I am 23 years old and now in my final year studying English Literature and History. As part of my course, I spent a year abroad studying at the University of Victoria (UVic) in British Columbia (BC) in Canada. Now that I’ve downloaded the app Timehop, I’m realising just how much of a whirlwind the past year has been for me. A year ago today for example (at the time of writing this article) I went on a trip through the Rockies in BC and Alberta with a group of exchange students where we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving (the Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving about a month earlier than the Americans.) In fact, Timehop, my numerous photos and the odd diary entry I managed to make consistently remind me of the challenges I embarked on, and how I actually pulled through alright. If you had told me back in sixth form that I would be doing a year abroad on the other side of the world, I probably would’ve laughed at you saying something along the lines of “that’s not me, I could never live that far away from home for that length of time!” And now I reminisce thinking “I actually did that- that’s surreal!” Because believe it or not, when studying or living abroad is part of your life, it quickly becomes very easy to adapt to the lifestyle and even take opportunities for granted. The fact I could talk to Canadians whenever I wanted, and rather casually take trips just over the border into America became the norm. However, the thought of making the most of opportunities never left me. For me that is what a year abroad, or University in general is about. You are presented with a range of opportunities and it is up to you to take initiative in deciding what you want to take from them.
It’s incredibly overwhelming travelling to somewhere you don’t know much about, let alone the fact that you don’t know anyone there. When I arrived in Victoria I felt very isolated as I had no friends or familiar faces around me. I didn’t even know my fellow Swansea exchange students, though I befriended some of them over-time. Whilst UVic was sound in organising social events and orientations for exchange students, I found it difficult to adapt to certain aspects of Canadian culture. They do not have a fresher’s week as we do. They have a “frosh” week with a few official orientation events and private house parties, but there is not so much a clubbing or drinking culture as there is in the UK. The Canadians in BC cannot legally drink till they are 19 years old, and being put on an academic floor in halls of residence surrounded mostly by 17 year olds, the social life was not as I had expected. Though I enjoyed my unfamiliar “frosh” week, I felt like I had to take a lot of initiative in finding new friends. This involved talking to anyone who I deemed approachable in UVic’s cafeteria for the first couple of weeks. I felt lonely, and albeit quite miserable on my birthday during the first week, yet somehow managed to convince a random Canadian to spend time with me. We remained close friends throughout the academic year and to this day. I was lucky enough to stay with her and her family in mainland BC for a few weeks over the summer before I left for home. This further enabled me to experience Canadian culture and wildlife (I saw a bear!) not to mention forests, mountains and lakes on a much larger scale than on Vancouver Island; scenery which in the UK would be deemed rather out-of-this-world. My point here is do not be afraid of taking risks and stepping out of your comfort zone. I am by no means an extravert but I have found myself to be more confident in approaching people and generating conversation as a result.
Besides making friends with Canadians, I jumped at the chance to introduce myself to those with familiar British accents. This led to me making friends with exchange students from around the world with whom I travelled over the course of the year. You learn to organise trips together, whilst co-operating with and protecting each other. I went to San Francisco and Seattle in my first semester staying in pretty dodgy hostels. I also went to Hawaii for my February reading break, having managed to find incredibly cheap flights, and in April I went to Tofino on Vancouver Island where I tried surfing for the first time. It was useful to make a mixture of friends; I found I could fully immerse myself in Canadian culture whilst also having empathetic friends who shared my interests in exploring, if you like, the unfamiliar. Specific highlights of my year included my first attempt at skiing, my parents visiting me in Vancouver for Christmas, zip-lining in the Alpine resort Whistler, and watching an ice-hockey match. No it isn’t a stereotype, Canadians really do like their hockey, and as I witnessed first-hand, will fight it out on the ice-rink if needs be. I found the Canadians generally warmer and more conservative than the British. Canadian students for example would always get up to shake my hand in greeting, this custom ,as well as being prioritised on the road as a pedestrian (I can’t say the same for British drivers!) I became very used to. However, being offered a “doggie bag” in a fancy restaurant or never having a fixed price on the bill (from added tax and courteous tipping,) not so much…
Regarding the academic side, I treated my studies as I did in first year. I only needed a pass grade. To be blunt, I prioritised travelling over the library yet still put a substantial amount of effort into my studies. The workload, (I talk for the arts and humanities department) is more intense than at Swansea but by no means too stressful and certainly no harder. I got more regular assigned reading and more frequent assessments: once every few weeks rather than once or twice per semester.
My time abroad overall has given me a feeling of invincibility and the sense that the world is a much smaller place. I feel, in a reassuring sense, I have been forced to grow up and become more independent. After my studies at UVic ended I had the confidence to travel to Los Angeles by myself. overcoming obstacles like getting lost Downtown, and being stranded when my bank card got blocked… I would recommend doing a year abroad not only for the sake of enhancing your CV but for your own personal development, not because you think you ought to. People asked me before I went “What if you hate it? You’ll be stuck!” I say make the best of every situation. Staying strong and taking risks will make you proud of yourself and give you a sense of achievement that is priceless.