It’s the beginning of a new chapter – a new adventure – and it’s one you won’t have to face alone. For me and my then boyfriend Max (now fiancé!), this was one moment that changed our lives. However, moving overseas with a partner, especially as students, has its own unique challenges. We’ve now been in Sweden together for six months, and I’ve penned some of my reflections on our time here.
First, some context: Max and I met while studying Electronic Engineering in South Africa. We were lucky to both share similar interests, which meant we could collaborate on many of our projects and both chose to specialize in Microwave Engineering. Sweden was not our first choice for postgraduate studies because of the high tuition fees, but we could not help but be intrigued by Chalmers’ master’s program in Wireless, Photonics and Space Engineering. Not only would this course allow us to expand our Microwave Engineering knowledge for space applications, but the laboratory facilities at Chalmers provide the opportunity to manufacture high frequency circuitry for research purposes (a luxury that not many universities have). We both applied on a whim, and, wonder of wonders, both got accepted. Furthermore, I received an SI scholarship which would provide sufficient funding to turn this dream into a reality. We could almost not believe our good fortune – it was as if the universe had conspired to open the way for us. Although we knew that this was only the start of a long and challenging journey, we were ready to face whatever was coming our way.
And challenging it was! The beginning of our journey saw us moving into a student apartment together – both because we wanted to be able to support each other daily, and because our budget didn’t allow for another option. And, although our 28 sqm single-room apartment initially seemed delightful and magical (as all first apartments should be), we soon learned that two big personalities in a small space require careful managing. Although Max and I share very similar academic interests, we differ vastly in other aspects: I’m a night owl, he prefers mornings. My desk is always full of papers, books and electronics, while his contains only his mouse and computer monitor. I like choir music while he is a Pink Floyd fan. These are challenges that every couple face when moving in together for the first time, but our situation was compounded by the pandemic and the fact that we were alone together in a new country.
However, living together also has its benefits. Firstly, your daily chores are about half of those of someone living alone: it takes just as much work to clean/cook for one person as it does for two, and you can alternate work days and chore days with your partner. Secondly, you gain a much richer understanding of your partner. Conversations get deeper (and wackier) as you start learning each other’s ticks, intonations and tells. Sometimes you don’t need words at all. And, even though sharing this small living space requires a level of
vulnerability with your partner that might be scary at first, the reward of having a person who will support you unconditionally through life’s challenges is priceless. Yes, you will fart in front of your partner, cry before them, have sick days and wrong-side-of the bed days – they will see you with bad hair and bad breath and your oldest pair of sweatpants – and, in the end, they will still be there. And, lastly, you will be there for them too. Living together with your partner in a foreign country is both a privilege and a responsibility. You have someone to be accountable to. And, if you’re anything like me, this helps a lot when it comes to finding the motivation to do things. Back when I lived alone, I might have done the dishes every three days and swept the floor weekly (that’s all that seemed necessary at the time). With Max, however, I know what a neat and clean apartment will mean to him and am inspired to keep my things tidy every day. Max, on the other hand, could easily stay hermitted in his apartment for days on end in South Africa. But he knows that I love to go for walks and talk about life, and makes a point of regularly accompanying me for a stroll (even in the Swedish Winter!)
There have been other concessions and obstacles in our time here. Studying the same degree means that your times of academic pressure overlap, and during some weeks there is nobody around to pick up the slack at home. Online classes in particular have been challenging, and we have had to go to extra lengths to prove that we can take online exams in the same apartment without cheating or communicating. However, it also means that you always have a study buddy and someone to bum notes off it you weren’t paying attention in class. I also appreciate the opportunity to discuss classwork with someone in-person in a time where many students are solely reliant on electronic platforms.
Taking all this into account, I would argue that the biggest danger of studying overseas together is not that you will tire of your partner, but that you will tire of everybody else. Especially in the current pandemic situation, Max and I will sometimes go days without talking to another person. We have carved out our little corner of happiness, and often don’t feel the need to extend ourselves to do more. However, to truly integrate into a new community – to really become part of the Chalmers student society and experience Sweden – you need to get out of our comfort zone. One way of doing this is challenging your partner to only communicate in Swedish for a day (hilarious!), or to take part in campus events both individually and together. It’s always important to remember that, even though Max and I have worked hard to create a safe space for us, life is not about living in safe spaces alone. We started this journey together as an adventure, and an adventure it has been in every possible sense! How lucky I am to have a partner who is both an adventurer and an adventure in themselves.