Lessons from learning abroad: higher education beyond the US

“I was pretty unprepared for the variances in education by country, perhaps due to a largely American worldview and a bit too much presumption”

International educators spend their lives working with international students, but it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be one. Colleen Boland of Young American Expat reflects on some of the things that have surprised her as an American studying in the UK and Spain.

When I decided to embark on higher education abroad, I have to admit that I was pretty unprepared for the variances in education by country, perhaps due to a largely American worldview and a bit too much presumption. I did study abroad in Italy during my undergraduate degree, but it was through my American university, and the classes were therefore adapted to the American experience. My first truly different learning experience was earning a master’s in London, before embarking on my currently underway doctorate in Spain.


For any perfectionist student, grading is the first thing that strikes you. In England, I discovered through my first grade that the sliding scale does not reach 100. It’s as if no one is perfect enough to reach that level of excellence. And it makes sense, if you are comparing yourself with past greats. High 70s were an achievement, and 80 practically unobtainable. Getting a grade in the 60s, thought it’s not even close to failing, is difficult to swallow at first.

“Getting a grade in the 60s, thought it’s not even close to failing, is difficult to swallow at first”

Spain in general grades on a 1-10 scale – a prospect that terrifies me, as I enjoy the wiggle room of the 100 scale (the ability to get an 84 instead of an 8, for example). But unlike England, 10 is an achievable number, reserved for the most excellent students.

Luckily, in my doctorate, classes are pass/fail, with the assumption that if you’ve made it this far in education, you are going to produce acceptable work – and if not, you should discontinue the effort.

Attire and etiquette

I found that the UK classes had teachers that were a bit more formally attired than in Spain, but still a bit less formal than my professors from the US. Student style was also relatively casual. Of course, students don’t show up in sweatpants to class like they may on some US college campuses, because no one wears sweatpants outside of the gym. In Spain, the professors dress even more casually, sometimes as reflection of what they study (in my case, sociology professors seem to have a more artistic side!). Jeans and leggings are not out of place among the educational staff in Spain. Older school professors still wear a collared shirt, as they hail from more conservative days.

“In Spain, a class never starts on time, or ends on time”

Eating during lectures is an absolute no-no in either country, perhaps reflecting the fact that it is less customary to “eat on the go” as we sometimes do in the US. The Spanish in particular are very careful to sit down for their meals, and set aside time for it, and sometimes that may mean if there isn’t time, then no eating at all. Water bottles are allowed.

The discussion format in both UK and Spain seems to be more lecture-based than we may engage in stateside. It’s notable that American students seem to have more training in presenting and speaking in front of large groups.


In Spain, a class never starts on time, or ends on time. There are some professors that will be annoyed if you get there later than them, though. The Brits of course are a bit more punctual, as they are reputed to be!


Administration is a bit more laborious, complicated and bureaucratic in both the UK and Spain than in the US. Both my universities, the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London and the Complutense University of Madrid, are public. Facilities are much more drab than you would find on an American campus that costs $40,000 a year. However, tuition for British students in the UK is up to £9,000 a year (it has nearly tripled in recent years, in the face of a lot of protest), and my doctorate in Spain is basically free.

“Administration is a bit more laborious, complicated and bureaucratic”

And, because it’s public, the state documentation is very rigorous, and there are practically no exceptions to all of the mandatory forms and documentation that are required. In Spain, I have spent countless hours trying to get registered, literally waiting in line at the register for two hours one time, and having to go to banks to get taxes paid. It’s part of that bargain price!

Language barrier

I found that I gained a whole new appreciation for students in the United States who are not native English speakers, by having to study in a foreign language and communicate on an academic level. I also found that because of the European environment, students and professors are much more understanding of language issues and struggling with the native tongue.

In the UK it was a simple matter of setting the spellcheck to British English and double-checking for misspellings, but in Spain, of course, it has been more difficult. I have often encountered that people appreciate your effort, which I find very kind and encouraging. I have often had to ask fellow classmates to repeat something that was said, or for help understanding an assignment.

In sum, things are different, and it can throw you off. But the environment is usually welcoming, and the focus is on academia rather than the bells and whistles, which to a true lover of knowledge, can never be a bad thing!