I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my study abroad year recently.
I have moments sometimes, sometimes whole days, when I miss Ottawa acutely. They’re becoming more frequent now, as the nights come around quicker and my breath fogs up before me on morning walks to campus. I’ll miss the Canadian winter enormously, for however terrifying -27 windchill might sound, I adored the snow, the ice-skating, the hot apple cider clutched between mittens and maple syrup taffy. It was a truly magical time, of snow flurries and the slow build to seeing my family again, and anything England has to offer just can’t quite top it.
I’ve also been thinking about Canada as I’ve received a couple of emails from students interested in Ottawa as a prospective destination. It’s encouraged me to reflect again on my experiences, and impart the best advice I can.
This was a post I shared on my study abroad blog on August 24th, exactly a year on from when I departed for Canada. I think quite a lot of feelings I expressed then are still very relevant now.
A year ago yesterday, I was sitting in the departure lounge of Manchester airport.
Balancing a honey sandwich on one armrest, my phone (mid-charge) on the other, I pulled my laptop out of my hand luggage, perched it on my lap and quickly drafted a blog post entitled ‘The One Before the Flight’.
I can remember vividly the nauseating mix of emotion churning up my insides, the concerns and excitements rattling around in my head. I remember my hands shaking a little bit as I typed, still overawed and emotional from the tearful goodbye to Mum. In the original post, I compare my feelings to getting my A levels, to ad-libing a speech in front of an assembly hall at school – to driving up to my accomodation on my first day at Exeter. I was sad, a little bit, to be leaving home behind, but that feeling was mostly swamped by the thrill that I was finally going. I felt in many ways like I’d already left. I’d been living for the departure day for months, counting down for weeks, spending my last day at home drifting aimlessly around the village, acutely feeling like I didn’t belong.
“I can’t believe I’m finally here,” I wrote. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
And here we are. On the other side. A year on since I moved to Canada for 10 months, and now just over two weeks before I go back to Exeter to begin my final year of formal education.
Reading my original post back now is eye-opening. I was full of so much hope, so much fear, and so many expectations. Some were met and some weren’t, and a large part of this year has been spent reconciling that disparity.
As I wrote in my final reflective learning log on my year abroad:
“The reality of studying abroad was both much more challenging, but also so much more amazing than I could have imagined. I had some evenings alone in my flat in the midst of a snow-storm wishing for nothing more than the opportunity to go home, and another spent scoring a thrilling buzzer-beating shot in a national league U-Sports basketball game. I endured days plagued by intense homesickness and frustration over the time difference trying to ring family and friends, and enjoyed others skating the full length of the beautiful Rideau canal between lectures. I spent weekends ploughing through essay after essay in a completely new subject, regretting ever complaining about my Exeter course-load, and others exploring Quebec City and Boston with a girl who would become one of my best friends. What I mean to say is that the depth and breadth and diversity of this year abroad is what has made it such a challenge, and such an incredible, rewarding experience.
It’s an experience I feel I’ve learnt an awful lot from. I believe I’ve developed an inner resilience, in the face of immense culture shock and homesickness, and I’m incredibly proud of myself for that. I’ve learnt to adapt to new academic demands, a far more vigorous sporting environment, and had to balance the two. It took time, considerable patience and persistence to make myself feel at home and adapt to these changes, and as result I feel I have matured considerably. I am aware of my own limits and now fully appreciate that there is no shame in asking for help, that suffering in silence is neither noble nor helpful, but that I am ultimately much stronger than I think I am.”
Because really, I can’t put it much more honestly than that. On reflection, my year in North America was incredible, but far from just that. It was hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and as a result the most rewarding. I experienced the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows.
People often ask me if I miss Canada, a place I feel really did become home for the time I was there. And the answer is mixed. Do I miss my team, my tea-store, my city, the nights spent cooking with Emily and the weekends spent planning for the next adventure? Do I miss the novelty of being the ‘British friend’, my fellow internationals, and my classes with Heather? Absolutely. Do I miss quiet Sundays feeling very much alone in my accommodation, the longest winter of my life stretching into April, and being so very far from everyone I love back here in the UK? Absolutely not.
Canada is not a perfect place, and neither was this year abroad perfect. To paint either as such would not only be to lie, but to do a disservice to the challenges so many study abroad students face. What the year was however, was an opportunity I will never not be thankful for, and an opportunity I will always be so grateful that 18-year-old-me was so set upon. I miss Ottawa hopelessly some days, and others feel remarkably content to be back in Blighty.
Because in many ways, my year, as a year on it’s own, did it’s job. It opened my eyes, it pushed me further out of my comfort zone than I’ve ever dared stray, and it allowed me to see and do things that I’d only vaguely dreamed about as a bucket list experience. It introduced me to a new country, and allowed me to ingratiate more deeply and intimately in a culture so subtly different from my own than I anticipated. It’s given me new friends, taught me new skills, broadened my perspectives, and made me realise things about myself I don’t think I could have under any other circumstances.
It has, as my Mum observed the other day, made me “grow up.”
And I feel more grown up. I feel older and wiser, and I’m sure in a year’s time as a newly graduated 22 year old I’ll be looking back at this and mocking that statement; but that will be then, and this is now.
And now is an interesting moment. Going into final year there’s a lot of nostalgia being bandied about, nostalgia and a considerable amount of academic fear. I’ve taken on a lot for my last year at Exeter, committees and teams alongside that dissertation that’s going to have to be done at some point, but deep down I feel it’s going to be manageable. Because really, after this past year, how hard can it be?
(You can see the original blog on my study abroad blog)