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Monday, 5 November 2018

Everything You Need To Know About Doing A Year Abroad / Studying Abroad

toronto tower

I know I’ve written quite a few University themed blog posts recently but these posts seem to have been highly requested (thank you so much for your topic ideas on Instagram: @emshelx). It hit me recently that I never actually spoke about my year abroad experience or talked about the logistics of moving my life to another country. I guess back then, it felt so crazy and I did keep some of it private. I mean, there are some seriously old (really rubbish) travel vlogs on my YouTube from my time there but I rarely spoke about how to apply for a year abroad, the logistics of doing a year abroad and what it’s like to move your life to the other side of the world. I get quite a lot of messages about this so whether you’re thinking about doing a year abroad or thinking about starting a new life abroad or even just going away for a prolonged period of time, I hope you will find this blog post useful. You might also find my top travel tips and hacks blog post useful too. (Get ready for some old photos)
First-year counts -
At some universities, first-year doesn’t count. I went to the University of Leeds and if you wanted to be accepted for a year abroad, you had to get a certain grade in your first year. Ultimately, the higher your grade, the more locations you can choose to go to. Locations are based on your grades so highly acclaimed Universities are tough to get into. You do have to work hard on your grades if you want to be in with a chance of going to one.

Erasmus schemes - I don’t know TOO much about this as I didn’t do my year abroad via the Erasmus scheme but for some European countries, they offer lower fees if you go under the Erasmus scheme. I know one of my friends had to go to Germany a few weeks prior to his year abroad starting and do a language course in order to be accepted onto his year abroad. I do think this is only European countries though but it’s worth checking with your university. 

toronto skyline

Money -
A year abroad will cost you, a lot (particularly if you don’t go under the Erasmus scheme). At my University, they suggested we had £20,000 of savings before going to any American/Canadian or Australian country to cover us. In fact, I’m pretty sure we had to prove that we had a certain amount of money on our application for security reasons (it sounds crazy but I guess they add up travel, living costs and accommodation and don’t want anyone to get stuck out there). I knew I wanted to do a year abroad so did everything in my power to save money for mine. If you’ve read my money saving blog post I talk about my top 5 tips to save money, you’ll know this. I had a part-time job and somehow, by myself managed to save £10,000. Back then, that felt like so much money as I was a student, working away part-time and saving hard. On top of this £10,000 (which actually equated to around $15,000 Canadian Dollars - the exchange rate was kind to me), I had support from my Mum for accommodation (I got the lowest loan which barely covered anything). I felt I had more freedom and could enjoy myself and breathe on my year abroad because I’d worked hard to save money. I knew I didn’t want to be working when I was out there and I also knew I didn’t want to be saying no to things so I promised myself to have a yes mentality, it meant I got the most out of the experience. I don’t think money is the only way you can have good experiences in life, actually quite the opposite but because there were so many countries I wanted to visit on weekends, so many excursions to do and SO MUCH FOOD TO TRY, the money really meant I could go all out. In terms of getting my money to Canada, I went with a travel card which had around $2000 on it to get me through the first month. I just went into a travel agent, paid the cash and they put it onto the card for me. I was able to use it to withdraw money and most restaurants and shops accepted it as a chip and pin too. I then opened a bank account out there with HSBC. I used HSBC because they are a global bank and it was actually pretty easy (and very adult) to set one up in a different country, I just needed a Canadian phone number so *oops* used my friends as I didn’t have one. I do tend to use my own bank card when abroad but there are fees for every transaction so it made more sense to open a proper bank account with me being there for a whole year.

Application - The application was the tough bit, I’m not quite sure how other universities work but with the University Of Leeds, we had to choose 3 Universities we wanted to study at and for example, I couldn’t go to Paris because my degree wasn’t a French degree, I couldn’t go to Barcelona because I didn’t study Spanish and I couldn’t go to California because I wasn’t a maths student in the top 10% of the year. The way it works is complicated but one university will send an exchange student to your university. I applied to study at Washington DC (they do really good media courses) and I didn’t get accepted because they didn’t have anyone to send over for a direct exchange. My main struggle was figuring out where to study, first I wanted Barcelona but I was’t allowed, so I changed my mind to California and I was told I wouldn’t be accepted. I then decided on D.C as my first choice and randomly put Canada second. Looking back, I would have put Australia but I was at a point in my life where I didn’t want to leave my Mum, at least Canada is only 7 hours away if something happened and I was 24 hours away I couldn’t have dealt with that. I was also massively swayed with where my boyfriend at the time was studying and he put Canada down too. From memory, we had to write a personal statement, submit our grades and submit our list. We were strongly advised by the study abroad team not to put anywhere down that wouldn’t accept us, I was gutted because I always had my heart set on California but we were told they favour maths students with top grades. 

mont royal

Location - Canada is somewhere that had never even been on my list of places to visit, whereas somewhere like Australia will always be up there at the top and I’m sure I’ll go someday soon. I have my year abroad to thank for choosing to send me to McGill University in Canada because it’s a place I now see as a second home and a place I didn’t even know existed. It gave me a love for a location and country I really wasn’t even bothered about visiting and I think that’s really special. I’ve been back since and Montreal is cool but it was definitely the people from my year abroad who made it so special. I think Montreal was perfect because it’s small so we had a really tight friendship group and I could walk around everywhere and become familiar. It also meant I got to travel to so many incredible places nearby as Montreal is smack in the middle of so many beautiful countries.

Getting accepted - You can pull out at any moment, I know one girl came to all the meetings, got accepted into McGill and dropped out a few weeks before. It’s petrifying and daunting, I honestly didn’t think I’d ever actually get on that plane by myself and deliberately didn’t book my flight until two days before because I was so petrified of facing into the fact that I was, in fact, moving to another country, with no friends or family for a whole year. Looking back: I don’t know how I did it. I was leaving my life behind and actually, it was harder because I was leaving a group of good friends behind, an amazing family and a happy relationship but it’s something I wanted to do for myself. I needed a push and I do owe my ex thanks because if it wasn’t for him there’s no way I’d ever have done a year abroad. I cannot state enough just how much it will change and help you grow as a person. It’s worth the tears, promise. 

Advice - University helps you a lot in terms of telling you which VISAs you need and giving you feedback forms from previous years so you can see which accommodation they stayed in (you could even email past students which I thought was really good). The only way I figured out where to live etc was via past students and lots of research.

VISAS - I almost gave up on my year abroad when it came to doing the VISA applications. It was SO incredibly hard but I got there in the end and was granted my year-long study VISA. I honestly wanted to rip my hair out at many points. When I landed in Montreal, I had to sit for a few hours in the airport and be questioned about my VISA and about studying, I wasn’t alone as every person with a new study VISA had to go and do this. It was daunting after a long, emotional journey but it was fine. 

Housing -
I get a lot of questions about accommodation abroad and how I found where to stay. I found the best way to find accommodation was to ask older students where they stayed or to go on Facebook pages and see what was up for rent. I know Americans and Canadians also use Craigslist, it’s kind of like Gumtree but more legit (I think). I personally went into private halls/accommodation and it was lovely and full of other exchange students. It was great because I was staying in a stunning apartment bang in the city centre with all my bills included and 5 different girls in my flat so a ready-made group of friends. It meant I had peace of mind when I arrived, knowing I had an apartment sorted. The vibes in the flat were amazing because everyone else was on the exchange so everyone wanted to have fun too. Some of my friends found cool housemates and moved in with them via Craigslist rather than doing private halls. I know some people travelled with their parents and looked at apartments/halls a few weeks before starting their course, I personally think the flight by myself and journey made me so independent but it’s completely up to you how you do it. My Mum isn’t a fan of long-haul flights (I need to change that!!!) so didn’t come with me haha!

Packing - I paid extra and took two suitcases and I also took a carry on with me too. I think in total I took about 70KG with me and wowza, I still had to get my Mum to post my stuff. Ultimately, you don’t need that stuff you just need yourself but I wanted a variety of clothes and because Canada gets so cold, I needed heavy snow boots and a suitable long winter coat - British coats just don’t cut it. It got to -35 it was a brutal winter. One thing I didn’t pack was a towel, mirror or pillow and duvet so I spent my whole first night crying (in disbelief that I was in a country by myself) and I had to cover myself with a jumper and then dry myself with the same jumper the next day. Now I understand why they tell you to pack a sleeping bag! I just didn’t think about the fact I’d be arriving to an empty bedroom. I was so panicked I walked to the nearest apartment store the following morning, it was the Canadian equivalent of Harvey Nichols and spent about $500 on pillows and a duvet, I didn’t realise it was a luxury store and was just like, take my money, I need some comfort. In hindsight, I should have done some research, not panic bought and packed a sleeping bag but who needs a sleeping bag when you can take 5 dresses instead haha. I am NOT a light packer so it was tough packing my life for 1 whole year. On the way home, I paid to send a suitcase back, I just found a random website online and it cost me around £60 for someone to pick my suitcase up from my apartment and post it directly to my door (it got home before I did!) It was a good way to get stuff home without taking three suitcases back with me!

Phone contracts -
I was already paying a contract at home so kept my phone and only spoke to people on wifi, for a whole year. My friends had contracts but there was no way I was paying for two contracts, there’s so much free wifi around the world now and it was genuinely fine once I knew the hotspots. It also meant I chilled a bit more rather than constantly tapping away at my phone. I was like an addict once I got my dose of wifi though haha. I was mainly on campus or at my apartment which both had lots of wifi though so that was fine. 

Travel -
After crying on the first night then living my best life during ‘frosh’, the Canadian version of freshers week, I quickly made friends and luckily, the majority of them wanted to travel with me. I had one particular friend (hi Lauren, love you) and we’d travel together most weekends…we ticked off Cuba, Boston and then with my ex we went to the Bahamas, Miami etc. You’ll find as an exchange student you can fly wherever you fancy on a weekend if you’ve saved the money as these flights were so affordable. I ticked off so many states and countries and made memories I’ll never forget. It truly was a whirlwind year.

Family - I cried the whole way to Canada, I was petrified, particularly as it was a French-speaking country and even though I’d studied French at A-level, it’s Quebecois rather than Parisian French, the French Canadians sound so different. I felt like I was in a different world. I even tried to study French there and had a total mind block on the most basic of French phrases. I had pangs of missing my family, to begin with and as I was getting settled (totally normal) but then, on the rest of my trip I was SO busy I didn’t really have time to miss people as bad as that sounds. I was living an amazing new life which was so full on, we were busy all the time. The hardest bit for me was not seeing my grandparents actually. I would FaceTime my mum most days so it felt like I was with her and I flew home for Christmas which felt even more special and made me cherish my family more so. I even had to fly home for fashion week once and met her in St Pancras station for a cuddle and a coffee! I honestly think one of the hardest things about a year abroad is walking away from your family for a year, I can’t explain how close I am to my family and it was tough not being around them but you know what? It really did benefit me as a person. 

Toronto blue jays

Independence - I’ve always been super close to my Mum and embarrassingly she has always helped me out with my washing (haha) so in Montreal, I genuinely had to get her to train me up via FaceTime to wash my clothes and cupboards. You don’t even want to know what I did for the first month when I couldn’t figure out how to use the communal washing space HA but I got there eventually and LOVED washing my sheets so much haha. You cannot beat fresh, clean sheets!

Relationships On A Year Abroad -
I did stay in a long distance relationship during my year abroad and it was tough but we saw each other so often as he was only a few hours away in Toronto. I did miss out on being as fun as I can be because one weekend I’d go to see him rather than bonding and going out with my new friends but I honestly wouldn’t change it. It certainly didn’t hinder my year abroad, it actually meant I met more people at his University and got to do even more travels. Even though that relationship ended on very sour terms which is very sad, no-one can take away what a special year it was for all involved and I’m definitely not against being in a long distance relationship. I did end up naturally gravitating to other Brits on my year abroad as they were in the same situation as me but I did also meet some amazing Americans, Canadians, you name it. We were either in the same frosh group, at the same parties or in the same halls of residence. It made me realise who my friends were back home too as so many of them didn't stay in touch but equally, so many of them did.

Best year - I say this all the time but looking back it really was the best year of my life. It was probably the only year of my life where I had NO commitments whatsoever and could just live my best life (literally), travel the world, eat out every night and just soak up life. This all happened because I worked tirelessly to save so that I could be ‘free’ whilst I was there. I would highly suggest getting stuck into the local culture. For example, I went to yoga classes every single day with the locals, as well as going to things like frat parties and events. I massively made up for not being as social as I should have been at Leeds Uni on my first year. I wouldn’t change any of my year abroad. I absolutely grew as a person, from getting on my first ever flight alone to meeting so many different people and having so many new experiences, they mean what they say when a year abroad is a life-changing experience.

So there we have it, I hope this answers any questions you may have about doing a year abroad, do comment below and let me know if you did any or if you have any tips. 

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