Why Going Abroad Helped Me Become a Home Body

“Do you feel the pressure to get married?”

In the midst of conversation and catch-up on Christmas night, my cousin had turned to me and asked me this, as we are both in the 20 to 30 somethings’ singles boat. I remember giving her a very fabricated answer, saying how happy I was for my family and friends who just got engaged during the holidays, and that I’m just focusing on my life, goals and dreams, etc. However, I think I was actually trying really hard to bite my tongue to avoid responding: DEAR GOD, YES!

This didn’t hit me until this past summer when two of my closest girlfriends married their partners. I was a bridesmaid for both weddings, and I cried like a baby for both weddings. They found incredible men who complimented them, who inspired them to learn more about themselves, and who truly taught them not only the definition of unconditional love, but also the values of patience, respect and compassion.

In the midst of these two weddings I definitely felt panic. I felt the sudden urge to catch up, to settle down in one place and become part of the growing trend that I was seeing take place on Facebook and Instagram. The panic resurfaces from time to time when another friend announces they’re engaged, or when a cousin tells me they have bought a house with their partner. It’s tough watching people move on and start lives without you. I always feel like I’m at a standstill while everyone else is moving forward in some way. Then the panic subsides when I realized that I’m in another country and have another year of my Masters to complete.

Watching the fireworks show ‘Wishes’ at Magic Kingdom with my roommates.

Reflecting back I reminded myself that I really couldn’t settle down. I always had this urge to be somewhere else. Ever since I visited Walt Disney World when I was 9 years-old I was always curious about working there. I thought it would be a dream come true if one day I could work for the Mouse. In 2009 my cousin Stephanie took the opportunity of a lifetime and worked for the parks in Florida for a summer. I knew after I heard her stories and saw her pictures standing in front of Cinderella’s castle with her Minnie ears that this was something I wanted so badly to do. My heart was set on it, from writing the application for the summer college program of 2010 and soaring through both the phone and group interviews with flying colours, I received an e-mail in due course saying I had gotten a position in Attractions. Little did I know that this was the job that would change the next six years of my life.

I found after arriving in Florida that living away from home wasn’t the easiest. At the age of 21 I was only now learning how to do my laundry and cook a decent meal for myself. I was also becoming responsible for keeping my job for the summer where I worked at The Seas with Nemo and Friends in Epcot. It was incredibly tough at first as there was so much to learn in such a short period of time, but before I knew it I had gradually gotten used to the random hours, the Florida heat, and the bus trips to Walmart for groceries (along with ordering Pizza Hut every fortnight). I also had the support of three amazing roommates, and in no time made wonderful friends at my job, who came from all over the world.

Birthday dinner for Kristen at Jellyrolls with the Seas gang.

By the end of the trip I was incredibly sad and didn’t want to leave. I did everything in my power to return back to Orlando every 6 months to visit my friends again. Whenever I went back I became incredibly nostalgic — even hearing the Finding Nemo soundtrack still brings tears to my eyes when I hear it. I was seriously considering moving to Orlando at one point to work for the parks again. How awesome would it have been spend the rest of my life working in the parks, going to the parks, then when I die, spreading my ashes in the Haunted Mansion ride? Google it — it’s a thing.

Performing a dance drama at one of the neighbouring villages.

However, because this part of my life was right in the middle of my undergrad it was time for me to grow up and choose the next adventure. I decided to pursue an international placement for my Bachelors of Social Work degree at Ryerson and chose to go to Ghana, Africa to work with the Sankofa Center for three and a half months in 2013. This was probably the most adventurous summer of my life. According to their Mission: “The Sankofa Center has empowered people to change lives and foster healthy behaviours to prevent, detect, and treat HIV/AIDS. We do this through utilizing traditional African dance & drama fused with health information to educate people of all ages in Ghana”. Although this would be incredibly out of my comfort zone I love bringing art and creativity into social work. We spent hours in the hot sun with our drumming troop, practising the dances and dance dramas barefoot and performed them for locals to help grab their attention, and to inform them about real-life scenarios where they could contract HIV. We studied and presented information about HIV/AIDs detection and prevention and presented this to children in neighbouring schools. The experience taught me how little I knew about this virus, and how much stigma that even I had attached to it.

Hanging by the palm trees at Cape Coast.

Our weeks were filled with these presentations… and our weekends were packed with adventures! Every weekend of the first month I spent my weekends by the ocean, enjoying beaches like Kokrobite and Cape Coast. We’d enjoy Star beer and take walks on the shore at night, feeling the salty air hit our lungs with every splash of the waves. We’d meet locals and other international students at the resorts and danced the night away together under the moon light to Ghanaian and Nigerian music. Some days were quiet where we’d stay in and spend time with our neighbours, swapping stories about cultural differences, and sharing meals like banku, fufu, and yams. On my birthday our supervisor even took us for kenkey and pepper pork in the district Osu, then soft served ice cream and salsa dancing after — probably my best birthday ever!

Quizzing the children on the knowledge we just taught them in a school in Ghana.

Then there was a period where I was alone. All the other placement students had left and I was the only one working under my practice teacher. These days were challenging, especially when I ran the program on my own. It tested my patience and understanding of how differently the concept of time worked in another country, as in Ghana there was no sense of time! The heat this time of year was also at its most unbareable with “lights out” — where all electricity was turned off in certain areas in the city in order to conserve it, ranging from a few hours to a few days. This became difficult at times with projects due and not having the internet available to complete them. However, I made the most of my time by hanging out on weekends with the drumming troop, going to weddings, birthday parties, or just swinging by for some home-cooked meals. In the last leg of my trip I had made so many memories, from singing in a jazz bar to climbing one of the tallest mountains in Ghana, to riding on the back of a pick up truck for the first time ever.

Taking a jumping picture with my seventh husband (just kidding) before climbing the tallest mountain in Ghana.

And then I came home that summer and I was restless all over again. I remember walking into my room and having it feel bigger than the room I shared with five other volunteers. The city was so loud and busy, and I just wanted to hide underneath the covers. I didn’t want to face the reality that I was home. For weeks I began to plot: where to next? Then, I remember near the end of my trip I discussed how I would love to practice social work in another part of the world. And while I was in Ghana a friend inspired me to consider pursuing my Masters of Social Work the U.K.

Deciding to go to the U.K. was a huge step for me. This wasn’t going to just be three months of my life like my other two adventures… it was going to be three years of my life. This was the longest I would ever be away from home. I tried my luck and applied for four different schools, but I had my eye on Edinburgh. The program and the location were perfect, and when I got accepted I was over the moon! I called my best friend first, in tears, part in disbelief and part in shock. I was going to be away again and she was convinced that I was not meant to live in Toronto… At the time part of me wondered if that was true.

After months of visa struggles, packing, and preparing for my biggest life changing experience, I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland in 2014. Having reluctantly chose to stay in a residence my first year, it ended up being the best decision I could make. We had two lovely Resident Assistant’s (RA’s) who made sure we received the full experience. They held events on our residence and out in Edinburgh, and gave us plenty of opportunities to get to know one another and make lasting friendships. Within a month I was exploring the city. We chose our “local”, The Old Bell, where we spent our Friday nights after long weeks of classes and essay writing. It had a cozy feel like you were sitting on a leather sofa in your own living room enjoying a pint, and provided enough ambiance for one to turn to your neighbour and strike up a conversation. We went and saw live Scottish music being performed by just one man, a guitar and his voice, while another kept harmony, and the rest of the pub sang along. I climbed up Arthur’s Seat at least five times, and feeling that cool breeze after such a strenuous hike is still probably one of my favourite feelings. But the greatest memories I ever had my first year in Edinburgh were spending time with my friends in my residence. We cooked meals together, watched films, had library dates — we became a family.

The night I made dinner for Abby, Adrian, Alexis, Charlie, Stephen and Susanne at my first residence in Ratcliffe Terrace.

Once again I remember coming home that summer after my first year and felt Toronto wasn’t where I wanted to be. I was hinting at my parents that I was considering staying in Edinburgh. They smiled and laughed nervously, but I could tell on the inside that they knew I was serious, and it definitely worried them. I was even hinting it at other family members and friends, some looked sad that this could possibly be my final decision. However, when I returned to continue my second year that was when things went downhill. As I mentioned in a previous post, my first placement wasn’t the best experience, and by the end of summer 2015 I was told that I had failed. This was super difficult to hear at the time, but as my previous post explained, after so much sweat, blood and tears I figured myself out and I learned my lessons (16 to be exact) to bring myself to where I am today. So… where in the world is Jaclyn Scheffer today, you ask?

Edinburgh Christmas Market — taken by Alexis.

I am finishing up my last year in Edinburgh and I have five months left in my program; it’s the home stretch. I can’t believe how fast this journey is coming to a close. And after six years of traveling and staying abroad, at the age of 27 years-old I am ready to settle down, and no this doesn’t mean get married and have children… I want stability. I want to be in one place, be with my family, find a job I love (and continue my side projects), and build a home, on my own, or with someone if life allows it. After reading through all my adventures you probably think that I am a fool. You probably think that I am already living the dream and that staying in Edinburgh means that the rest of Europe is my own backyard. Friends it has been fun, but it has also been tiring. And let’s be honest — Edinburgh was never my home. Neither was Ghana, or Florida, but they both also hold huge chunks of my heart, always.

So, here’s how being abroad on and off for nearly seven years changed my life:

  1. It made me grow up over night. There’s so much that I learned about myself from being abroad, but how sad was it that at the age of twenty-one I didn’t know what colours needed to be separated before doing my laundry? When you’re on your own you can only rely on yourself and that means thinking ahead for yourself as well in terms of meals, money, and responsibility. This took time and practice, and I’m still having struggles with it now, but I can definitely say being abroad has truly helped my growth and independence.
  2. It made me brave. I think every trip I’ve ever done I have always done at least one thing that scares me. I don’t know what it is about doing something daring in another country or city, but it’s definitely a lot more exciting. I openly encourage anyone to pet an alligator, or sing at a jazz bar, or to climb mountains when they can’t even be 5 feet off the ground without feeling faint!
  3. It opened my mind. I realized having lived in these three places that they’re ALL incredibly different. From culture, to lifestyle choices, to attitudes… it has been a learning experience just speaking to locals about the way they live their lives. It also made me open to learning from one another, and that I am no expert in the way that life is meant to be lived. We can all take something away from having simple exchanges with one another.
  4. It made me LOVE food. Every time I go to a new city or country my first thought is: WHAT AM I GOING TO EAT? I love trying new food, no matter what it is! Even writing about the different food experiences I had in Ghana made me remember the tastes, smells and textures of everything I ate on that trip. Some people aren’t able to be as adventurous with their food, but if you are then please go somewhere new and eat ALL the food! You will never look back.
  5. It made me appreciate home. Don’t get me wrong, I was always eager to leave Toronto again for my next adventure, but nothing beats the feeling of being in my own bed. The feeling of coming downstairs and seeing your mother’s home cooked meal on the living room table. And most importantly, spending quality time with your family and loved ones. I hold on to those moments now with all my heart.
Toronto, Summer 2015.

Even with rush hour in the subways, the congestion, and the hoards of people I run into day to day, I learned over time that Toronto will always be my home. I am excited to go back and start a life, and having had all that experience abroad I can say that my travel bug is being put to rest… for now. And that maybe someday there will besomeone I can continue to explore the world with. This isn’t the end of my adventure, friends — it’s only the beginning.

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