Long story short: I have mixed thoughts about my study abroad experience

“Having lived the experience and processed it throughout the months that passed, my thoughts on my time abroad swayed from negative to positive, back and forth.”

Image credit Tiffany Chan

By: Harvin Bhathal, SFU Student

Studying abroad has been the defining experience of my short life so far. It has been a little over a year since I left England and the University of Essex to return home, and in that year, I have realized more and more how important that experience was to who I am now and who I will be in the future. It has become a cliché to refer to an exchange as life-changing – it is loaded language with emotional implications. Without the pretentiousness, it simply entails that exposing yourself to unfamiliar experiences acts as a catalyst for your mind to evolve into one of its many forms that it will be in your life. And that’s what it served as for me. 

Coming from an Indian household with a joint family, I have always had a surplus of people in the house. It has not been the easiest experience and definitely not the smoothest, but it groomed me into the person I am today. Going against the grain in my family is something I have continuously done my entire life, but deciding to study abroad was a decision like no other. I would go from living in a household of a dozen people to living without them. The change became even more drastic when I decided to live off campus, alone.

In a way, I wanted to test myself and follow through with my aspirations of moving out into the world, leaving the comforts of home. The aspect of living alone that I was most prepared for was cooking for myself, as I have been cooking all my meals for a couple years. It is the reason I decided to live off campus, because I needed a kitchen. However, living alone was extremely lonely, not only because I was far away from the friends I had made at the university but also because I was in a long-distance relationship. Not having the presence of family, friends, or the girlfriend with who, I was in the early stages of a relationship made for a complicated set of circumstances that shaped my experience studying abroad.

I had to grow up, fast.

Being raised in a household with so many people, I did not always have to rely on myself. Living alone, I quickly learned how different it was. Although I had access to the washer where I was staying, I had to air-dry clothes from the months of January to March (Imagine the weather during that period!)

Having to take into consideration that I was only one person and buying groceries for a few days was not ideal, I would have to make multiple trips to the grocery store in a two-week span. The bus schedule in the small town I lived in was irregular at best, and I lived a 20-minute walk away from the nearest grocery store.

The irregular bus schedule was never more evident than it was on the day it snowed to the point of the buses and taxis being unavailable. It just so happened that the day this transpired, I had planned to go to London, and had bought my ticket weeks earlier. Nonetheless, I managed to get to the train station – by hitchhiking three different times. I had never hitchhiked prior to that day. What is unfortunate about the train system in England is that the tickets are non-refundable, and having arrived an hour late, I had to purchase another rather expensive ticket that was not exactly within my budget. (This happened to me more than once during my time there, albeit in different circumstances.)  

It’s not that having to walk for groceries, air-drying clothes in musky, cold weather, and unreliable transportation were singularly so difficult that it severely affected by time abroad. It was the totality of the situation. 

The cherry on top during my time abroad was the month-long strike professors of the university went on. It is not that their strike was aimless as there were valid arguments on their side of the war for a competitive wage and benefits. It just could not have come at a worse time. My education was already being hampered by having to balance too much all at once; this was the nail in the coffin. As much as the effort I put in, I received the worst grades of my life. Not that I was surprised. 

By the end of my time abroad, I was ready to go home. I did not travel as much as I would have preferred to, and I could have stayed longer to do so, but the financial burden was too much to swallow. That is the aspect of living alone that hit harder than I expected. Although I was aware that watching my expenses was something I had to do, I was not prepared for it.

But most of all, I missed home. I missed my family, I missed the vast expanse of beautiful landscape in Canada. I missed my girlfriend. Being in a long-distance relationship while studying abroad was the most difficult experience I have ever had. My mind was torn between two places – reveling in the experience of going to a university in a foreign country and wanting to be around her, which was exciting in its own right. I thought about her every day. Although we communicated heavily, it still took a toll on my mental health. Our relationship withstood the time apart, but not without near-crippling struggles along the way.

Having lived the experience and processed it throughout the months that passed, my thoughts on my time abroad swayed from negative to positive, back and forth. From time to time, I still think about certain events that transpired and if I could go back, would I change them?

In all honesty, I would not.

I went through struggles in England that nearly crippled my mind. But if I continued to live in the past after I arrived home, that would have truly done so. Reflecting on my time abroad in this article is a way in and of itself of letting go of that regret. When I do have the opportunity to move out again,  I will shape the experience not only through what I have endured but, more importantly, through the present and future I want for myself.

Image courtesy of Harvin Bhathal