Should I stay, or should I go?

If you’re prepping for university — or getting a head-start on the process — it’s likely that you’ve asked yourself whether you should go to school abroad. And it’s a valid question.

Back in the Stone Age, when I was choosing my course of study, I made the decision to pack up, ship out and not look back for four years. While the thought of leaving home may fill some of you with dread, I still count my choice as the best I’ve ever made. Here’s why.

I learned how to be independent

Resident assistants and mother-hen types aside, university in another country forces you to grow up very quickly. Can’t cook? Learn, or starve. Shy? Too bad — friends are essential to surviving university.

At school in Montreal, I had to hack public transport, find classes at several campus buildings across the city, learn another language, feed myself, and figure out how to layer my clothing so that I wouldn’t freeze to death.

Rather than find this intimidating, I embraced it. It required me to dig within myself to get over one of my biggest fears: the fear of uncertainty.

So when I had my first French conversation with a bus driver on my way back to my first apartment in the middle of a blizzard, I could pat myself on the back. Not bad for a newbie.

I learned how to interact with people from different cultures

I count this as the major advantage to eschewing local university. In an increasingly borderless world, employers are looking for people who embrace cultural diversity.

My school hosted students from every corner of the globe. In one group project, I worked with students from France, the U.K., the United Arab Emirates, India, and even a student from a native Canadian tribe. I had to learn how to pronounce names I’d never heard before, observe customs that I didn’t know existed and respect traditions from countries I’d never been to.

I developed social skills that still place me miles above my competition when I’m job-hunting, and (when combined with my sunny Trinidadian personality, of course) always made me one of the most popular students in every class. I’ve maintained lifelong bonds with friends from all over the world.

Bonus point: I now have couches to crash on should I ever decide to travel to Toronto, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Paris, Vancouver or Cape Town.

I learned how to manage money

You know what’s tough? Having a lump sum sitting in your bank account and resisting all urges to go on a shopping spree.

Years of getting a daily allowance from my parents taught me absolutely nothing about money management. That’s a skill you learn when you have semester-long obligations and recurrent expenditures such as tuition, rent, utility bills, a meal plan, books and a winter wardrobe.

I also had to juggle all these fiscal responsibilities while making sure I had the funds to unwind — after all, university is notoriously stressful. When you’re living and going to school at home, your list of obligations tends to be shorter. But when you’re a foreign student, once the money’s run out, it’s gone. And good luck getting it back — international students have very few options for work.

I knew that if I didn’t learn this crucial skill — and fast — I could end up eating ramen noodles for months.

I learned who I truly was

There were minus 30°C days. There were group projects where I had to shoulder the lion’s share of work. There were times when I considered begging my parents to bring me home.

But I was determined to prove that I could handle serious responsibility solo. Tough situations like the ones I faced taught me what I was made of. Nothing could replace the sense of pride I felt when, term after term, I kept my GPA up and maintained a healthy school/life balance.

You know what feels better than getting an A? Getting an A when you’ve got to juggle a snoring roommate, a minuscule bank balance and seasonal affective disorder. Now that’s a real challenge.

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