I waited my whole life to study abroad and was thrilled to depart for Europe. Like many, DU’s highly acclaimed study abroad program attracted me. In September, I packed my bags and traveled to rural Hungary where I lived for the next four months. Immediately upon arriving I knew that I had made a mistake. Expectations were not reality and it became the most challenging experience of my life.
On Sept. 5, I arrived at the dormitory, shocked by what awaited me. A stark, aged, brutalist structure without properly functioning plumbing or electricity. I waited in line for hours to check in with the only English-speaking staff member.
Toilets would not flush. Lights flickered. Bugs crawled on the ceiling. There was no internet. Most, if not all of the appliances on the international floor were broken or missing. There were two barely functioning washing machines for 800 people. We were awakened multiple times a night by the fire alarm. Sleeping became impossible and boundaries were crossed. The Hungarian-speaking staff would unlock our rooms, enter, kick us out and conduct cleaning-related activities at unreasonable hours, like Saturday morning at 8 am Once I awoke to a staff member standing on my bed pointing a mop at my face.
Illness became my greatest challenge. I was sick with various illnesses from late September until my departure in mid-December. The university had doctors, but it became obvious that students did not have access to legitimate medical care, and that healthcare in Hungary was mostly nonexistent. Student patients are only seen if the office agrees to see them, like the US Supreme Court. I was rejected several times. I trekked across the city for weeks trying to find medical care. I was denied repeatedly. After a plethora of emails and an honest Google review, the school doctor’s office agreed to see me.
Even with 4,500 international students, the staff lacked English capabilities. The doctor assessed me with her iPhone flashlight then told me to go to an ENT doctor since she was not trained on ears, nose or throat. It became clear that these were not legitimate medical professionals. A professor later informed me that the office had many complaints filed against them.
My life fell into an abyss: sinus infection for three months, bronchitis, tonsillitis twice, COVID-19, strep throat. I laid in bed sick for months, too drained to run essential errands or go out with friends. I lost 21 lbs from the whole experience and developed an eating disorder.
I made two trips to Budapest in hopes of finding doctors. After being turned away initially, I found myself at an abandoned medical facility overnight after my eardrums ruptured. The police escorted me home since the taxi service was suspended in the area. Towards the end of my semester, I begged the school doctor’s office for an appointment. I was laughed at. I had to take a three-hour train ride to Budapest and beg an English-speaking doctor for antibiotics. I know many students that desperately needed healthcare, but were unable to receive it.
Students had to submit documents through immigration for a residence permit. The bureaucratic office told each applicant a different story and required most to return multiple times. I experienced privilege on a cold winter day. The temperature fell below freezing. Ice formed on glass windows. The guard allowed me to enter. I am white and hold an American passport. Behind me followed students from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They were treated like animals and forced to wait outside for hours until the guard let them in.
Americans may spend up to 90 days in Hungary without a residence permit. The immigration office filed the incorrect citizenship on mine. Time was running out, and luckily the error was fixed in time. I asked immigration what the consequences were if I surpassed 90 days without a residence permit. I was told that I would have to live in Hungary forever.
Safety was another concern. Two groups of international students were attacked by a band of local men, minutes from the dormitory. There was a broken jaw, black eyes and a broken nose. Vigilance was crucial. I was unprepared and uninformed about the Romani culture in the area. I felt more unsafe after each encounter and dreaded entering public transportation, train stations and taking walks beyond the city center.
The Hungarian university boasts of high-quality study abroad classes, but I was disappointed. Class registration occurred post-arrival, and I was unable to see the dates and times of my classes beforehand. I had to make five appointments at five offices to retrieve five papers so that I could apply for a student card, which is a sheet of paper.
Zoom did not exist and classrooms became breeding grounds for pathogens. It was difficult to concentrate over constant coughing, hacking and sneezing in the classroom. My professors were not proficient in English and struggled to find words. One professor instructed the class to “shut up” daily. Grades were released at the end of the semester. I had no idea how I did on my assignments until my departure.
After emailing DU about the issues, it became clear that DU was entirely unaware of the reality of the program. My advisor genuinely tried to help in any way that they could, but only so much could be done from overseas.
While abroad, I completed an internship for the Hungarian school and found answers to some of my questions. Many international students attended the school for free or on scholarships, and I learned that my American tuition was a life-giving source of revenue.
I feel that the Hungarian school’s digital collateral, outreach and marketing materials paint a sugar-coated and false picture of the institution that universities in Colorado eat up. Yes, the only American students were from Colorado. All six of us. Outreach to a former study-abroad students at my program revealed similar experiences are recurring.
In hindsight, I feel that there was not enough information provided beforehand and that abroad advisors must be experts on their programs. Familiarity, academic relationships and scheduled visits are insufficient. There need to be more options for studying abroad through DU without language requirements. Many DU students were unable to find healthcare abroad. We were warned and trained that negative experiences may happen abroad. I was prepared for culture shock and language barriers, but I never could have expected my experience.
Programs need to be thoroughly evaluated so that experiences like mine never happen again. Prospective students need to have sufficient access to program reviews, student testimonials and prerecorded information sessions during the program search process and on program brochures in DU Passport. A mentor system would benefit many.
My advice? Research and speak with former students about their experiences. Read reviews. Identify the university on a map, so you don’t end up three hours away from civilization. Review course options beforehand. Know if alcoholism, suicide and crime rates are high in your region of interest. Is there access to healthcare? What is the VISA and immigration process like? Explore unaffiliated programs.
I still strongly encourage anybody to study abroad. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience with unlimited benefits. However, I believe that there is much more research and preparation that DU can and should do to ensure the best possible experience abroad, no matter the continent.