When you go to Canada, you expect to watch hockey, eat beaver tails, and see Niagara Falls. Maybe you do that, or maybe you take part in a Star Wars lightsaber battle, join a car rave during Nuit Blanche, and watch French horror films in class. Along the way, you introduce two people you met at different events. Those two people become friends and hang out. Before you know it, the friend group you wanted so badly is losing thrift shop fake fur coats at Halloween dances, visiting each other’s universities, meeting for birthday mezcal, and spending so much time making fun of each other’s accents that you pick up a few words.
I didn’t imagine any of these events happening when I was applying to study abroad in St Andrews. Despite how commonplace studying abroad seems to be, leaving your university is a daunting concept. You are in St Andrews for four short years, yet I and many other students choose to spend a quarter of that time somewhere else. Before I left for a whole year, I worried whether I’d find committee positions or research opportunities for my resume, if I’d miss important classes, even if my friendships would be the same. That’s not to mention the fears that come with living in a strange place after you’ve just become accustomed to St Andrews. All these anxieties surrounded my time abroad, but none of them stopped that year from being the best year of my life.
I thought my year abroad would be a year at home. When I applied, the School of Economics only had study abroad options in North America. After living with Scottish students for two years and seeing them go home for a weekend or having friends come visit, I was looking forward to spending some time near my family in America. Imagine my surprise when the option that came through was the University of Toronto, seven hours away.
The months after my acceptance did little to allay my fears. My future school was nicknamed “U of Tears” because of its difficulty, the winters would show me what actual cold meant, and a confusion about a housing form led me to a search for private housing in a city I’ve never visited. I was unreasonably nervous when we packed up a car to take the drive from New Jersey to Toronto. Most of my fears surrounded my social life. Toronto wasn’t St Andrews, where most people around you at least go to the same university. Toronto was a city, filled with busy people who were more interested in getting to work quickly than making friends or helping you get to class.
That first month in Toronto was a culture shock. I walked through a student club fair with a cheerleading team and a club for every religion, nationality, and interest. My room in a stranger’s basement was 40 minutes from my classes, but I hardly spent any time there. The Toronto Film Festival began, and I waited in line to see every movie. I saw Brie Larson present Unicorn Store and was too busy sobbing through First They Killed My Father to care that the director, Angelina Jolie, hadn’t made an appearance. I went to every event for international students, but never spoke to the same person twice. There were so many of us, spread over three campuses. There were two other St Andrews students in Toronto who I didn’t meet for months. The city was that big and my concern was growing.
In late September, things began to fall into place. Classes were demanding from the outset, some with weekly assignments. Coming from St Andrew’s usual setup of two exams and an essay per class, the work was overwhelming at first. Sometimes, it felt like high school more than college, as professors gave me assignments to make sure I was doing my readings. My research on classes hadn’t been enough to stop me from taking Game Theory and struggling throughout, but I was at least finally able to navigate public transport.
One Wednesday, a German exchange student asked on the study abroad group chat if anyone wanted to go to the AGO, a small art gallery with rotating exhibits. We’d all gone the week before, but it’s hard to appreciate oil paintings when you’re struggling to remember anyone’s name or even what country they’re from. I nearly missed the meeting because of my continuing struggle to understand geography, but we did meet up and managed to discuss our confusion about some of the art. A security guard pointed out the creepiest sculptures in the museum to us and, by total luck, I left the museum with “my future best friend.
Out of convenience, I began to combine my acquaintances. My German friend met my Australian friend when I decided last minute to catch the opera instead of the hockey game. A French friend brought her Dutch friend to drinks on the German friend’s porch. Over sushi burritos, one of the workers heard me mention summer camp and joined the conversation. She became our Canadian friend. By the time first semester ended and most of the group needed to return to their home countries, I’d made friends I appreciated more than some of the relationships I’ve had my whole life. Knowing people for such
a short time in such an experimental, exciting part of your life leads to honesty and freedom. You have less pressure to impress and more chances to be yourself and, if you can’t do that, to find yourself.
My concerns about my social life also turned out to be the least of my worries. It turns out “U of Tears” was pretty apt. On a campus with 80,000 students, you can get lost in your busy schedule of five classes a semester. But having so many classes to choose from meant that I was able to finally specialise in my classes. I applied for research projects and took classes on economic history, the roundabout logic of economic law, and the economics of slavery. I read studies for classes and discovered that the author was my professor. I even managed to take courses on the Vikings and horror film. For my film class, I was so invested in my essay about vegetarianism in horror that I tried to publish it. At the same time, some classes blindsided me with their difficulty and workload. For my naïve lack of research into professors, I was lucky to take as many amazing classes as I did.
Second semester, the whirlwind of social and cultural events subsided. Toronto’s winters are cruel. I walked bent over with the top of my head to the wind because the snow and ice hurt my face so much. Socialising became rare as it was painful to even walk to class. I luckily still had my Canadian and German friend, now my boyfriend, to keep me company when the weather was so cold that you’d pay the high fee to go one stop on the streetcar.
Second semester was also when I began to meet full-time students. With less people coming to study abroad, we reached out to people in our classes. The highlight was a trip to the north of Ontario through the university. Four hours away, we stayed with a host family. I felt like the boring American surrounded by students from every continent,
but the culture up north was just as strange to me as it was to my fellow foreign students. We rolled maple syrup in ice, made indigenous bread on a stick, snowshoed, and cross country skied. When each student gave presentations about their home country, I didn’t even know which one to choose. I ended up telling jokes about whiskey despite never drinking any myself. Afterwards, I was shown up by African dances and Taiwanese lessons.
When May came, I realized that I hadn’t gone home much more than I had when in St Andrews. When I did go home, it was to show my friends New York and introduce my family to them. My nerves came again when I thought about going back to St Andrews. I applied to do a thesis and be on At Home and Abroad Society committee, to return to my old life. I wondered if my friends would be the same, if seeing them would be “different”. I hadn’t even considered that I may have changed.
According to friends, I have changed. I’m more keenly aware of what I want to do and know how many responsibilities I can handle. I try to pursue social, cultural, and academic opportunities rather than agonize over their pros and cons. I grew up while in Toronto, surrounded by Danish students who had seen the world and students from Singapore who were already starting businesses. I saw that college wasn’t just a race to a job and now hope to pursue a master’s degree to work in a field I’m passionate about. My original plan had been to use my year abroad as a break from St Andrews, to experience something new and then come back to my job pursuit. Instead, I brought Toronto back with me. I changed my life plan, still talk to my Toronto friend group, and am still with my friend from the AGO.
I thought Toronto would only be a year, but it turned out to be so much more.