in Belfast. It leaves every hour and is somewhat expensive for individual tickets, but you can get good rates on monthly tickets, which is great if you are taking classes at the Belfast campus.
The train is usually your cheapest option. Get on and off at the Jordanstown stop, on the Larne line (Larne is north of Jordanstown). When you get on the train, ask for a “return” if you are also coming home on the train, or a “single” if you are taking a taxi home or staying overnight. If you travel north you can get off at Clipperstown and walk to the Tesco to buy groceries. This is about a 10 minute walk to the train and another 10 minutes to the Tesco, but if you are doing a small grocery trip or going alone it is definitely cheaper than a taxi. If you travel south to Belfast you should know that there are two stations. The first is Belfast Central, the main train station. You may need to change trains to continue to the other station, the Great Victoria Station. It is the same price to go to any stop in Belfast. On your way to the Great Victoria, you will pass the other Belfast stops, most importantly the Queens University stop where you can go to the college section of the city where you can find cheap restaurants and many bars and night clubs. The train will stop at Great Victoria, which is very close to the city center and close to all the best shopping. It is also connected to the Europa bus station, where you can get buses to the airport or other places in Northern Ireland. Keep in mind you will have to present your ticket when you leave the station.
There are a few things you can walk to around the area, but not many. Right near the dorms there is a small convenience store called the Day Today. Whiteabbey village is only a five or ten minute walk away, and has two bars, a couple restaurants, a drug store, a convenience grocery store, a wine and liquor store, and a few hair salons. It is right across from the beach, which is not warm enough to swim in but is pretty to walk along. You can walk to the train stop which is about 10 minutes away. My friends and I also walked to Carrickfergus along the coast to see the castle, but that took a solid 45 minutes so the train is better for that.
The cost of living is much higher there, so plan to spend 1.5 to 2 times what you spend in the US, depending on the exchange rate at the time of your visit. You can safely estimate that the prices you are used to seeing in dollars will be similar in pounds… like a $15 dinner would cost about 15 pounds there. But remember that with the exchange rate that is twice as expensive. Groceries, which seemed to be relatively cheap there, are the exception. You may not know this, but it is rare to tip for most things in Northern Ireland, and when you do it is not very much. Do not tip bartenders or taxi drivers, and for a sit down meal with good service only tip around 10%. Before you go over get some money changed, maybe 50 pounds or so, just so you have it. Your bank will probably charge you on foreign transactions, so plan on taking out larger amounts of money every once a week instead of swiping your card for every transaction.
Set up a bank account as soon as you can after arriving. There are two banks on campus so this is not difficult, although you do need to get a note from the international office in order to set up an account. You will need this account to deposit your stipend checks from the University. The checks will come in two installments, one about 6 weeks after you get there and one right after Easter holiday (spring break). The first one is larger- about 2/3 of the total, and the second one is only about 1/3, so plan your spending accordingly.
If you are an out-of-state student at Kent State, be aware that any scholarships you have that are dependent on being an out-of-state students, such as the Access or President’s scholarships in my case, do NOT apply to you the semester you study abroad.
Classes and Registration:
Registering for classes is a rather unorganized process at Jordanstown. You will have an assigned adviser, but he or she may not be in the building before your classes start. If this is the case, I highly recommend that you contact your professors for your individual modules (classes), or contact any department authority you can, because advisers are not the only people who can sign the papers for you. I visited my professors and secretaries for the departments I was taking classes in, and got all my needed signatures without ever seeing my adviser, which helped me get registered more quickly. As a side note, you are not allowed to use the on-campus computers until you are registered.
The students at University of Ulster follow specific courses (majors) and take only classes within their course. Advisers and professors may find it odd if you take modules from several different courses, and there may be scheduling conflicts. Be prepared to make changes to your schedule if this is the case. Classes usually have one lecture a week and one seminar (small group class) a week. Classes there are much less academically demanding than in the US, and professors are much more relaxed about attendance, punctuality, grammar, and turning in assignments. I had one 5-7 page paper and one exam for each class, although I have heard that the 3rd year classes have group projects and other more difficult assignments. I’m not saying you should skip all your classes and slack off, but be prepared for a lot of free time. You might want to take art classes in the city, buy a guitar and learn to play it, or take lots of day trips to sites in Northern Ireland. Some of my friends joined intramural sports teams and got the chance to travel all around Ireland playing soccer or running, so if you like sports then definitely consider that.
On Your First Shopping Trip…
Before you leave to go shopping in Belfast, get the international office to sign an application for you to get a Translink student discount card. It is only 7 pounds and saved me about 30 pounds on a train trip to Dublin, so it is a great investment. Once the form is signed just stop in at the train station to apply for your card.
Get an all day bus pass and take the bus to city center. At the city center walk to the train station to apply for your card, to O2 to get a prepaid cell phone (believe me, it is the very best deal and includes free texting to other O2 users), Boots (similar to Walgreens) for toiletries, and Primark (great cheap clothing, wide selection) for any clothing, shoes, etc. Walk back to city center and take the bus to Ikea (the bus chart will say Ikea) to get your bedding and any organizational items, along with any kitchen supplies you need.
Finally take the bus back to city center, then the 2G to Abbey Center to go to the Tesco (similar to Meijer) for groceries. Tesco is also the cheapest place to buy hangers for your closet (dressers are not provided). After this you should be all set!
You’ll find out most culture shock yourself, but I’ll warn you of a couple things so your first few days aren’t too unpleasant. First, each electrical outlet has a corresponding switch next to it, and if the switch isn’t on then the plug will not work. The oven also has a switch on the wall behind it! There are also specific hours for heating, and for hot water. People who lived on the first floor said they had hot water all the time, but for the rest of us the hours for hot water were from about 7 or 8am till 11am, or sometimes a little after noon there would still be some hot water, and then again at 7 or 8 at night until about midnight. The heating runs at around the same times, so if you get chilled easily you might want to bring a hot water bottle to put in your bed.
Also be aware of the political climate of Belfast and Northern Ireland. You’ll learn so much about the Troubles by living there, but at least get an idea of what has happened there before you go. There is still a strong divide between Catholics and Protestants, and it is a very bad idea to talk about religion or politics in any public place. They will kick you out of a bar for bringing up these issues or for wearing football (soccer) jerseys, since they represent certain religious allegiances. In class I took a survey about mixed relationships, and filled out half of it as if they meant mixed race before realizing that they meant Catholic-Protestant relationships, which are still taboo there. Also realize that you may look exotic in Northern Ireland and attract attention for it. When I filled out a health record on campus, the options for race were White (British), White (Irish), or Other. However, I never heard of any dislike of Americans while I was there, although if you are Asian you might encounter racism there since many Northern Irish are intolerant of the Chinese immigrants who have recently gained a somewhat large minority there. For the most part though, the Northern Irish are too busy fighting each other to have anything against foreigners.
The ability to travel for cheap is one of the best parts about being in Northern Ireland. Take advantage of traveling while you’re there since you’re already across the ocean and flights to anywhere in Europe will be much less expensive than they would be from the US. Easter holiday is a full two weeks long, so that gives you a great opportunity to travel. Depending on you class schedule, you may also be able to take long weekend trips. Although Northern Ireland is pretty safe, be really cautious about other European cities, especially when it comes to protecting your valuables. Travel can be cheap if you pick the right flights, stay in hostels, and travel with others. If you want to go to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day, which is a lot of fun (second only to America they say), then book a hostel really far in advance. I also really encourage you to see the rest of Ireland. The west coast and southern part are really beautiful and have a lot of culture and charm. Also, of course, don’t miss the great travel destinations in Northern Ireland like the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and Belfast Castle and the hike to Cave Hill.
I’ll leave you to discover the rest on your own, but most of all enjoy your time there and experience as much as you can! I promise you won’t regret it.
By: Marin Ryan