For many, the idea of studying overseas during their university career seems like an unrealistic goal or even an impractical experience. Perhaps moving to another country for an entire semester or two is not just a daunting task, but a few steps too far out of one’s comfort zone. What if something goes wrong? What if you can’t make friends? What if the culture is too different? Maybe you’re better off here in St. Catharines. After all, moving away from home to live in a new city or province is a big enough step, right? Maybe for some.
Most, if not all people, will have these thoughts when thinking about doing an international exchange. I know I did. But then I thought to myself, when has staying in my comfort zone allowed me to grow, to strive or experience the things I’ve always wanted to? When has staying in my comfort zone allowed me to proudly say “I’ve been there” or “I’ve done that”? Have you ever done anything worthwhile without pushing your own boundaries? Maybe you have a different answer to these questions, but for me it’s simple. The safety and security of my own bubble never led to anything that I could look back on and consider a highlight of my life thus far. I was not satisfied with these experiences being limited to books, magazines, the TV or the internet. I wanted to see, touch, smell and feel these experiences first hand.
It was purely by chance that I learned about my first opportunity to travel overseas. After an unfortunate accident that led to a broken arm, I unsuccessfully attempted to get an extension on a paper when a stranger overheard my request. She immediately lent a hand by offering to type part of my essay if I dictated it to her. Feeling extremely grateful, I quickly accepted. Her name was Connie and she was at Brock University on an exchange from Keele University in England. Connie not only gave me insight into the exchange program but also got me excited to do one for myself.
Ten months later I was accepted to study at Keele and was flying into Birmingham to meet Connie again, only this time we were going to spend over two weeks travelling around Europe before the start of the semester. From Birmingham we drove to London where I got to experience the busy city (and true rush hour traffic) while soaking in the sights and sounds of the bustling metropolis. From here we travelled to Paris, France where we spent three days enjoying the famous sights, the glitz and glamour of the shopping districts and of course some small and friendly backstreet establishments for drinks. After nearly missing our train to Geneva, Switzerland, we arrived and decided we would not plan any of the remaining days of our trip. After a four night visit that included the United Nations building, a castle on Lake Geneva, and even witnessing a motorcade drive by with none other than Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama inside, we took the train to Zurich. We saw a number of Lamborghinis, Ferraris and pretty much any other exotic car one can think of. It was quite a change when, after missing a train to Venice, Italy we decided we would jump on a train to Budapest. Once in Hungary we enjoyed a fantastic exchange rate and even spent one night laughing and sharing stories with some locals who were some of the friendliest people I’ve met to this day. From Budapest we travelled to Vienna, Austria and got a real taste of its culture with other travellers from Australia, the U.K. and even another Canadian. Our final stop on our pre-study tour was Berlin, where we stayed and enjoyed the German nightlife, courtesy of a friend of mine who also did an exchange at Brock. After visiting eight cities and six countries in just over two weeks, it was finally time to begin my semester.
I arrived at Keele alone (as Connie had gone back to her home outside London) and anxiously awaited the start of my new semester. Finding friends was not an issue as all of the international students arrived days before the local students, of which were all in the same scenario as me. It was at this point when my exchange really began to take meaning. I travelled even more with my newfound best friends, as they themselves came from different countries around the world. The friends that I made and the experiences we had together will always remain fresh in my memory and near to my heart. I still talk to them every day and I am planning a reunion trip as soon as possible.
In the end, I travelled to seven countries and countless cities across multiple time zones. I made friendships that spanned across oceans, cultures, traditions and languages. Now to answer the questions from earlier, what if something goes wrong? It might. What if you can’t make friends? You will. What if the culture is too different? It will be. Is moving to another country a big step? It is, and you’ll love every second of it. Stepping out of your comfort zone is difficult at times, but in this case, it’s your ticket to the time of your life.