Finding A Sense of Home, Abroad

Vanessa shares her journey migrating to the UK, the struggles she’s overcomed and her process for building stability overseas.

“The most rewarding thing for me is just being in the city that I’ve always wanted to live in. No matter how hard life gets, sometimes I stop and look around at the city I’ve chosen to call home and I feel so grateful to be here.”

Let’s start at the beginning: Where are you originally from? When did you move abroad and where did you move abroad to?

I’m originally from Philadelphia, PA. I moved to Toronto, Canada at the age of 8. I left Canada at 18 to go to university in New York State, where I attended Syracuse University. After university, I moved back to Canada for two months and then left again to start my journalism career at a small news station in Scranton, PA in upstate Pennsylvania. Following that, I moved to New York City where I lived until 2016. That year I moved to London, England where I have been ever since.

How were you able to migrate? (Job, Visa, Spouse, Family or another channel?)

I was able to migrate back down to the US from Canada originally as I have citizenship by birth in the US. I moved from the US to the UK on a Tier 4 Student visa and after 18 months was sponsored by my current employer on a Tier 2 visa, with a right to remain after 5 years.

Why did you decide to move and did you know anyone there?

I had always been in love with the UK, from the first time I studied abroad there for a semester in fall 2009. I knew I wanted to come back and spend some time here but was never sure what would be the route that I would take in order to get here. I had almost abandoned my goal of coming to the UK in 2015, but by January 2016, I was laid off from my job at Al Jazeera America in New York City and decided to finally go back and get my masters degree. I had wanted to pursue a masters degree in public policy after having done shadow stints for congressional comms director roles for two different congressmen in Washington D.C. during my few weeks on the Hill in 2015, I realised I needed an advanced degree but didn’t know how I would be able to get it as I was already in debt from my undergrad program at Syracuse. I decided to try and apply for universities in the UK, which were cheaper to attend, once I was laid off. When I got accepted into a program in London, I then made an effort to connect with my boss at my current job to see if I could work part-time. She said yes and the rest was history. I arrived in London knowing a handful of people – a childhood best friend from Toronto who had migrated a year before me, a few friends of family and some extended family in the Midlands.

How did you find the job searching process? Was there anything about working overseas that surprised you?

I never had a proper job searching process. I met my boss through an old colleague at Al Jazeera America who had known of my interest in living in the UK and had recently returned from 17 years in the UK. She connected me with my current employer and we met for lunch on a routine visit of mine to London in summer 2015. She told me that she could not sponsor me at the time because her business was so small and didn’t have the accreditation to do so. When I got my student visa to start studying at King’s College in in 2016, it permitted me to work half of the week and so my boss took me on on a part-time basis. I didn’t realise she was actually testing me to take me on full time, as her company was getting bigger. I led my own projects while also studying my masters degree full time.

My first year I didn’t work in a normal environment as my team was very small and I was out of the office often but once I was sponsored to go full time I started to see the differences in working overseas. The one thing that surprised me the most was how personal everyone was with their colleagues. In North America, there is often a clear separation between your professional life and your personal life. Here in the UK, I found that people were all too willing to share and that sometimes blurred the lines of professionally. I also found Brits to be a little less work-crazy compared to New Yorkers, which was refreshing at times. The one thing that has really irked me however is the fact that there is often a lack of directness between colleagues and you never know where you stand some times with your senior managers or clients, whereas in North America, you will know your place very quickly in a work setting.

How was the experience finding a new home?

I started off in tiny student housing at King’s – it was VERY uncomfortable and claustrophobic, sitting right over the rail lines leading into Stratford train station on the Central Line in East London. When I could no longer afford that housing, I lived in a friend’s garage for two months before moving into a flat that my cousin got for us in Kilburn (because I had no credit at the time) where I would live for 3 years until moving to South London in summer 2020. I ended up alone for awhile there, and it was very expensive and draining on me financially. Eventually I had to find a replacement for my cousin to help me afford rent and took in a stranger for 2 years, which proved to be an unpleasant situation. So while I wouldn’t say finding a home was difficult for me, but it was not always comfortable, ideal living situations until recently.

How is the social scene? What was your experience making friends?

I made friends easily through my graduate program but they were all international students. I have kept in touch with the ones who remained in the UK and they have gone on to become some of my closest friends here. I also made close friends through my extended family’s network of friends. I am also lucky that I was able to have friends from my childhood here and then other friends from my life in the US and Canada had moved over here so I have created a familial network, but it took time nonetheless.

Did you date overseas? If so, what was that experience like? Any memorable stories you can share?

Although I am single at the moment, I have dated the most ever in my life during my time in the UK. I’ve had the best and most lasting experiences in dating here than I’ve ever had in any country that I have lived in.

Do you feel your race impacted your experience? If so, how?

I think that my race had an impact on my longest lasting relationship, but then I think class may have had more to do with the struggles and issues that we faced. At times, when around my partner’s friends, my working class, immigrant background made me feel like an outcast and someone who could never fit in because of my look and my upbringing regardless of my education and all that I had achieved on my own. I felt sometimes like trying to fit in upper middle class British society was completely unattainable to me which made me bitter and resentful in my relationship, because I didn’t feel I would ever be accepted truly.

What has been the most challenging thing about moving abroad?

I think the most challenging thing is not being close to family and not being able to watch your nieces and nephews grow up. You are now just a distant family who dips in and out of their lives whenever you are home to visit and at first, for someone like me who helped raise my niece back in New York City, it’s hard to come to terms with that but eventually you get over it. In the beginning, you may miss not having a base to sometimes just go and receive spiritual nourishment, like at a parent or a sibling’s house, but eventually you create your foundation just as in your previous location. The challenge in that however, is that creating that foundation sometimes takes longer than expected when looking to replicate a level of comfort akin to ‘back home’.

What has been the most rewarding?

The most rewarding thing for me is just being in the city that I’ve always wanted to live in. No matter how hard life gets, sometimes I stop and look around at the city I’ve chosen to call home and I feel so grateful to be here. Four years later, I am still so in love with London and still get just as excited as a tourist at all the endless places to discover and explore, but then also at all the opportunities this city has to offer an expat like me.

Tips & Advice for the Her Expatise Community

What in your experience would you say is the minimum monthly cost of living? 

£2200

Any advice on the visa/migrating process that could help someone else’s process go smoother? 

I got my visa while on a different visa so it was a very smooth process for me, I was able to transfer visas from my student one to a Tier 2 one while the time was winding down on the Tier 4. It was a quick process because my company did it with the help of an immigration lawyer. I think the best advice is when you get here, don’t compare costs to your cost of living back in your home country. Everything is relative. What is £1 here is $1 in the US. Just immerse yourself in being in a new place.

If you know you want to be here for awhile, start trying to lay down some minimal roots so that you can lead as comfortable a life while still retaining a level of transiency. Get advice from locals on things like bank accounts, travel costs, etc., but also just explore on your own and figure out things for yourself. A lot of things, like haircare, I just figured out alone without the help of anyone. A lot of things were trial and error. And if something doesn’t work out the first time, don’t be so quick to compare things to your home country.

Any insider tips on a place you enjoy going to or an activity you enjoy doing? 

I love to walk. I have walked out this city many times over, from West to East and North South. The best way to know London is to put on your trainers on and go walking. I have winded down little alleyways and sat in big green heath’s by myself and enjoyed it. You can walk alone or with a friend but to me that is the only way you will ever truly learn the ins and outs of your new city.

Finally, If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice before you got on that plane to move abroad, what would it be? 

I’d tell myself that things aren’t going to come together so quickly and that’s OK. You’re migrating to a new country, some people may settle down and have security quicker than you and while that is scary, just know that you’ll find that stability at some point too. Four years later, I am still not as stable and secure here in the UK as I’d like to be but I am trying to come to terms with the fact there is no timeline to when you completely lay roots and settle down in your new country. If it feels like home, it is home, because home is where the heart is!

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