Meet Elizabeth Thompson. When she was 18, she lived in Paris, France while working as an “au-pair” (a live-in nanny) to a French family. Since then, she has longed for an opportunity to return to Europe. So when she was presented with a chance to study abroad in Europe, she knew she had to take it. Elizabeth was eager to return to Europe as she wanted to make up for her lack of adventure during the time she was in France at the age of 18. Although acquiring visas and registering for school proved to be challenging, time consuming, and requiring lots of research, according to Elizabeth it was all worth it. In her multi-year masters program she was able to travel to three different countries. Due to her minor in French Literature and a year of German language classes Elizabeth decided she would put her linguistic skills to the test. She spent her first year in Dresden, Germany and the second year in Montpellier, France. Afterwards, she travelled to Chefchaouen, Morocco for her field study.
Starting an Adventure
Starting her adventure in Germany, Elizabeth lived in a small bachelor apartment in a student building (a Studentenwohnheim). Here she first experienced culture shock as she quickly realized her German wasn’t up to par, and the housing superintendent (Hausmeister) didn’t really speak English. Although Elizabeth had taken a year of German language classes, her understanding of the language was very basic. Surprisingly, a large number of people in important positions didn’t speak any English, so getting over this hurdle took some adjustment. Being in a new country with people that speak a totally different language from you can be very intimidating. Luckily there was another student in Elizabeth’s program who lived in the apartment above hers. They bonded over lunch and this helped Elizabeth feel less isolated. Even still, the German culture was quite different from what she was used to. She was taken aback by the Germans’ culture of efficiency and bluntness.
A year later in France Elizabeth lived in a bachelor apartment overlooking palm trees and a pool. To top it off, her apartment was right beside a bakery, in her words, “Needless to say, there were many chocolate croissants eaten that year.”
Elizabeth learned a lot during her time abroad. She learned a lot about herself and was able to overcome many obstacles and hurdles. However, rather than tell you how she did this, it will probably resonate more strongly coming from Elizabeth herself.
“I had been preparing for my thesis project in Morocco — a place I’d only ever read about and maybe seen in the movie Casablanca — when I started to get really anxious about the details. My supervisor was pretty laid back and hands off and basically just gave me a sum of money to start me off and told me to work out the details on the way. Details like where I was going to live, how I was going to make contacts, how I’d communicate with the outside world — you know, minor details. My anxiety started to get the better of me and I was on the verge of quitting right there, after a year and a half leading up to the final project to get my Master’s degree. When I told one of my classmates, who was also a close friend by this point, he quickly offered to come with me for the first week to help ease my anxiety. I learned a lot of things about myself in these two years and one of them was just this simple: sometimes you have to ask for help. I was always fiercely independent and determined to make it on my own, but this not so small act of kindness made me realize it was ok to ask for help and to lean on people for support.”
Elizabeth also states that her time abroad reminded her that “Canada is just a small part of a much bigger world.” She says it was truly eye-opening to be surrounded by so many different people, cultures, and ways of life. Elizabeth says she has become hooked on travelling and cannot wait to do more of it.
Elizabeth loved that no matter where you were from or what your upbringing was, it was easy for her and other students to get together, find common ground and share experiences with one another. They often took trips with friends on the weekends and celebrated each other’s respective holidays. Elizabeth still stays in contact with her old classmates years later.
The Future Ahead
Elizabeth encountered a few hiccups upon returning to Canada. She found it difficult to find work in her field, but this was mostly due to the fact that her field was so specialized to other parts of the world. Her experience abroad taught Elizabeth that she wasn’t bound to a single place or to fulfilling “traditional” career archetypes. After returning to Canada, she eventually found a job with the Canadian Ice Service “to do ice mapping from icebreakers and airplanes.”
Advice for Students and Grads
Elizabeth reflects on her time abroad and acknowledges some common fears, concerns, and misconceptions that people have about going abroad.
“It can be challenging to be far away from friends and family. This is especially true at first, but if you spend extended periods of time abroad, it continues to be true as you struggle with time zone differences, missing out on important life events (births, deaths, marriages…), and just generally trying to relate to people back home when your everyday life has become completely foreign to them. One misconception is that traveling and studying abroad is going to be a big party all the time – and while there’s definitely some of this, it’s like anything else, there are ups and downs, good days and bad days.”
Elizabeth leaves us with her top 3 tips for students considering studying abroad:
“Just do it! No, you won’t do it some other time. No, the extra money you’re spending to do it won’t matter later and you won’t regret it. No, your friends won’t forget about you, not the real ones at least.”
“Don’t hide out in your room every day. I know it can be sensory overload at first, but if you make an effort to at least explore one new place or meet one new person every day, you’ll soon be feeling a lot better.”
“Be open minded about people, places and things.”
We hope that these tips and Elizabeth’s experience inspire you to do some studying abroad. Take the opportunity to rediscover yourself in a new unknown culture. To find out how you can study abroad, check out the Study and Go Abroad Fairs.