Reverse study abroad: When a Scot comes to the states to study

Sara's take:

I often write about the North American perspective and experience when studying overseas, but what about the opposite?

What happens when, let's say, a born and bred Scot comes to do his master's in the U.S.?

This particular born and bred Scot also happened to spend many years working for Scottish universities recruiting North Americans to study in Scotland.

Like me, he also worked for The University of Edinburgh, which also happens to be his alma mater.

But did all his experience in helping students with the transition into a degree abroad come back to help him with his?

Let's find out!


Written by guest blogger Colin Johnston

Awright, my name is Colin, and I’m from a small town in Central Scotland called Whitburn, which is around 30 miles from Edinburgh, where I did my undergraduate and first graduate programs in law.

I ended up working in university admissions and study abroad for both The University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University before coming to the University of Texas to do my master's.

When I worked in international education, frequently the conversation would turn to our own study abroad experiences.

My answer to the question, “So where did you study abroad?” was always some slightly embarrassed variation of, “Erm, I didn't...”

This is pretty common for Scottish people. We don’t tend to study abroad, but we do love to travel.

Through my job and for fun, I travelled to more than 30 countries as well as 39 U.S. states.

Travel was a huge part of my life before coming back to school, and it’s definitely something I have missed this year.

But after working in higher education for around 10 years, I was beginning to consider my future career options.

I had thought about teaching for a few years, so I decided to look into programs in the U.S., given I spent 10 years telling U.S. students to study abroad but had never done so myself.

I’d visited Austin for work and knew I liked the city and its surroundings, so UT was on the shortlist quickly.

It was confirmed soon after when I met with some of the staff and students in the department I had applied to and felt instantly welcome.

But community is a big part of life in Scotland, and when Scots live abroad, we tend to find each other.

After settling into my program, I received a text from a friend to say he’d passed my number on to a colleague whose husband had just moved to Austin.

Sure enough, I got another text later from a guy called Tristan, who asked if I wanted to get a beer and watch the football (soccer, for all of y’all Americans!).

It turned out we supported the same team from back home--Rangers, the most successful club in Scotland.

Becoming friends with someone from home has been incredibly helpful in settling in, but the community I found in my program and the student organizations I joined are equally as important.

Sara's Note: Finding a community is one of the most important things you can do when you go abroad to study. Whether it's in class, through clubs or just finding that one other North American (or Scottish) friend who can relate to you and help with homesickness, being connected to others is key for a successful study abroad experience.

The people I have met and worked with in Austin have made me feel at home, and I’ve made friends I will stay in touch with for life.

But these past six months have been rough for everyone facing unprecedented challenges, and in April, both my wife and I contracted Covid-19.

We’re OK now, but our community of friends dropped groceries, meals and medicine off to us during a rough six weeks!

Then, my wife and I came on vacation to Oregon, and when we both found out we’d be able to work, study and teach remotely, we decided to stay there to be nearer to her family and friends.

Biggest culture shock in the U.S. though? The TV commercials.

In Scotland, we don’t have ads for prescription drugs, so those are weird, but there’s just something about American ads that are just generally more "in your face" than those at home.

Also... supermarkets and grocery stores. I still can’t find certain things; like I have no idea where y'all keep your hummus.

But while Oregon isn’t quite Scotland (no Irn Bru for a start--look this up if you don't know what it is), the weather, the landscape, and the people all make me feel like I’m at home.


Colin Johnston is a graduate student in Education at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on intersectionality in education, particularly race and social class, and he currently resides in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Stacy and dog, Steve.


Interested in applying for college or grad school in Scotland?