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Alessia from Italy has spent the last year in England on our College Select programme at Weymouth College on the South coast. Read Alessia’s story about her exchange in England.
I’ve been in England for 9 months now and I consider the life I’ve been living here as important as my life back in Italy. Every experience, new friendship, place has given me memories that won’t be forgotten.
Everything started more or less a year ago, when, coming out of the blue, I told my parents I wanted to go abroad for a year. I’ve always been interested in travelling and I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity of going on holiday to a different country every year, but this time I wanted to have time to actually fully experience a new culture so that it could become part of me.
When my parents saw I was being serious about this new idea that had come up in my mind, they supported and helped me from the beginning. They were as excited as me about it and I didn’t need to convince them, they already were.
November last year I went to Turin to meet for the first time a member of the organization I had carefully chosen. The meeting worked out really well, I was more convinced than ever and I was already considering where to go. To be honest, I was really attracted to Canada but after few thoughtful considerations, England resulted to be the best choice: not too far (I had never been on a plane before), ‘original’ British English, beautiful places and strong culture.
It was hard to contain the excitement and my mind couldn’t stop thinking about the actual possibility of leaving home for an entire year.
My organization requires an English and a psychological test before the application, so another day later on in December I went back to Turin to attend the tests (which I reckon sound really scary but it makes you feel like the organization is actually taking care of you by testing if you’re ready for such a changing experience). I did fine in the English exam, which by the way was a really genuine interview about interests/hobbies/school and family, and whilst waiting to get into the room for the psychological exam I had a sigh of relief because I was really sure about my decision of leaving and I though it would be clear to the psychologist. Unfortunately, during the interview an unexpected problem came up: I’ve never been much of an eater (I used to have really picky tastes) and apparently that could be a problem in the new country (different cuisine and food). I remember wondering around Turin with my mum afterwards: I was mad at myself because I didn’t want my tastes in food to stop me from having such an important experience and while such a storm was bursting inside me, everything surrounding me looked happy and joyful with tonnes of Christmas lights and people happily coming in and out shops with their hands full of presents.
The results from the tests arrived by mail few weeks later: I had been accepted!
The tiny bit of hope left at the bottom of my heart had grown bigger again and as soon as possible I started filling all the documents necessary (health information along with more personal details so that I could be matched with the family most similar to me). By that time, I had already chosen where I would go: a lovely touristy town by the sea called Weymouth. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now say I made a really good decision. After nine months, every day on my way to college I still look around me amazed by the beauty of the place as much as I was the first day I arrived here.
The first time I actually realised that the idea I had in September was becoming reality was when, as a Christmas present, my grandad gave me an envelope with British pounds and notes in it. The thought of what that money meant pleasingly hit me in the face. I remember everything about that moment: what I was wearing, who was around me, the Christmas decorations on the walls… that’s one of those memories that I can vividly re-play over and over again in my mind without getting boring because the amazing feeling of surprise and happiness is still there every time.
From January to June I tried to ‘forget’ about my future experience so I could focus on school: when it finally ended, I only had the best in front of me! Holidays and then my departure in August. I didn’t know that two months could actually last that long. Thinking about those now, I recognise they’ve been the slowest and quickest two months of my life. They seemed ages at the time but some how the time to leave came in a second. A lot of people think that leaving is the hardest bit: a lot of goodbyes of course but with the most exciting experience just waiting for you to live it; new country, place, people, school, language and friends. I wish I could live that moment again: shivers of excitement running up the back and still not realizing what is actually happening not even when you’re saying the last goodbye and stepping on the plane…
…and that’s only the first of an infinite queue of such powerful moments that I’ve lived throughout this amazing year.
I’ll be honest: the life of an exchange student has ups and downs as any other. I’d been warned before my departure that there was the possibility of feeling confused, alone or even homesick for the first few months and over Christmas especially. I was really lucky because since the first day I felt home and my host family welcomed me as an actual new member. Weirdly enough though, until January I felt like time was flying too fast and, at the back of my mind, I would have this unpleasant thought of an upcoming return. As soon as February started, I learnt to fully enjoy the experience because that had become my actual and ‘only’ life. The only links I had with Italy were the few calls with family and friends.
School started, the first few friendships had been built and life became a sequence of new habits I got used to. Right now, while I’m writing, I feel sad knowing that all those habits won’t be part of my life anymore: being interrupted by the screams of the seagulls during lesson, finding out every morning on my way to college a new colour the sea can possibly look like, meet up in the canteen with all the exchange for the lunch break (when we still were that lost that couldn’t stay on our own in college) and going back home and having a nice chat with my host mum.
College life is completely different from my school life back in Italy: first of all, you can basically choose any subjects you fancy (no more than 4) and the lessons are spread throughout the day so that there’s a mixture of free periods (where you can either go home or study at school) and lessons. Even the teaching methods differentiate. Here in England the lesson is a dialogue between students and teachers (in Italy most of the times students only take notes) and more important than knowing the theory is the ability of working on data/theories to reach our own conclusions and thoughts. At the beginning it was hard to work in this way and it took me some time to get used to it but now I really appreciate this method and I think it’s given me skills that I’ll bring back to Italy with me. Weymouth college offers also activities such as fashion/performing art shows, meeting with experts and there’s even a counselling service for students. In addition to normal lessons there’s ‘Tutorial’ which is where our tutor has a chat (even 1:1) with us students about how we’re going on with our school work but also about global issues such as cancer awareness, abuse or tolerance. What I like the most of my college experience is how everyone (from stuff to teachers) is interested in our well-being and growth.
I’ve been really like because since the first days I’ve got on really well with my host family with which I do a lot of activities. They always invite me to anything they’re doing and I’m considered as an actual member of the family. My host mum is someone I rely on here in England and I think we have a really nice friendship that I’m sure will last even after I left.
At first I was worried because there were a lot of other Italian exchanges and it seemed to me impossible and rude not to hang out with them but when I realised that I was there to get to know new people and culture I had the force to split from our ‘Italian group’ and I actually started learning English and knowing new people. I have to admit though that the closest friend I have here is Italian (we agreed from the beginning to speak in English only): we’ve got closer day after day, we spent all our time together and it was amazing but it became perfect when we learnt how to remain that close even if having different English friends and not being together every day.
Speaking of English friends, I’d been worrying a lot because I didn’t have any of them till March and I felt like my experience of the place and of the year abroad was missing something. Then, I gradually stopped spending all my time with the exchange students (which by the way I’m really happy of, we’ve been an amazing group from the beginning and they’re still part of my everyday life with all their different cultures and accents). When I started spending time with those who are now my English friends, I’ve met a lot of new other people and I’m now always around them. They’re great and they make me feel like even though I’ll soon go back to Italy, I’ll always be linked to this amazing life I’ve had the fortune to live. I’ve learnt so much from them as well: local slang, local curiosities, new places and traditional British habits. They completed my experience here and after all this time they still show interest in my country and culture so much so every day that goes by we learn and surprise each other with our differences.
Throughout this year I had the chance to visit many places which I’ve always been to with my exchange friends: I’ll miss being on a train so often, the feeling of curiosity just before coming out the train station and the indescribable view of the Jurassic Coastline (south England). It’s amazing how different cities and town are compared to what I’m used to back in Italy. The first trip ever was in September when, instead of going directly to Weymouth, I decided to join the Ministay in London with my organisation. Those first five days were a great start to my one-year-long journey and allowed me to have a proper and well-organised visit of the capital. Because I had had such a good impression of the London trip, later on in February I took part in the Dublin tour as well. It had been quite hard to organize the travel to Ireland (each participant had to manage its own flight/train/bus), but once arrived there everything had been prepared by the organization. I had three days of pure fun: every day we had few activities to do (e.g. bus tour, museums, dinner out….) and the rest of the day was free time, thing that I appreciated a lot because when still in Weymouth I had done few researches about things to do in Dublin and because of the free time given I could freely walk around the city centre and visit what I was interested in. Even there I made new friends who I still talk to.
Talking foodwise, since I’m here I’ve been eating more or less everything I’ve had the chance to try and I’ve discovered that I actually like a lot of new and different dishes that back in Italy I would refuse to eat. Fish and chips, cookies, pasties, sausage rolls, Yorkshire puddings, and the amazing roast dinner needed to be mentioned! One of the first things I’ll do as soon as I’ll be back to Italy is cooking a proper roast dinner for my family (I’m definitely bringing some Gravy powder home so that I can enjoy it even though in Italy).
This year has definitely changed me: I’ve lost a bit of my shyness, I’ve learnt so many new things and experienced something that I could have never experienced staying in Italy. Because I have such a strong friendship with the exchange students, I like to define my life here like ‘at the centre of the world’ where different cultures meet and confront each other. That’s one of the reasons why going back will be so hard: I’ll lose this variegate source of cultures to return to the only Italian way of thinking.
To those who are about to live I want to suggest not to create expectations about your future year so that you’ll arrive there open to whatever is offered you and ready to adapt yourself to any situation. That’s what my dad told me before I left and even though I would try to image how my life would be here, I wasn’t expecting anything and when my life in England begun nothing had been taken for guaranteed so that even the tiniest thing was a pure joy and surprise. Also, take every single opportunity and try everything without letting the shyness stop you.
Since the first day I stuck with the habit of writing in a few words what I’d done: the result of it nowadays is a tiny diary that reports all the activities and special occasions I’ve lived throughout this year. I think it is a nice memory to have when I’ll be back in Italy.
With less than a month from my departure, I’m enjoying every day I’ve got left as much as possible, spending time with friends and host family and travelling around to those places I haven’t seen yet. It just doesn’t seem real that I’m actually leaving this place.
Of one thing I’m 100% sure about: England will always be part of me as much as it’s my second life, family, country.