Between my second and final years of university, I packed an unbelievably huge suitcase and flew four thousand miles away from home to the city of Vancouver, Canada.
It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, especially as I was doing it alone, leaving behind my family and friends with only Skype and messaging to keep in touch.
I was making nervous small talk with another British student who happened to be going to the same place. We were fretting that it was all an elaborate scam, and any time now, I’d be sent back home.
Then the reality hit me.
If anything went wrong in Canada, I had to deal with it myself - like my first-ever bout of homesickness, or accidentally putting my medication through the washing machine. Both happened.
Even though I spoke the same language, had a decent idea of what Canada was like from TV, and had holidayed there when I was fifteen, nothing prepared me for the colossal culture shock.
Every time I spoke up in class, people twisted round to see who the British person was! One morning in Starbucks, my coffee cup was labeled “Kesten”.
Most exchange students were housed on campus. It looked like a retirement community, but was in fact where most of the campus parties ended up being held. I remember a raucous Scottish party for someone’s birthday, with flags, dubiously-sourced Irn-Bru, and a bawling chorus of Auld Lang Syne.
Over the course of the year I shared a flat with women from Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Italy. My friends came from Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Cyprus, Australia, Mexico, the Philippines, and of course Canada (also the slightly less exotic, Ireland, and one who was from literally down the road in North Wales).
In the second term, I found myself snowshoeing through the British Columbian wilderness in the Okanagan Valley on a trip organised by the university’s exchange student club. We played ice hockey on a frozen lake, made s’mores, and slept in freezing log cabins with the entire contents of our suitcases piled over us for warmth, because no one had kept the little burner going. We loved every second!
There was a great deal of preparation involved in uprooting myself to live abroad.
Once my place had been confirmed, I needed to apply for my visa, apply for grants, notify the Student Loans Company that I was going to be abroad, find out about health insurance, sort out prescriptions, and wonder what on earth to pack.
In Canada, I could only afford to buy very basic groceries in cheap supermarkets. Phone contracts and bank accounts seemed horrendously complicated. Once my bank was set up, I used a Post Office Travel Money Card, which let my parents send me money, and schemes like TransferWise.
There are plenty of student websites with advice for all kinds of international experiences, too.
If you’re inspired to travel, but would rather take a gap year, rather than a formal exchange year, look at Student Money Saver’s guide to gap year travel. You could also travel to Europe with the Erasmus scheme, if your university is a participant, and work in your chosen country rather than study.
If anyone’s tempted by a year abroad - sign up. Today. You get to immerse yourself in a new culture, live with interesting people, and learn what it’s like to live away from home. In the process you might also discover your fierce love for proper mugs of builders’ tea, and decent chocolate, of course.