Lifelong Learning Centre

My year studying abroad

Posted on Wednesday, 07 November 2018 at 2pm
by Lifelong Learning Centre Staff.
Share this on Facebook Tweet this

The following is a guest post by Catherine Denham, a mature student now in the final year of her BA in Childhood Studies with the School of Education at Leeds.

At 47 years old who would’ve thought that I could go to live and study in another country for a year? I’m a wife, mother and a proud mature student, so my successfully having taken part in the University’s Study Abroad programme means not only that I survived a year on my own but that my family survived as well.

It started with an email which I received from the Study Abroad office in my second year. You know, the ones we all get and often ignore. This time though I told my husband about this opportunity. He actively encouraged me to apply as he knew that living abroad was something I’d always wanted to try. I set about researching and deciding where I would like to go, updating my CV, completing the application form and writing a personal statement. I chose Canada. We had spent a few days there on holiday the previous year and enjoyed it. It was far enough away from home but not that far that I couldn’t get a flight back if needed. There also wouldn’t be too much of a culture shock (or so I hoped).

In December 2016 I found out both that I had been successful in gaining a place on the Study Abroad programme and where I would be going. Thousands of students apply each year and I wasn’t hopeful, thinking my age would count against me. Imagine my joy and surprise at gaining a place at Concordia University in Montreal, my first choice!

I was delighted of course, but also saddened. This amazing opportunity meant that I would not graduate with my best friends, who had helped me through the first two years of my degree. It also meant leaving my boys behind. On one hand I felt I was being selfish, on the other I hoped that it would be a chance for us, as a family, to experience life in another country.

Before we all set off on our adventures there were many meetings to attend. I was always the old one in a sea of youth. Everyone seemed to know someone else who was going to their university or country. I just sat alone. Perhaps this was to prepare me for what was to come.

I left the UK in August 2017 for the adventure of a lifetime. My husband came out with me and my youngest son followed a week later. They were probably just making sure I didn’t bottle it! The first week was spent in a hotel sorting my Canadian life out: banking; utilities; medical insurance; university registration; furnishing my new apartment (my own little home in a lovely part of Montreal). Then the time came to say goodbye. Surely my baby still needed me even though he was 19? Shouldn’t I be the one waving him off to university? The silence in my apartment after they left was deafening.

The first week was very busy, getting to know my way around the university, meeting the academic staff and chatting to new people in class (who all wondered who this crazy British person was). My first class was on the First Peoples and as the professor began to speak I wondered what on earth I had done! It turned out he was very nice once you got to know him though. I felt much more at home in my second, adult education class, which was full of Canadian people just like me – older, with children, mortgages and all the other ‘grown-up’ life stuff. As time wore on I got used to life at Concordia and I actually loved the different teaching methods, the smaller and more frequent assignments and the classes late at night. I missed the Leeds University Library and, of course, the LLC (I had no personal tutor and there wasn’t an equivalent part of the university specifically there to support mature students).

I didn’t make friends at Concordia like my friends in Leeds either. They all had their own lives and didn’t seem to have time for me. I did, however, get in touch with a scout group through my role as a cub leader here in the UK. I couldn’t wait for Wednesday evenings. Yes, the kids were the same mischievous little monsters that I’m used to here, but it was the normal conversation that I could have with the leaders that really made it enjoyable. They’ll never know how much they did for me, helping me to survive the sense of isolation.

By November I was feeling pretty homesick. I had to book myself into a hotel just so that I could watch TV and feel close to people. I’ve now come to appreciate how people feel when they say they’re lonely, if they’ve lost a partner and have nobody to go out for a meal with. My most difficult time came when other Leeds students got together and cooked themselves a Christmas meal. They posted a picture on Instagram with a comment of “my Montreal family”. My heart sank and for the first time I realised that my support network of family and friends were 3000 miles away. The St Patrick’s Day parade was hard too – I knew the other Leeds students would be there but I ended up stood on my own in the bitter cold. I felt I might cry – I just wanted somebody to share this amazing experience with me. Yes, there’s FaceTime, Skype etc. but it’s not the same as having an actual physical presence.

How did I get through it? Throughout the year, I took every chance to travel. I studied and handed in my assignments on time. I was so much more relaxed about studying than I was in Leeds and the work seemed so much easier. I was able to take myself off to Ottawa, Quebec, Niagara (to see the falls in the snow), St. John’s, Newfoundland, Vancouver and of course Halifax (I live just outside Halifax, West Yorkshire). My family came out to see me and we visited New York, Boston, Calgary and the Rockies.

Over the course of the year I saw things I never thought I would – a cruise ship coming out of the mist over the Atlantic; a frozen Niagara Falls, the Rockies; a dinosaur skeleton by torchlight. I gained a new perspective on my studies and ideas to bring back and share. I’m approaching my final year at Leeds with a renewed vigour – in fact I feel like a fresher! I’ve grown in confidence, taken up a new role within my school and joined the hiking society (many of whom thought I was a staff member the first time I met them). I have a greater appreciation of my family and friends and of the work done by the LLC.

Would I recommend a Study Abroad year? Absolutely! It can be hard but it’s also an amazing adventure full of new opportunities. I appreciate that I’m in a fortunate position in that I could afford to do it and my children are older. That’s said, there’s nothing stopping you taking your family if you’re able – it just requires more planning and support. Mature students have the potential to change the culture of the Study Abroad programme and show the University that older learners can also have these amazing experiences.

Categories: Achievements, Mature Students, Student Experience, Student Parents, Student Voices