Five years ago, a very dear friend of mine called me to let me know she had filled out an application for me to study abroad and she wanted me to go over and finalize it. I agreed, thinking I probably wouldn’t get accepted. Couple of months later, I got accepted to study at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. — this was the first time I would be boarding a plane by myself, let alone spending an entire year away from my family.

I was nervous, scared, curious, and excited all at the same time. It started to really sink in when I was saying goodbye to my family at the airport. I promised myself I would start strong and wouldn’t cry. I remember thinking “this could either be really reaaaally good or really reaaaally bad”.

Looking back, my experience as an Exchange student and everything that followed afterwards was SO much better than I could have ever imagined. I’m grateful for all the life lessons in the past five years. That includes the obvious (yet equally important) benefits of living abroad and traveling such as the opportunity to experience beautiful parts of the world, indulge in different cultures, and meet amazing people of all backgrounds. But also some unexpected learnings that keeps me wanting more, and that’s what I wanted to share with you guys today.

  • Leaving my comfort zone raised my self-esteem enormously, knowing that I can live on my own and not just survive but flourish.
  • I gained a deeper appreciation for my life and the freedom I have to live it however I want. I think being grateful for what you have plays a major key in your overall happiness. I learned this by studying those who had a fraction of what I have, lead the simplest yet most beautiful lives that I had the privilege to encounter.
  • I learned that I need half of all the “things” that I had compiled over the years. It’s amazing to discover how little you need to live a perfectly comfortable life.
  • I learned about a new side of me that came out once I left behind everyone and everything I had known. I’ve always been a very social person and very rarely did I ever do things alone. Psychologists say that you are the average of the 5 people you most hang out with. So once I left my people, this side of me came out that was so honest and genuinely me that it was a brilliant surprise even to myself.
  • Being my most honest self helped me reach out to like-minded people who shared the same values as me. This enriched my abroad experience even more and gave me an incredible sense of belonging like I was part of an international family of young travellers with little money, lots of time, and one goal of exploring as much of the world as we possibly can.
  • And last but not least, I learned to be more flexible and not care too much about the little things that don’t work out the way I want them to. This helped me realize my potential in what I can handle, and learn to accept what I cannot change. And this was one of the most valuable learnings from my year-abroad because it showed me that life is so much more fun when you live it spontaneously.
Goodbyes at the airport. You can’t tell by my face but I was so nervous here. I remember looking at my mom and sister and thinking “are these really going to be the last moments I have with you until next year?!” When we finally said our last goodbye and I had to go through security, I couldn’t look back at them because I knew I would ugly cry. I will never forget how scared and unsure of my decision I was at that exact moment.
My second room at the University of Nottingham: #115 on Northeast Wing of Nightingale Hall. I spent a week in a different hall with other Exchange students who were invited to get to know the university before all other students arrived. I got to the campus on a cold stormy night at 10pm. The wind was strong and the campus was barely lit. Another student showed me to my room which was on the ground floor with bars over the tiny window that opened up to the courtyard. I felt so alone. I didn’t want to call my family and worry them. I sat on my bed and finally let out that ugly cry I’d been holding in for hours. Fast forward a week later, I was given this beautiful room with floor to ceiling windows that faced the sun ALL DAY! For a big sun baby like me this was a sign from universe that everything was going to be okay incredible!
My second week in Nottingham was spent socializing, getting to know these lovely people, and trying to keep up with them while drinking (I failed). All universities in England have a week long Fresher’s Week (I know, so unfair compared to the half day “Imagine Day” at UBC where we basically walk around and sign up for clubs). Fresher’s Week is designed for students to settle in and get to know each other. The university plans an entire week of socials, club nights, pub crawls, etc. and all students go out for 7 nights straight! All students but me, who had to take Wednesday night off because I simply couldn’t bare the thought of having another drop of alcohol (until the next night that is). 
Northeast Winger’s first trip into town! This picture is from only a few days after we moved into Nightingale but everyone on my corridor had already formed a special place in my heart by that time. They were all so interesting to me – each one from a different part of England, with a completely different accent (which I understood 50-70% of). The Brits are incredibly welcoming and generous. Every time I felt home-sick, needed a place to stay between travels, or needed a weekend away from greasy hall food, someone was ALWAYS there to offer their home. I was always welcomed with a lovely dinner with the entire family, countless choices of drinks, and often questions about the history of Iran (which overtime, I learned to study before meeting a new family).
Learning about new cultures: Halloween in England = you try and look scary, not slutty as we do in North America. I didn’t get the memo until after I had gotten dressed and came downstairs. (ps – I’m a Hillbilly biker girl, can’t you tell?! 😉 there’s a picture of my “costume” on my Instagram if anyone is curious to see!)

First sights of London and we were lucky enough to have sunny skies the entire weekend! I made a new travel buddy and she’s taught me sooo much since. Pia is from Australia and I am SO excited to explore a different part of the world with her. She is incredibly patient and easy-going, and it didn’t hurt that London is her favourite city to be a tourist in. She always sees the beauty in everything. The best example I can give you is when we had to take the tube during rush hour. Everyone was plugged into their devices, rushing to get home while nudging others out of their way. And then there was Pia, getting shoved and squished between the crowd, all while smiling and asking me “how cool and convenient is the tube?! Think about how fast we’re moving under London!” I thought of this moment every time I took the tube after that.

Dublin with Pia and Matt! A memorable trip where I learned how cheap it really is to travel in Europe (£45 return ticket from Nottingham!). I will never forget the night when these gems walked all over Dublin with me looking for Vietnamese food (my favourite cuisine which I only crave every week…).

Ever since watching the first episode of f.r.i.e.n.d.s, I’ve always dreamed of being a part of a group who become each other’s family. Living in Nottingham gave me that opportunity. We were a group of 10 explorers who loved nothing more than being outdoors. Rain or shine, we would always go for adventures. We also shared a love for music and dancing — Will, Ryan, and George all produced music and were amazing DJ’s which meant they always had the decks going and we were always dancing. Although we did lots of cool things, like music festivals and road trips all over England, my favourite time with them was when we were all in the same room together just hanging out (cheesy, I know. But I would honestly want to fast forward a night of seeing live gigs just so we could all go home for the “after-party,” play our own music, and dance the night away in our pjs). These f.r.i.e.n.d.s introduced me to a new, free-spirited, and care-free Sara that I did not know existed within me, and for that I am forever grateful.

A HUGE bonus of living in England was that I was only a 5 hour flight from Pedar (meaning dad in Farsi). These pictures are from the first time I visited Iran. We went on a road trip to Aleshtar, a small village located in Zagros Mountain ranges in Lorestan Province. Aleshtar is a very small village with no accommodation for tourists (probably because we were the first ones), but the people took us in like we were family. I am not exaggerating when I say they stayed with their neighbours so we could have their entire house for the night! Afterwards we went for a walk around the village with these sweet kiddos you see in the pictures. It was so special to spend those precious hours with them and get inside their little heads. I love full on conversations with kids because they’re so pure and honest. 

I’ll leave you with a question my dad and I discussed on our drive back: if you were to take away all belongings, wealth and status from birth — would we all be the same?


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