A while back, before Easter, I had my good Syrian friend from my national side basketball team round for dinner, and we eventually got onto the topic of why I wouldn’t be playing with the team next year. I explained the whole commitment to year abroad, how I would be studying at a Canadian university and playing basketball there if I could, and that I’d be back for my final year at Exeter.
In my room I have a map of the world up on the wall, and it was at this point she got up and put one finger on the UK and the other on Ottawa, frowning at the huge expanse of the Atlantic between the two.
“And you have no family or friends there? You know nobody?”
“Well, I’ve an aunt in Vancouver on the other side of the country, but other than that, no not really. No one in my family has ever been to Ontario.”
“So you will be all on your own? Have to make all new friends?”
“Yep! Pretty much.”
“Tessa – why would you do this?!”
It was kind of entertaining at the time, her complete disbelief at a decision I had pretty much made when I was 16, in and around talking about her night-time lullaby of rockets and bombs back in Aleppo. From my friend’s very different perspective and circumstances, having to leave home for months on end to come to UK, as much as it promised safety, had been a terribly hard experience. Aside from playing basketball, she spoke about how much she hated the day-to-day loneliness, living as a tenant in the loft of an elderly couple, struggling to overcome the language barrier, and not knowing anyone from her home country in Exeter who could understand her daily worries about the news in Syria. Under the conditions in which my friend had moved, temporary emigration was a question of necessity, not choice. The idea of being away from family and friends was awful, not freeing.
Of course, the luxury of being able to choose to study a year abroad to refugee status is incomparable, but from talking to my friend it highlighted a key thing. Her mild horror at my decision stemmed from an unshakeable idea, one that I’m sure is based in part in her cultural attitudes and responsibilities to family; if you don’t have to, why would anyone voluntarily uproot themselves and live somewhere else? Why choose potential isolation and loneliness, in a place you don’t know and where you have little to no connections, leaving family and familiarity behind?
And this, I’ve realised, is a very genuine and very common concern when it comes to studying abroad. Sure, travelling is cool and all, but why subject yourself to a whole year? You’ve worked hard to get a good thing going at university, you have friends, a partner perhaps, you’re well established in student groups and societies, your degree is plodding along just fine- why put it all on hold for a year away in the unknown? Why risk missing out on so much, maybe losing good friends, on not finishing neatly in the assigned 3 years, for what could potentially be such an isolating and difficult experience?
I’ve spoken to a few students who turned down the study abroad option for these reasons, and I can’t say I blame them. All this and more I’ve considered; how much of a challenge it’s going to be at first, the difficulty of ingratiating myself into established groups of friends, learning my way around a new city, getting over the cultural barrier even if the language one isn’t so much of an issue. Canada might not be as radically different as the UK is to Syria, but I’m under no illusions that it’s not going to be really bloody hard at points.
So why, as my friend quite reasonably asked, would I do this to myself?
Well, fortunately, I’ve thought long and hard about that too, and because I am a Lover of All Things in List Form I’ve decided to jot them down here, for anyone reading this who is dithering and unsure about whether or not to take the plunge and study abroad.
10 Reasons Why You Should Consider Studying Abroad
- For making the most of being young– Though university feels like a Big Thing, in reality, our responsibilities and obligations in life are most likely as limited as they are ever going to be. Your early twenties is one of the few times in life you can really get away with your only real responsibility being to yourself, and a neat built-in year to travel and study with a sense of purpose is a perfect time to make the most of that. There’s arguably no better time than to just say ‘sod it’ and be spontaneously adventurous, before you get caught up in the responsibilities of having a mortage, 21 days holiday a year, multiple sprogs and an obese house-cat named Billy.
- For the (relatively) viable cost- I have a distinct feeling that any year now the UK government is going to realise what a good deal the study abroad option currently is and then take it away. People always worry about tuition expenses, but, in comparison to the 9 grand a year we’re paying at the moment, £1,350 is really not a lot. And if you’re studying in Europe, it’s free. Yes you’ll have to pay for living expenses out there, but if you keep away from the big capital cities and tourist traps, it won’t be much more than the UK. And the amount you’ll get back in experience and personal growth will genuinely be priceless.
For the chance to start afresh – Labelled ‘The Shy One’ or ‘The Joker’ by your university friends? It can be a fond sign of affection to be seen as predictable by your friends, but it can also get a little old. None of this has to apply abroad. Nobody knows your background or history and so it’s a chance to start anew again. University has already been a hugely transformative time for me. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, done things I would never have dreamed of, and made wonderful friendships with people I would never have met otherwise. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to do that all over again?
- For the life experience- Living in another country will massively enhance your global mindset, and allow you to view your own home country through a different lense too. Visiting museums, really experiencing the culture, the weather, going to watch local sports that you’d never see in the UK (I’m kinda unnerved by Canadian’s fascination over ice hockey) befriending locals- it will give a worldview and cultural awareness that’s hard to gain in any other way, and incredibly valuable for your own personal growth and experience.
- For the people– Yes it’s time to start from scratch on the whole making friends front, but you will make friends – with locals, with fellow students and with other international students. I have already been in touch with a couple of charming Canadians about accommodation and I’ve been bowled over by how kind and friendly they’ve been, offering to give me tours of the city and insisting I come to them if I have any concerns.
- For the language- I might not know all that much about languages (read: I have a slightly shoddy AS level French to my name and that’s it) but I do know that full and complete immersion is the best tactic if you ever want to be fluent. Throwing yourself into a country for a whole year might not leave you completely bilingual, but it will improve your speaking skills far more than time spent in seminar rooms ever could.
- For the travel – If you missed the chance for a gap year on leaving school like I did, now is the perfect time to make up for it. Plus, you’re older, wiser and more sure about where you want to go. Living in another country is also going to give you so much more of a chance to properly travel than if you were a regular tourist. You’ll be well established, have connections, places to stay and know the trade secrets of cheap transport. My travel plans for Canada and the US next summer are already reaching ridiculous levels of ambitiousness, but if I even get to see a fraction of want I want too, I will be thrilled.
- For the CV- I don’t like name-dropping the old curriculum vitae because a) it’s so cliché and b) we’re all sick to death of hearing about it. But it is also, surprisingly, true. I hadn’t really considered the value of study abroad in terms of employability until I spoke to a careers consultant at the university about internships, and he promptly ignored everything else on my CV and zoned in on the year abroad-“You’re interested in international development, politics and journalism right? No better thing you could be doing than a year abroad. They’ll lap it up. It’s different, shows you’re experienced and worldly. Good job on that front.” Wow, uh well thanks Mr. Career Zone man.
Claire Powers, a recruiter from global knowledge broker AlphaSights, says that she “cannot emphasise enough the importance of an international experience” and that “the confidence and self-awareness students gain from putting down roots somewhere new, is an asset for any business”. – Study Abroad: the career benefits, The Telegraph, 24 Dec 2014
- For the Lolz- Okay, so I know I can’t rely on personal experience for this one, but from everything I’ve heard and read (which is A LOT okay, I’m a keen bean, I’ve started this blog 4 months in advance of me actually leaving the country for god’s sake) it seems to be pretty undisputable that study abroad is a Good Thing. Student testimonies regularly say that their year studying abroad was the best year of their life, and that the benefits and good times far outweigh the hardships. 1 / 2/ 3/ (I could go on. Basically there’s a lot of positive reviews out there.)
And most importantly…
- For yourself -There’s no doubt study abroad is going to ask a lot of you. Independence is not easy, starting afresh making friends isn’t either, and neither is living potentially thousands of miles away from home, with all the familiarities of family, friends and supermarkets that you can navigate without thinking too much about it. But, as harsh as it sounds, for a moment try and forget about your friends, your boyfriend /girlfriend, and think outside of your immediate family. Think selfishly, if you will. This is a chance to really do something for yourself. Something that’s probably going to force you outside of your comfort zone, but also something that so many hold up as a priceless experience. Friends and family will still be there when you get home (and you’ll probably learn to appreciate them all the more for being) and long-distance relationships can work too, but living a year somewhere else? That isn’t a chance that’s going to come up again all that often.
With all this in mind, I’ve realised I have a new response to the “why the hell would you study abroad??” question:
Why on earth not?