I have waited all my life to study abroad and was thrilled to go to Europe. Like many, DU’s highly acclaimed study abroad program appealed to me. In September, I packed my bags and traveled to rural Hungary where I lived for the next four months. As soon as I arrived, I knew I had made a mistake. Expectations were not met and it became the most difficult experience of my life.
On September 5, I arrived at the dormitory, shocked by what awaited me. A stark, aging, brutalist structure with no plumbing or properly functioning electricity. I stood in line for hours to check in with the only English speaking member of staff.
The toilets weren’t working. The lights were blinking. Insects were crawling on the ceiling. There was no internet. Most if not all appliances on the international floor were broken or missing. There were two washing machines that barely worked for 800 people. We were woken several times a night by the fire alarm. Sleeping has become impossible and the limits have been crossed. Hungarian speaking staff would unlock our rooms, come in, kick us out and do cleaning related activities at unreasonable hours like Saturday morning at 8am.
The disease became my biggest challenge. I was sick with various illnesses from the end of September until my departure in mid-December. The university had doctors, but it became apparent that students had no access to legitimate medical care, and healthcare in Hungary was mostly non-existent. Student patients are only seen if the office agrees to see them, like the United States Supreme Court. I have been rejected several times. I roamed the city for weeks trying to find medical care. I have been refused several times. 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 skills. The doctor assessed me with her iPhone flashlight and then told me to go see an ENT doctor as she was not trained on the ears, nose or throat. It became clear that these were not legitimate medical professionals. A teacher later informed me that the office had filed many complaints against them.
My life fell into an abyss: sinus infection for three months, bronchitis, tonsillitis twice, COVID-19, strep throat. I lay in bed for months, too exhausted to run essential errands or hang out with friends. I lost 21 pounds from the whole experience and developed an eating disorder.
I made two trips to Budapest in the hope of finding doctors. After being turned away initially, I ended up in an abandoned medical facility overnight after my eardrums ruptured. The police drove me home as taxi service was suspended in the area. Towards the end of my semester, I begged the school doctor’s office for an appointment. I laughed at myself. I had to take a three-hour train ride to Budapest and beg an English-speaking doctor for antibiotics. I know many students who desperately needed health care but were unable to receive it.
Students had to submit documents through immigration for a residence permit. The bureaucratic bureau told each candidate a different story and asked most to come back multiple times. I had the privilege on a cold winter day. The temperature dropped below freezing point. Ice has formed on the windows. The guard allowed me to enter. I am white and hold a US 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 can spend up to 90 days in Hungary without a residence permit. The immigration office put the wrong citizenship on mine. Time was running out and luckily the error was corrected in time. I asked immigration what the consequences were if I went over 90 days without a residence permit. I was told that I should live in Hungary forever.
Safety was another concern. Two groups of international students were attacked by a gang of local men, minutes from the dormitory. There was a broken jaw, black eyes and a broken nose. Vigilance was required. I was unprepared and uninformed about Roma culture in the area. I felt more unsafe after each encounter and dreaded entering public transport, train stations and taking walks beyond the city center.
The Hungarian university offers high quality study abroad courses, but I was disappointed. Class registration was after arrival and I was unable to see my class dates and times in advance. I had to make five appointments in five offices to collect five papers in order to be able to apply for a student card, which is a sheet of paper.
Zoom didn’t exist and classrooms became breeding grounds for pathogens. It was hard to concentrate on the constant coughing, hacking and sneezing in the classroom. My teachers didn’t speak English and had trouble finding the words. A teacher asked the class to “shut up” every day. The grades were published at the end of the semester. I had no idea how I was doing in my missions until I left.
After emailing DU about the issues, it became clear that DU was completely unaware of the reality of the program. My adviser really tried to help in any way possible, but there was not much to do from abroad.
During my stay abroad, I did an internship for the Hungarian school and found answers to some of my questions. Many international students attended school for free or on scholarships, and I learned that my US tuition was a vital source of income.
I feel like the Hungarian School’s digital, outreach, and marketing materials paint a watered-down, false picture of the institution Colorado’s universities devour. Yes, the only American students were from Colorado. All six of us. Outreach to former students abroad in my program revealed that similar experiences reoccur.
Looking back, I feel that there was not enough information provided up front and that overseas advisers need to be experts in their programs. Familiarity, academic connections and organized tours are insufficient. There must be more options to study abroad through DU without language requirements. Many DU students were unable to find health care abroad. We have been warned and trained that negative experiences can happen abroad. I was prepared for culture shock and language barriers, but never could have expected my experience.
Programs need to be carefully evaluated so that experiences like mine never happen again. Prospective students should have sufficient access to program reviews, student testimonials, and pre-recorded briefings during the program search process and on program brochures in DU Passport. A mentor system would benefit many.
My advice? Research and talk to former students about their experiences. Read reviews. Identify the university on a map so you don’t find yourself three hours from civilization. Review course options ahead of time. Find out if alcoholism, suicide and crime rates are high in your area of interest. Is there access to health care? What does the VISA and immigration process look like? Explore non-affiliate programs.
I always strongly encourage anyone to study abroad. It’s a unique experience with unlimited benefits. However, I believe there is much more research and preparation that DU can and should do to ensure the best possible experience abroad, regardless of the continent.