I’ve never regretted my decision to study abroad

The United Kingdom seemed the beacon of opportunity for me when I graduated from the Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School five years ago — or at least an exciting change.

Brittany Kennedy on graduation day at St. Andrews.

Brittany Kennedy on graduation day at St. Andrews.

The United Kingdom seemed the beacon of opportunity for me when I graduated from the Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School five years ago — or at least an exciting change.

I loved high school — seeing your best friends every day, the boys, the field trips, sports, social events and fundraisers, fabulous teachers, even the academic stuff — but I knew there was a bigger picture out there and I wanted to go on an adventure to find it.

Making decisions at that stage is terrifying. You have college applications looming and offers in the waiting, scholarships complicating your selection process, programs and classes to select, countries to research and visas to apply for if you wish to go abroad.

Huge decisions when all you want to think about is your graduation outfit, the perfect ride to turn up in and how to stick to the gym routine that will make said graduation outfit look great.

Sometimes, a little luck is useful. I first came across the University of St. Andrews when I was surfing the Internet for scholarship offers. I wasn’t even looking for a college in the U.K. at that point. ‘Canadian Entrance Scholarship’ popped up on Google with details of the university below it.

St. Andrews? I knew Prince William went there but that was the extent of my knowledge.

It’s the third oldest university in the U.K., based in a coastal town with cobbled streets and stunning views over Scotland’s North Sea, historic pilgrimage site and has quintessential British sport and student societies — the pieces were starting to come together and the result was definitely looking like an adventure.

I’m not alone in my attraction to the U.K. Statistics from the British Home Office consistently show a significant increase in visa applications from Canada between July and September every year. Of 10,690 visas issued in 2009, a remarkable 5,220 were processed in the third quarter between the summer and the fall, coinciding with the period immediately following high school graduations. The 2010 figures followed the same pattern with 5,590 Canadians granted entrance visas in the year’s third quarter.

However, the process is no walk in the park. My fantasy nearly caved as badly as St. Andrews’ historic castle when I saw the tuition fees. But I hid the phone, shut down any instant messaging programs and focused on pouring my soul into the school’s scholarship applications.

It paid off with a conditional $32,000 scholarship. At that stage, even the hunt for the graduation day heels was less important than getting the grades they required. So when my results came through in August and confirmed that I had made the mark, I was a teary-eyed, elated and confused mess.

It was so satisfying knowing I had successfully completed a huge stage in my life, but suddenly I had just six weeks to say goodbye to the friends and family, pack up all the essentials for four years into one suitcase and a carry-on, convince my boyfriend at the time that long distance would be a piece of cake and hop on board a plane.

The excitement wore off and the fear settled in.

To this day, it is still the hardest decision I have ever made. But fate had laid the opportunity in front of me in the form of a neon sign saying GO, GO, GO.

I write my story today at my desk in the office of a popular women’s lifestyle magazine — in the U.K. I did not go running home and I never once regretted my decision to take my life on a course different from the norm.

I won’t suggest there were no hiccups in my journey. Nearly two days of delayed flights later, I distinctly remember the moment in September of 2006 during which I stood before my university hall for the first time. The concept of thousands of new people was stomach-turning.

I smile at the memory now because it is five years later and I have since learned to not only walk into a room full of of strangers, but to stand in front of them and give a presentation. It is remarkable to reflect on the beginning of my journey because it is was so recent in the grand scheme of things, but the concentration of learning experiences and lifestyle adaptations I embraced means I really am a different person today.

I knew what I wanted to do when left school — I loved writing and felt I had a knack for it. So an English degree from one of the world’s top-tier universities, several fortunate crossings with knowledgeable professors and wonderful new friends and quite a lot of hard work later, I’m on the cusp of achieving everything that felt a century away in my 17-year-old shoes in 2006.

It is true that controversial news is hitting the media about changes proposed by the U.K.’s new coalition government. New university students will discover rising tuition fees in 2012 in England and these are likely to follow in Scotland in coming years.

There is also a possibility of a reduction in the post-studies period during which international graduates can secure a job, and remain in the U.K.

A Home Office representative from the U.K. Border Agency said the post-studies restrictions were put forward as part of a visa consultation: “The consultation has now closed and we will be announcing the results in the coming weeks.”

However, few countries can deny economic fluctuations and changes are always being undone and re-addressed around the world. With a little faith and perseverance, there really is no reason young people can’t overcome challenges in the system.

That’s exactly what British Columbia-born doctor-wannabe Emily Sehmer did before she settled on moving to the U.K. for a medicine course in Manchester. “I chose the U.K. as you can’t go straight into medicine in Canada, and even after doing an undergrad degree, it is almost impossible to get in until doing a masters and goodness knows what else,” Sehmer said, “though I’ve missed home a lot and all the amazing perks of living in Canada.”

I can vouch for improvements to this issue having discovered a Canadian pub called the Maple Leaf in central London — how I’ve missed you, NHL!

But the U.K. is only one of many possibilities available to today’s high school graduates. With Go Global programs at Canadian institutions allowing students to experience a different culture for a year or semester, scholarships being made available for students who wish to study permanently at an international college, or even the opportunity to call on a dual citizenship opportunity for those lucky enough to have relations in other countries, a little research can go a long way in securing an interesting career and life course.

High school graduates who really don’t know what to do can also rest in the reassurance that it is entirely commonplace in many countries for students to take what is called a “gap year.” The concept is catching on, with companies like SWAP helping Canadians secure working visas, accommodation and safe travel arrangements to live and work abroad. So those stressing about niggling application deadlines might consider taking a year off to try something entirely different.

Brittany Kennedy grew up in Red Deer and graduated from Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School.