They say college is 60 percent in-class learning and 40 percent experience. They also say 20 percent of “learning via experience” should come from spending a semester abroad — assimilating into another culture for six months and absorbing a little bit of everything you see. School can only prepare you for so much, the rest you need to go out and learn on your own.
I was against the idea of going abroad until the last minute, when I realized if I stayed at school for a full semester while all of my friends were jetting around Europe and Australia, I’d be miserable. I wanted to have one of those Hollywood-esque traveling experiences — perhaps I would even find my soulmate on this international quest. Two weeks before the semester ended, I went to our “International Office” to find out where in the world I should go. Prague? Sydney? Beijing? After a little research with one of the office counselors, we found a school willing to register international students so late in the game. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and clicked submit on my “Study Abroad” application. It was accepted immediately. I was spending the next six months of my life at Centennial College — Ontario’s first community college on the north side of Toronto.
For those of you unfamiliar, Toronto (Te-ˈrän-tō), with over five million people in the area, is the largest city in Canada. Located in the southeastern part of the country, Toronto prides itself on being an international melting pot. It borders Lake Ontario, one of the largest lakes in the world — part of the “Great Lake” system Canada is known for. You’d have to see it to believe it — a beautiful skyline by a gorgeous lake. Toronto is truly a world city.
I threw everything I owned in a bag and booked a flight out of Atlanta. My family came to the airport for a proper international send-off. There were smiles, tears, hugs and kisses. My mom slipped me a few of her sleeping pills before she left.
“You know how those international flights can be,” she said with a smile, before giving me one final hug and getting back in the family van. They drove off and I headed into the airport, passport in hand, ready for the experience of a lifetime.
I popped a couple Ambien before takeoff, and before I knew it, we were on the ground in my new city. A few of the flight attendants and Delta maintenance workers had to shake me awake after everyone had deplaned. Apparently, I had taken a few too many sleeping pills for the one hour and 50 minute flight. Not the best way to start my journey, but after napping a few more hours at an abandoned gate in Pearson International Airport, I was ready to take Toronto by storm.
I took a cab (in Canada, it’s called a ‘taxi’) to my new apartment. My community college didn’t have dorms, as most students were commuters. I rented an apartment on the north side, which, thankfully, was willing to accept U.S. currency. I found that most places in Canada are willing to take U.S. money as well as Canadian money. A fully developed country, Canada also accepted all major credit cards — which was a blessing because I had forgotten to exchange currency at the airport.
The next six months flew by so fast — it’s all really a blur now. From Raptors games, to Maple Leafs games, to Blue Jays games, I really felt like I was getting the most out of my time away from the States. I took a few courses. “Intro to Spanish” and “Statistics” were the only classes available when I registered. Class wasn’t all that important to me, though. I was in Toronto for a cultural awakening.
I met a lot of people in Canada — people I would consider lifelong friends now. Some of them were American, most were not (though many Canadians said they had been to the States, as Toronto is only 130 kilometers from Niagra Falls, NY). I adopted a surrogate “host” family, the Robertsons. We met at a local grocery store and they were so taken aback that I had come to Canada to study abroad, they invited me to have dinner at their house. We had flank steak and baked potatoes, a Canadian dish served mainly in the spring. Unfortunately, Mr. Robertson, a Detroit native, was transferred to Minneapolis for work two months into my trip, so I had to say goodbye earlier than anticipated.
I didn’t meet too many girls, unfortunately. Most of the women in my classes were moms who were coming back to school to finish their degree. I met some ladies out and about at the Toronto bar scene — and even though I was a novelty, being a foreign exchange student and all, I never really felt that connection I was looking for. I did meet one beautiful girl, Casey, from Alberta. She was amazing in every single way. She worked in digital marketing in Edmonton and was in Toronto for work. We had a passionate night of aggressively making out (she was on her period), but she had to leave the next morning to fly home. That’s the way it goes with relationships while studying abroad — they can be ardent for a moment but in the end, all relationships between foreigners are fleeting. Too many barriers to break down.
I wouldn’t say I am necessarily more cultured, but I definitely feel more mature these days. When I returned to school in the States, I felt sort of silly getting back into the regular “American” grind with so many people who hadn’t had the same experiences I had. Everything seemed so trivial now. Whenever I saw a kid who clearly had never done anything but drink and party his way through college without taking advantages of the resources at his disposal, I couldn’t help but think, “Broaden your perspective, dude.” This life should be about so much more than “beers” and “a good time.”
If you take anything away from my story, let it be this: Our world has so much to offer. Step outside your comfort zone and capitalize on your youth. Buy a one-way plane ticket to somewhere exciting — London, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, Toronto, etc., and live life on the edge while you’re young. You’ll learn more about yourself and this world in a few months than you ever have in school..
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