Returning to Canada: Catching Up After a Gap Year

Carmen in San Francisco, at the Golden Gate Bridge.I first interviewed Carmen Graves when she and I met at a language school in Madrid on an intensive academic year-long Spanish program. At the time, Carmen was using the experience to study at the school’s three centers around Spain as a gap year abroad between finishing her high school degree and starting university back in her home country of Canada. Carmen began her year in Madrid. She then traveled the Iberian peninsula for three-month-long stints in Málaga and Barcelona.

Catching Up After Carmen’s Gap Year

Close to the end of her gap year experience, I spoke with Carmen to see what she’d learned and gained from her year abroad in Spain and how she anticipated it would impact her moving forward. Over a year has passed since then. Carmen is now living back in Canada and working towards her bachelor’s degree. She is currently a sophomore at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and is double majoring in Actuarial Science and Economics. Recently, Carmen and I spoke again so she could share some updates with Dreams Abroad. Read on to see what has been going on in her life since her return to Canada.

What have you been up to since moving back to Canada?

“Once I arrived back in Canada, I moved halfway across the country to attend Dalhousie University on the East Coast. I originally started pursuing a degree in Actuarial Science — a branch of Math focusing on risk assessment — but I quickly added another major in Economics. To date, I have thoroughly enjoyed my courses as well as other aspects of university life. I’ve been spending time with my friends, exploring the city, and taking on leadership roles where I have the opportunity to advocate for my peers.”

Carmen and her university friends posing on a dock next to a lake after her gap year.

What was it like returning to Canada after a gap year in Spain?

“It was a bittersweet experience. I would have been happy to stay in Spain forever, but I also missed real maple syrup. It helped that I was moving on to a new chapter in my life starting university. University was something I had always been excited about. 

When I got back, it was a challenge to find a balance between sharing my experiences and not falling into the ‘I studied abroad’ stereotype.”

Carmen in the snow after her gap year.

How do you think taking a gap year influenced or changed your first year in university?

“It was a huge influence. Living independently in a different country really prepared me to adapt to a new city and a new student lifestyle. I also learned how to manage myself and my time in a way that I had not learned right out of high school. In addition, I was also excited to throw myself into new opportunities, such as taking on roles in student leadership, to keep challenging myself now that I was back in Canada.”

How did your experience shift as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

“It has definitely been an interesting time. A positive effect has been that I moved back home with my family. I hadn’t really planned on moving back. Fortunately, that means that I have spent some quality time with them which would not otherwise have been possible.

Carmen remote learning on a pink swing chair outside.

Unfortunately, I had planned another study abroad experience in Australia for the Fall Term, which now won’t take place. It has made me incredibly grateful that I had my time in Spain. I took advantage of every opportunity to travel when I was there.”

How has the remote start to your second year been so far?

“It has been better than expected. Fortunately, I study math. The transition to online delivery of content has not been as difficult as some other fields of study. The biggest challenge has been connecting with other students and faculty while I am almost 2,000 km away from my university.”

You’ve had a number of experiences abroad even before starting your university degree. How do you think students today can engage the world even if they can’t study abroad?

“I think the most valuable thing I got out of my experiences abroad was connecting with people from different cultures with different perspectives and experiences. There are plenty of opportunities to meet people across the world, whether traveling once it’s possible again or engaging with people online. Platforms that facilitate these connections continue to grow in number.”

Carmen posing with pumpkins after her gap year.

What is on the horizon for you now? And where would you next love to go when we’re all able to travel again?

“Despite my university study abroad being canceled, I would still love to go to Australia. Once travel opens back up, I would also like to prioritize trips where I can visit the friends I made during my study abroad experience in Spain. In the longer term, I would love to work abroad.”

Carmen posing with her university friends one night.

Filling in the Gaps

Since finishing her gap year in Spain, a lot has happened in Carmen’s life. She has moved back to her home country of Canada. Almost immediately thereafter, she moved across the country from the Toronto area to Halifax to pursue her university degree. She then had the second semester of her first year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Carmen started her second year of university remotely from her family home. Nonetheless, she’s taken it all in stride — something surely attributable in large part to the skill set living abroad helped her to build.

Through the unexpected twists and turns this year has taken for all of us, Carmen has been able to draw upon her certainty of self to move forward and persevere. She’s been able to thrive through a very unconventional beginning to her undergraduate career because living abroad prepared her for the unexpected and uncomfortable. And like a true expat, she hopes to be able to travel again very soon.

by Emma Schultz