Trading campus for the British country-side 

How one Dalhousie student created their own study abroad experience

During a time of lockdowns, cancelled events and postponed study-abroad programs, I decided to move to England and continue my studies remotely. There was no roadmap and little assistance, yet a great deal of determination. 

Needing a change   

As I packed my suitcase full of trench coats and rubber boots, I also crammed Moleskine notebooks, highlighter pens and packs of flashcards between the stacks of rain-ready clothing. I was preparing the best I could for a year away from Halifax –– a gap year while still enrolled and smack in the middle of my degree –– provoked by the pandemic. I would be in England for 12 months, from July 2021 to July 2022, working as an au pair (a live-in nanny) for a family in the countryside. Though my studies would not end, they would need to be reformulated and moulded to fit my new life.   

Why this sudden change? The answer is simple: I had spent a copious amount of time over the last year and a half feeling like I was unable to make a move in life, to progress, to grow and to learn in new ways. This was not an emotional feeling, but rather it was an expression of literal limitations due to COVID-19 restrictions. I was completely done with waiting on the circumstances surrounding me to change so that I might begin to live the life I desired. Although classes were resuming in person at Dalhousie University, the study abroad programs remained suspended with no indication of when they would resume. I had no estimation on if the study abroad programs would recommence at any time during the remainder of my degree. Studying abroad has always been a plan of mine and I knew that there was a slim chance that I would make that happen while in the last half of my time at Dalhousie. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands.     

Chawton House, an Elizabethan manor in Chawton, England, is known for being the home of Jane Austen’s brother. Rachel Cooke decided to move to England for a year, because it was the setting for many of her favourite stories growing up. (Photo by Rachel Cooke)

Making the decision 

The decision to continue my studies abroad was a difficult one. I asked myself many questions: Where would I go? Would I be distracted by my new surroundings? Would I be able to balance work and school? Would my grades decline without the help of other classmates nearby? Would I be able to meet friends if I go all alone? I also had the added worry of how to make studying abroad work when all the formal study abroad programs through Dalhousie were cancelled or postponed.  

After finding a couple of au pair agencies online, I submitted my applications and waited to hear back from families around the world. I was lucky enough to have a selection to choose from, but I always knew England was the right decision. It has been my dream place to live for  as long as I can remember. Having grown up on Beatrix Potter and Jane Austen, I wanted nothing more in life than to call the English countryside my home. Unfortunately, the process to get there would not be so simple.  

The dream becomes a reality  

To move to the United Kingdom, I needed a certain type of visa which requires a biometrics appointment at a third-party office building. Normally, this office would be in Halifax. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was closed. Meaning the closest one was in Toronto. I had to fly to Toronto for a weekend to get my fingerprint taken and my face scanned in preparation for the visa. This was only one of the complications I faced. The extended list includes a plethora of COVID-19 tests, flight changes and a struggle to communicate with agencies that only operate with a foreign number.  

Another issue was sorting my classes. Due to study abroad programs being cancelled through Dalhousie, I did not have any institutional help or support in my decision to relocate my studies from Canada to England, though I was able to contact academic advisors. Advisors at Dal assisted me in ironing out details on how I could best find courses that were still useful towards my combined degree in law, justice and society and political science, but that were also offered online. Eventually, I made progress and came up with a plan that worked for me: I will take available classes while the children I care for are in school, which is September through June, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday. The children are enrolled in a private school that includes sports, activities, clubs, games, a homework hour and other events that run into the early evening. That means I should have more than enough free time to work on my courses, especially considering it will be a reduced course load.  

There are destined to be complications, difficult moments and unexpected challenges this year as I embark on a study abroad journey of my own creation. However, the joys of exploring a brand-new place make every obstacle I’ve had to face on the way here worth it.   

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