While doing my masters, I decided to take a semester abroad and go on exchange. While I always loved to travel, nothing could have prepared me for the amazing experience I had! To start living in a place is very different than visiting. Here are the top reasons why I think everyone should go on exchange or take a gap year.
1) New Culture: I have been to Milan and Italy many times prior to arriving for my exchange. But it was not until I got there that I realized that the best neighbourhood was not the touristy centre which is where Duomo, La Scala and other tourist attractions are. But it was in a quiet neighbourhood of Navigli where people come out for Aperitivo (Happy Hour) with buffet food and one drink for the price of 6 to 9 Euros. I have met Italians abroad and in North America, but it was not until I lived with one that I really understood the warmth of the people. And of course, the coffee was to die for!
2) Travel: I have managed to see more of Europe and even travelled to Egypt for the same price amount as it would have cost me to go to Europe from Canada for a week! In 5 Months, I visited the following countries: Ireland, Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Croatia, San Marino, Egypt, Austria, Switzerland. I have not only visited it for a day or two but have visited many places that I would have never had the time or money to visit had I only flown for 2 weeks. Not only can you save money on hotels by staying in hostels or cheaper local accommodations, air fare is cheaper than the airport tax that Canadians pay on their flights. There are many airlines to choose from including RyanAir, EasyJet, etc… which are no-frills airlines that would cost you anywhere from $25 to $100 with return flight. Again, this would depend on the destination. One of my friends was determined to fly with RyanAir only when they had the 1 Euro flights!!! He managed to travel for less than $1,000 for the whole 4 months!
3) New Experiences: Anytime you travel you have new experiences like hiking through rainforest or jet skiing, however when you live in a new place you get memories unlike anything else. While being in Milan, I along with some of my friends had the fortune or misfortune to fall in love. Now, there are summer flings which I never experienced before but there is something special when you travel and live with someone you just met and life is very easy. Until of course you have to go home. However, when else would you have the opportunity to change who you are and be carefree.
4) Language: I got to learn a bit of Italian while living there but only the basics like how do I get to the train station, how to order food and what to say in case of an emergency. I never thought it would come in handy, but it was not until I was in Argentina where most people do not speak English that I found that my Italian saved me (more than once). And besides, what is more fun than swearing in a new language with hand gestures and everything!
5) Friends: This goes without saying, but I have met some amazing people while living in Milan and I have acquired amazing stories from both locals and other foreign students. I met a flight attendant from Al Italia who taught me about aircrafts, a woman from the Versace family, a Sicilian philosopher who made the best risotto, a crazy American who almost sold his two fellow American blond girls to a guy in Morocco for 50 sheep, and last but not least my former roommate whom I am still friends with and who was like family while living there!
I would not trade my time abroad for anything, and my only regret is that I did not take a loan or figured a way to finance my exchange while doing my undergrad degree. For those that are going on exchange, I have created an App which helps you keep track of all the stuff you have to do prior to departure and while you are there because after 5 years I cannot remember my local coffee shop’s name!