Reflections on a Semester Abroad

My name is Thomas and I have been back in Canada for almost seven months now. I spent last September through December at Keele University in Staffordshire, England. While in Europe I had the opportunity to travel in Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Scotland, Wales, and of course, all over England. Before I lose too many readers, allow me an exhortation: If you are reading this and thinking of going on an exchange, DO IT. You will not regret it. If you have never considered going on an exchange, CONSIDER IT. Look at your possibilities. Talk to someone who has gone. I have come into contact with hundreds of exchange and ex-exchange students in the past year and a half, and not one of them expressed any regret about going on their exchange. The only complaint to be heard (and it was heard often) was that the exchange was too short.

It is my opinion that studying abroad has special significance for Humanities students as opposed to those from other departments. What better way to study our subject than to observe humanity in a culture other than our own? What better way to do this than to study abroad? And there is so much about our subjects that come to life when experienced in their own place. As a Classics student, I studied the Pantheon many times, but after having actually visited the place, I can honestly say that no words or images can accurately convey the experience of that temple; my previous knowledge was not useless, but it paled in comparison to the experience. Such experiences add a whole new level of reality to the subject studied by a Humanities student. To climb the Acropolis of Athens up to the Parthenon, walk the ancient streets of Pompeii, glide down the canals of Venice, marvel at the grandeur of the palaces of Vienna, gaze solemnly at the remnants of the Berlin Wall, behold Tintern Abbey at dawn enveloped in the mists of the River Wye, all these experiences are irreplaceable. Western Europe is real to me now in ways that it could never have been before my exchange.

Going on exchange will change you. In particular, it will change the way you see Canada.  You get placed in the midst of a people who don’t do things the way we do in Canada. As Humanities students, trained to analyze and consider, you are forced to acknowledge the differences between your home culture and that of your host country during your stay abroad, and consciously or unconsciously you must respond. The process of change begins the first day you arrive at your destination and does not end until you leave. It is not always comfortable. You will not like everything about your host country. But I promise that you will like a lot of it, that you will learn from it and that you will absorb some of it. Finally, when you limp, exhausted, off the airplane at the end of your journey and view your beloved home country once more, Canada will not seem the same. You will see things so much more clearly, because you have another cultural point of reference: that of the host country in which you lived and studied.

Looking back, it is clear to me now that these are the two great changes that have resulted from my time abroad. Both Western Europe (and especially England) and Canada are real to me now in ways they were not before. Before my exchange I was told that after going abroad you become a better Canadian. I was a little skeptical about how much an exchange could really change someone, but I doubt no longer. I loved (to a greater or lesser degree) all the places that I visited during my time abroad, but Canada really is the greatest country in the world.

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