Life in the Six

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Living in Toronto has been one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Its a diverse city with an abundance of culture, food, nightlife, attractions and hidden treasures, but it has also been a second home to me. Because of this, I want to not only talk about what makes life in the Six fantastic for anyone, but also what made Toronto special for me during my time there.

Location

I cannot communicate just how important where you live in Toronto is to your experience of it – living near wonderful restaurants, bars and public transport links makes all the difference when strolling outside means facing -40c and 20 inches of snow on the ground in the depths of the Canadian winter around early February!

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Walking to class in January and February often looked like this!

I lived in a shared apartment in a student housing building that also happened to double up as an Estonian cultural centre (I really can’t explain that one) in Downtown Toronto on Bloor-Spadina. Firstly it was what I, or indeed I think anyone, would call ‘a steal’ in terms of rent for Downtown or the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) – around $500 cheaper or more than the average per month – while secondly being on an intersection such as Bloor-Spadina placed me right in the heart of ‘The Annex’, a bustling student area of the city – similar to Fallowfield in Manchester.

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Bloor Street hosts hot dog stands (on the right) alongside a world famous shoe muesuem (on the left), whats not to love?

Bloor Street itself has also been dubbed Toronto’s ‘Cultural Corridor’ due to the sheer volume of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and niche artisan and ‘thrift’ stores, all designed for a student population on a budget in an otherwise expensive city. Also boosting the profile of Bloor-Spadina is its proximity to not one, but two Toronto Subway (TTC) stations, making it an ideal base to explore and navigate the city from as well shielding you from some of its pricier and wintery elements.

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I think I took this photo of the St. George campus as it was the first time no snow or ice had been on the ground since I’d been there as Winter turned to Spring!

Alongside all of this, and of course most importantly, my apartment building lay a short 5-10 minute walk from the University of Toronto (U of T) main Robarts Library and the downtown St. George Campus, although the exact time this journey took during much of my time in Toronto depended on the strength of the wind and the level of snow being blown in my eyes, ears and any other crevice of my body the weather found its way into.

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Robarts Library, where I’ll admit I spent more than one night typing away under the shadow of a deadline!

However for daily commutes, late night study sessions and last minute ‘I just woke up and class is in five minutes’ sprints to campus, living on Bloor-Spadina was ideal, allowing me to mostly move around the city on foot if I wanted to, a rarity in Canada and even in some parts of Toronto, liberating me to leave the Uber bills to nights out and days where the winter cold got the better of me.

Things you should, could and definitely will do

As I’ve already partially mentioned, my location in Toronto meant I was close to so much in the Six and I think that now qualifies me as a expert as to the ins and outs of what, as a student there, you should, could and definitely will do if you end up hopping over the Atlantic for exchange at U of T.

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The quirky wall murals and street art of Queen Street.

Bloor, as well as surrounding streets such as Queen, King, College, Harbord and Dundas West host a fantastic array of cheap eateries, attractions and spots for a memorable night out. My recommendation for an all out 24 hour tour of Toronto would be to start by going for breakfast or brunch at The Federal on Dundas West, before browsing various art, craft and music stores on Queen Street, hopping onto College in order to allow yourself to fall into the fantastic, hippie-style chaos of Kensington Market.

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The Federal – A breakfast and brunch heaven.

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The wonderfully bizzare entrance posts to Kensington Market.

Proceed then to pop into Papa Ceo’s on Harbord for a gloriously delicious and highly affordable Pizza experience for lunch, friendly staff thrown in, heading afterwards as the sun dips in the sky to the intimate and quirky ‘Red Room’ bar on Spadina to enjoy your favorite tipple (not neccessarily alcoholic!), finally finishing your whirlwind of a day by going long into the night within the confines of CODA on Bloor-Bathurst, or alternatively getting a good nights sleep.

Sports

So people that know me well, or indeed to any extent at all will gasp at the title of this section. Sports is usually my last port of call in life, understandbly if you’ve ever seen me play/attempt to play pretty much anything, however in Toronto you can’t help but be sucked into the reality that sports is a way of life, and I’m not just talking about Hockey!

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My first Varsity game at U of T, which fittingly we lost.

Firstly at U of T we have ‘Varsity’ level sports, where Universities from across Canada and the USA come to see what they’ve got against Toronto’s ‘Varsity Blues’, with games being free for current U of T students and heavily discounted for visiting family and friends; I attended Hockey and Basketball Varsity events during my time in Toronto but Swimming (Competitive and Sychronised), Water Polo, and I’m sure a million and one other events were also crammed into a single semester at U of T!

Varsity events are fantastic way to integrate yourself into life at U of T and into that of Toronto itself as the University, along with its younger downtown rival Ryerson University, go a long way to giving Downtown Toronto a student-heavy and busy atmosphere, dominating the cultural and demographic environment and forming a major component of life in the Six.

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I genuinely have no idea why I’m trying to be a pirate in this photo from a Blue Jays game?

Alongside Varisty sports at U of T, be sure to check out sports within Toronto itself; A Maple Leafs hockey game is obviously the golden ticket, but unfortunately it is quite literally that and so didn’t fit into my student budget. However, you can go see the MLB Toronto Blue Jays play baseball at the Rogers Centre (the big stadium next to the CN Tower) from March onwards for $15 for the cheapest tickets, which are some of the best if you ask me!

Things to look out for

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Signposts on the Toronto Islands pier act as instagramable attractions rather than giving actual directions!

To conclude I want to mention a pair of things I particularly loved about Toronto that you might not think or even hear of on a typical tourist whirl around the city.

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Be at the back of the ferry to the Toronto Islands to glimpse the postcard view of the skyline!

Firstly, make sure to head over to the Toronto Islands about a 1km off the city shoreline in Lake Ontario; an oasis of calm in a busy metropolis and a great place to take a leisurely walk or cycle looking across the water to the USA or back towards the Toronto skyline, especially once Spring has sprung, catching a 5 minute ferry from Front Street.

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By the time we’d looped around the rink for an hour, my rookie skater friend was already better than me?!

Secondly head on over to the Bentway overpass just back from Front Street to ‘Skate the 8’! Skate round a figure of eight ice rink completely for free, skate hire included, in January or February – great fun whether you’re a Robin Cousins style skate pro or taking to the ice for the first time, as my friend in the middle of the photo above was!

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I loved my life in the Six, and I encourage anyone who goes to embrace this wonderful, albeit often cold city and the University of Toronto within it with both hands. I hope this can be a small guide for when you do go, from one part-time Torontonian to another.

Final reflections: post-year abroad survival

What a year.

Mexico has brought me intense happiness, challenges, new understandings, questioning, all among its colours, smells, music, arts, joy, volcanoes, beaches, deserts and jungles. But it hasn’t all been rosy! I have been tested in friendships and relationships, in Mexico and the UK to push my mental strength to its limit – and been pushed possibly most of all by my return to the UK. 

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It’s been said before, I’ll say it again. Reverse culture shock is worse. Coming “home” is an odd sensation: things are the same but different. Also: what is home? You’ve changed but many things, many people and many places are mostly the same. This can be hard to get to grips with, and doesn’t really seem to get easier the more it happens. But there are definitely ways to deal with it, and work towards adapting. The main point that I have realised over the last 3 weeks is that: it’s okay not to be okay. In my case I have felt lost, sad, confused, anxious, ungrounded – but also happy, fulfilled and excited for the future: it’s a very turbulent time, which when you think about it a little bit more is very reasonable, considering the huge amount of change, upheaval, learning, growing and living that has happened in the last year. Frankly, if I felt great, then I would be more worried. So give yourself credit! And embrace the sadness, nostalgia or melancholy that you may have, because there is an awful lot of processing, reflecting and learning to be done, and it’s definitely not an easy nor a quick process. 

With that in mind, be kind to yourself. Listen to your mind, embrace the difficulty, sadness, happiness, all the emotions. You have every right to feel however you do (and maybe you feel completely fine, and things were harder when away – that’s cool too!). But what you feel is valid and there is a reason you feel it. So be kind, take your time, talk it out with friends, family, your partner – and you can start to work through it. It will take time. You’ll get there. You’ll get through it.

But it wasn’t my first choice?

By Sally Lord, North Carolina State University.

There is always a mix of anticipation, excitement and maybe some ‘fear of the unknown’ in the lead up to the day, on which, you will depart to your new home. This is normal, we are all nervous when we embark on something new. But if you are heading off to somewhere you hadn’t first planned to, perhaps you might be feeling these nerves a little bit more strongly. Most people, when they apply to study abroad, think really hard about what to put for their top three choices or maybe top five but think a lot less about the other remaining choices. That’s why when the day comes, and you find out you’ve been selected to study abroad but NOT at one of your top choices, you might feel a little disheartened. It might be that you haven’t done much research about this university, or it is in a place that is not well-known or maybe it is somewhere that doesn’t have the most positive reputation, like the southern states of the America, for example. However, panic not! I am here to tell you that wherever you have been assigned, and however deflated you might have felt when you found out – you are still going to have the BEST YEAR EVER!

My top choices were all in Canada and I ended up in North Carolina, a state that, firstly, most people don’t know where it is and secondly, when you tell them its in the South of the US they don’t seem to have much good to say. I was initially a bit upset when I found out that I hadn’t got into a Canadian university but after accepting it, I started to research North Carolina and was very pleasantly surprised with what I learnt about it. It was not a state that I had ever had reason to research before and since it is not a particular tourist destination, I didn’t know much about it. But having spent a year there, I think this is what makes it so special and such a great place to really immerse in American culture.

I think the main benefit of studying somewhere, that you don’t know much about, is that you really won’t know what to expect. This is so good because you won’t have any preconceived ideas, to compare to the reality of what it is actually like; you can just live the reality! Rather than becoming hung-up on comparing your expectations with what its really like, you can just dive right into getting to know the new culture. Furthermore, having little knowledge of the place, where you will be living, will encourage you to learn as much about it as possible, through meeting new people, trying new things, tasting new foods etc. etc.. And this is the whole point of studying abroad, to learn about a new culture, something which I think will seem even more appealing when you don’t know anything about the place to begin with! It will be a much more educational experience if your initial knowledge of the place is zero. There are also likely to be a lot less international influences, if the place is less well-known, and so you will end up getting a more authentic representation of what your host country is actually like.

Secondly, if your exchange location is somewhere unfamiliar to you, the chances are that it isn’t a place that you have thought about visiting. This means that your exchange really will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because you will be visiting a place that you might not have had the idea or opportunity to visit otherwise. It will be a chance to travel and experience things that you may never of heard of, but which may become some of the best places you have ever visited. I know that I had never imagined visiting North Carolina but now I can’t wait to go back and explore the parts of it I didn’t get a chance to visit. I didn’t imagine I’d be spending Christmas in the Smokey Mountains or Easter on the beach near Wilmington but I wouldn’t change either experience. Some of the best beauties in the world are the lesser known ones and going somewhere off the tourist track will mean that you will be able to discover your own special places, in your new home.

So, don’t despair if you don’t get your first choice, you will find a home in wherever you end up. It will all be new and exciting, and there will be so many things to discover! I even bet that by the time you leave, you will be thinking to yourself, why didn’t I put that place as my first choice?

 

Post-exchange travel

Many partner universities finish their semesters earlier than Manchester – in my case, the start of May, so I took advantage of this to travel around Mexico and Central America – having 2 months’ more travelling to what my friends teased me was already a year of holiday/travelling! 

As soon as I finished my assignments, I made the most of the luxury of not having any exams at the end of the semester, and booked a flight for a solo adventure in El Salvador. Having said goodbye to my pals and my home for the last year, Cholula, I made my way over into Central America. El Salvador has a really bad rep internationally because of high homicide rates, and very problematic gang violence, however this tends to be restricted to certain areas and El Salvador is generally a safe place to travel. I can vouch for this, having travelled solo around El Salvador for 10 days, and staying with amazing people through Couchsurfing the whole time, seeing beautiful landscapes filled with lakes, volcanoes, jungle, waterfalls, beaches, and above all, possibly the kindest people of all the countries I’ve travelled to so far! 

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Cerro Verde as seen from the top of Santa Ana Volcano, El Salvador
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Mural in Ataco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

I then made my way across the border in a chicken bus into Guatemala to meet a friend from the UK, to travel all the way from the El Salvador border up to the Mexican border. Along the way, I climbed Volcán Acatenango (brutal) to watch Volcán del Fuego erupt during the night, visited the amazing diverse villages around Lake Atitlán, exploring candle-lit caves and naturally turquoise limestone pools at Semuc Champey, and toucan- and spider monkey-spotting around the Mayan site of Tikal. I left Guatemala with a heavy heart, knowing that I’ll certainly be back as soon as I possibly can to keep exploring more of its beautiful country and vibrant indigenous cultures. 

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Sunrise seen from the summit of Volcán Acatenango

Crossing the border back into Mexico, I felt like I was coming home, though the journey was something of an intense one: I ended up travelling with a caravan of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala midway through their journey across Central America, just starting their crossing from one end of México up to the other, most aiming to cross into the United States. It is important not to understate the enormity of this journey that often takes months, and the difficult political situations that make it not a decision, but a necessity, for many people to leave their homes, families and countries to make this long journey in the hopes of a life elsewhere. 

I returned back to México to meet another friend from the UK to explore the mountains and beaches of the state of Oaxaca, and then the cenotes, ruins and beaches of the Yucatán peninsula while in 40 degree heat. From there, I met up with three of my closest friends from UDLAP to go to Cuba for 10 days, for lots of music, dancing, a few mojitos, cigars, lots of rice and beans and plenty of fun, while learning lots about the complex political situation (which I cannot understate). 

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Coloured streets of Trinidad

From Cuba, I returned to Mexico City to have one final day of eating as much food as I could possibly manage, saying a teary goodbye to my best friend, and hopping onto a flight back to the UK. I won’t lie, I wasn’t looking forward to coming back to the UK as Mexico means so much to me, and is a beautiful country with amazing people, food and places, and has been the setting for possibly the best year of my life. That said, two months of travelling made the transition to UK life somewhat easier, as I came to terms with the impending return to the English ‘summer’ and the idea of having to look at my bank account! Of course, travelling might not be for you, for whatever reason, but being abroad is an awesome opportunity to take advantage of. Perhaps solo travel is something you haven’t tried yet? Go away for a weekend during the semester as a first step. Intimidated in hostels? Couchsurfing is an awesome way to meet people, stay with locals and learn about local life in ways that you can’t in hostels. Scared by language? Start learning the basics before you go – such as with TV programmes, and we all know there are plenty of apps out there. The point is: make the most of being wherever in the world you are, because it’s not every day that travel is so easy. 

Discovering the Natural Side of the USA

By Sally Lord, North Carolina State University

If you are going to study abroad in the US I’m sure that you are very excited by this amazing opportunity to travel and discover all the things that the States has to offer. The country is so vast and with each state having its own unique culture and landscape, you will never run out of new things to see! However, whilst most people have the big cities like New York, Chicago, LA, San Fransisco, etc., on their list of things to see,  most people don’t have any of the numerous natural parks on their list. This, to me, is a BIG mistake.

In my opinion the best way to experience America is through its national parks. Each one is so unique and the sheer size of them is enough to take your breath away. I visited four national parks in Utah and whilst they were all within a three hour drive of each other, they all looked so different. It was amazing that there could be so much diversity in the landscape within just one state! They are also unlike anything I have experienced anywhere else in the world, which is why I think that they are so important to visit. Cities might differ from country to country, but such metropolitan life exists everywhere. However, natural parks are one-offs, the scenery and landscapes that they offer and the unique geology that they boast, are features which can be only found in that exact location.

They are also great for day-trips because they do not require much planning. You just turn up, go to the visitor’s centre, look at the different trails on offer, choose one and then set off to explore the wilderness. Another bonus is that most national parks have a driving circuit, so you can experience the beauty from your car. This was something, which was a shock to me, I had assumed that going to a national park would entail lots of hiking but I was wrong. The parks are so big that you have to drive round them and along the drive there are stops, where you can get out, walk for about 20 minutes, see something spectacular, then get back in your car and continue to the next stop. Of course there are also more strenuous hiking trails but if you just want to experience the beauty in a more comfortable manor there is also this option.

So  next question is, where should you visit? My answer is any national park is probably worthwhile your visit, since they all have something different and equally spectacular to offer. However the parks I chose to visit were:

Canyonlands, UT

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Capitol Reef, UT

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Bryce, UT

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Zion, UT

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Grand Canyon, AZ

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As you can see they are all rather stunning and I can ensure you that they look even better in real life! Cities exist everywhere and whilst American cities may be different to cities in other parts of the world, once you have seen three or four it starts to get boring. So get out and explore the natural side of the US because I can guarantee you will not be disappointed!

 

Travelling

One of the best things about America is its diversity. Every state is like a different country, from the mountains of Vermont to the deserts of Nevada, the swamps of Louisiana to the beaches of California, which meant that although I didn’t leave the states for 5 months, it felt like I’d travelled to a multitude of different countries. I visited 11 states in total, but it definitely felt like I’d seen more than just over a fifth of the country.  If I had to pick a top 3 places I would probably say Austin, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana and of course New York, New York.

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I surprised myself with how much I loved the South.  My preconceptions of the southern states were racism, sexism, homophobia and cowboys, so I was a little apprehensive to leave the comfort of the north. Thankfully though I didn’t witness anything that I deemed hateful. Austin was full of Pride flags and every southerner that I met was nothing but extremely pleasant. What I loved about the South was its extreme Americanness, it felt like there was a lot more culture there and that the people were really laid back and eager to befriend us.

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Texas particularly was everything I’d dreamed it’d be. There were people dressed in cowboy boots and hats everywhere. And they weren’t in fancy dress. People genuinely dress like that because, in Texas, it is fashionable. Whilst in Texas I also visited a real-life saloon. This was amazing. There was a band belting out the countryiest of country tunes whilst everyone gleefully danced the two-step. Even better than this, out the back of the saloon there was an extremely Texan version of bingo being played. The premise: a large grid of numbers was placed in the middle of the yard and littered with chicken feed. Players then paid two dollars to be given a piece of paper with a number written on it, correlating to a number written on the grid. A chicken was then placed on the grid and the chicken defecated on the number of its choice. The player whose number matched up with the number chosen by the chicken won $200.  I felt like I was in an extremely odd dream that I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to wake up from.

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New Orleans, took Americanness down a completely different route. As I sat eating beignets at café du monde, gazing at the European style architecture of the French quarter I felt as though I could have been in old Orléans. However, the constant cacophony of saxophones and trumpets coming from buskers on every street corner and the kids tap dancing for people’s spare change really emphasised that New Orleans is the birthplace of the very American culture of jazz. Everywhere you looked there were stalls advertising psychic readings and shops selling voodoo dolls, the latter unfortunately serving as a reminder that a lot of the culture here was born out of slavery.  NOLA was by far the most unique place that I visited in the US and I wish that I had been able to spend more than two days there.

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The final of my top 3 destinations felt more like home than merely somewhere I was visiting by the time I reached the end of my stay on the East coast. New York lived up to all of my extremely high expectations and even though I visited the city almost every weekend whilst I was studying at Rutgers, I felt as if I could wonder its streets for the rest of my life and never get bored. Time square really is that mesmerising. Brooklyn bridge really is that huge. Dollar pizza really is the best thing you will ever taste.

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The opportunity to travel the states for so long is something that I am extremely grateful for, and something which I never would have had the opportunity to do without study abroad. Whichever university you end up at whilst you are abroad, be sure to make the most out of travelling to its surrounding states/countries. It will make your experience unforgettable.

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Coping With Anxiety Abroad… And From Home

By George Davies – The University of Calgary, Canada

The topic of mental health is commonly discussed in the realm of studying overseas. So whilst I may not be contributing anything new to this topic, I wanted to share my experiences with anxiety during my year away. As well as the coping mechanisms I tried to deploy and useful links available during your time away.

Continue reading “Coping With Anxiety Abroad… And From Home”

5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Studying and Living in Calgary

A brief, yet concise list of things to look out for when studying at the University of Calgary. From tourist checklists to insurance considerations.

By George Davies – University of Calgary, Canada


Since reflecting on my time in Calgary, I have accumulated a list of things I wish I understood before boarding my plane at Gatwick. From knowing the best spots to explore in town to accommodating for a truly Canadian way of life. Hence, the list below should aid Albertan-, and hopefully some Canadian-, bound students. Continue reading “5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Studying and Living in Calgary”

How studying abroad helped me during my final year at Manchester

By Isaac Brooks

Having finished my final year at Manchester, and now getting ready for my graduation next month, it is unbelievable that it is over a year since I returned from my year abroad at Arizona State University. Reflecting back on this time it is impossible to ignore the ways that studying abroad has had a positive impact on my final year, as well as looking into the future, the next steps after graduating.

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Continue reading “How studying abroad helped me during my final year at Manchester”

Thank You and Goodbye UMASS!

By Doris Ngai, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA

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This time last month, summer vacation officially began for me when most of my friends at Manchester are still revising for their end of May and early June exams. I went to Orlando Universal Studios and Disneyland with my significant other that I met during my semester abroad at Umass. I think the best things in life really do happen to us so unexpectedly.

Continue reading “Thank You and Goodbye UMASS!”

How to enjoy a post-study abroad adventure on a budget

By Ruby Smith, University of British Columbia, Canada

Prior to my arrival in Canada, I had ambitious plans to travel before returning to the UK. However, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances relating to my visa I was unable to get a job and was therefore was left with a very small budget to travel with. Regardless of the troubles I faced trying to get a job, I eventually found some great options that didn’t leave me broke and ended up having a sweet end to my year abroad.

Continue reading “How to enjoy a post-study abroad adventure on a budget”

Goodbye UDLAP

By Lily Baker Haynes, Universidad de las Americas

My time here at UDLAP is coming to an end – and of course, it flew by. I arrived here fresh-faced and having no idea what to expect… and I finish having learnt a lot, met amazing people and leaving a part of my heart here in beautiful Cholula.

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One of many amazing sunsets behind volcano Popocatépetl

Continue reading “Goodbye UDLAP”