A year on from my year abroad – tips to those heading out and those coming back

A little over a year ago, I was just heading home from St John’s, Newfoundland, my last stop of a month travelling coast-to-coast across Canada after finishing my year abroad. Now I’ve just received my results from my third year, I have time to reflect again on my year abroad and the following year. Here are a few bits of advice to anyone heading out on a year abroad this year, and those now returning.

Before you go:

Try and save up as much money as possible. I worked through my first year and the summer to save. It won’t be fun but having spending money when you’re there is well worth it! Also, make sure you apply for the right funding and check if you’re eligible for any extra sponsorships or flight refunds to save yourself some money.

Do your research! I spent my year abroad at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. I thought it was going to be freezing almost all the time, so I struggled in August and September when the temperature hovered around 30oC and I had only two pairs of shorts. You can find out a lot online, but, also, try talking to the other students at Sheffield who’ve been to the university you’re going to. For things like house prices, bars and restaurants to visit, and how to get to the airport, asking other students is really useful. We also emailed student services when our house fell through and they sorted us with a house and a lovely landlord short-notice, which was great. The more you can sort out ahead of time, the more fun you’ll be able to have when you arrive!

While you’re there:

Make the most of it! I spent my whole year abroad with a (cringe) #yolo attitude. Because you are only going to have this experience once, try to do as much as you can; push yourself! I did multi-day hikes, camping, canoeing, and dog-sledding with my university’s outdoor club. I tried poutine and maple taffy, I went ice-skating and cross-country skiing, fell in love with ice hockey. I visited Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto during the year (the latter countless times) and went travelling after my final exams too. You’ll probably never have a chance to study and see a new part of the word like this again so I would recommend making as many memories as possible.

Saying that, if your year aboard counts, it counts. If you’re one of those who only need to pass, obviously you still need to work to pass the year. For those who’s year abroad counts as your second or third year rather than acting a gap year, IT COUNTS! Work hard/play hard isn’t an easy balance to achieve, but try! I definitely struggled with the increased workload on top of travelling and being a tourist every weekend but got there in the end I think (with a lot of coffee and not enough sleep). Occasionally you will have to say no to things when your grade depends on it. Although it may feel like it, it’s not a holiday.  Don’t forget to make notes and keep hold of things that you might need when you get back, like proof of prerequisite courses, or exams and coursework if you have to make a portfolio of work as I did.

You will probably suffer from a bit of a culture shock, even I did in a country like Canada, which is pretty similar to the UK. Getting my favourite snacks in the post and talking to family helped, but I tried not to talk to people back home too much and just enjoy the new experiences. You will miss people, and you will miss out on things back in Sheffield. Just remember all the new things you’re gaining in exchange for missing out on life back home. I think you’ll find it a fair trade.

Make friends with the locals! It’s easy to make friends with other international students by taking part in the extra-curricular activities your university is likely to provide, which is great. Some of my best friends were other exchange students, from Australia, New Zealand and across Europe. It’s also worth befriending your course mates too. After all, you’re in the country to learn about their culture, so making friends with the locals is really worthwhile. It also how you find about the best places to visit, and if you’re lucky to get taken on trips/invited to stay at friends’ beach houses etc. Having some English friends who live close to Sheffield was also nice though, it helped with the culture shock and eased the sadness of coming home.

When you get back:

It’s going to suck for a while, probably. I definitely spent a few days resting up, getting over jet lag and moaning about being home. Not the nicest for my family who hadn’t seen me in a while. Thankfully they forgave me for my miserableness. Once you’re able, try to appreciate seeing your friends and family again, and those home comforts you missed all year – it’ll help!

If you’re like me, you’ll miss your year abroad friends a lot when you first get back. You can stay in contact!! The people who you really click with, you’ll still have as friends, even if you only talk once every few months. My Canadian friend Rachel came to visit last month, and it was lovely to see her show her around Sheffield and my hometown. There are loads of other friends I know would welcome me to their home in the same way, all over the world. It’s not like they’ll disappear once you live away from them, just like your home friends will be waiting for you too.

It was lovely to see my friends at home and university and catch up on what I’d missed. Spoiler: there will be a lot, and you’ll never catch up on everything, so I probably wouldn’t try. I also wouldn’t recommend trying to tell your housemates about everything you did on your year abroad. They’ll get bored, and you’ll get teased for the rest of the year. It’s cool, I’ve embraced getting hollered every time Canada is mentioned.

It’s an adjustment, having all these memories and experience and weird food-brand knowledge that suddenly no one else understands. For me, talking to my Canadian friends and listening to some funny hockey podcasts helped. Try not to wallow in it.

I’d recommend getting really involved in completely new things, once you’re home. Keep the momentum going, the discoveries and open attitude that it’s easy to have in a new place. Once I got back to Sheffield I fully immersed myself in the university life. Not just my friends and course mates etc., but with the university community. I was inclusions officer for a society, a Green impact project assistant, I wrote for Forge, and I attended lots of SU events. Feeling part of Sheffield made me miss McMaster a little less. I also went ice-skating and to see the Sheffield Steelers ice hockey team a few times, and got back into the music scene that’d I’d really missed in Canada. There’s nothing wrong with bringing your new interests back home or falling back in love with old passions too.

Keep hold of those memories, and don’t worry too much about what you forget. Just like with your friends, the things that matter will stay with you. If you want to keep a better hold of your year aboard, make a scrapbook or pinboard – something to keep you busy over the summer too.

Sometimes it might feel like your year abroad didn’t even happen, when you’re doing something the same way you always have, with a year’s worth of memories so completely different that they feel like a dream. But the memories and friends you’ve made, the experiences and skills you’ve learned – they’ll stay with you forever.

If you’re heading to McMaster, Canada in general, or just want some more tips, feel free to email me: lturner5@sheffield.ac.uk.

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