“So, do you have cell service in Switzerland?”
Well, when I finally decided to go on exchange, I was excited for what was to come. I had absolutely no idea where I was going to be placed, with whom or who my friends were going to be. To be honest I basically just winged my decision anyways because I applied in April and left in July. Let’s just say I tried to make up my mind about leaving to the USA from November and on, but I am very bad at making decisions and good at overthinking. So, I just told myself “Go! What do you have to lose?”. That is the best thing I have ever told myself.
Just to clarify, I didn’t leave for my host family of two daughters, a mom, a dad, a dog and two cats from Switzerland on the second of July 2017- I live in Sweden, but Americans seem to have this tendency to confuse the two of them with each other. My friend who’s actually from Switzerland got a Swedish flag printed next to her in the yearbook. This, and many other things is what I call the charm of exchange. You meet people who have absolutely no idea of your culture and ask you if you have polar bears on your streets, and yet the questions are genuine, and people actually want to know more about it.
It is unimaginable what YOUR exchange story is going to look like before you have lived it. I watched so many exchange students live their American dream before I went and still not even one of them looked anything like mine. I hate to break it to you, but it’s not always a dance on roses. But if it would be, wouldn’t we come back with the same flaws we had as we left?
One of the most important imprints my exchange year left on me is appreciation and a fighting spirit. I learned to fend for myself, to take care of myself when I have no one, I learned to appreciate even the smallest of things that are good in my life and I learned to appreciate my life in Sweden. This is just what came from the hard times I experienced, the times I dreaded before I left (everyone told us we’d have bad times, because at least homesickness is definitely common, and if you don’t miss home then how could you appreciate it?). But exchange does NOT only leave imprints on you in bad ways. The parts I will never forget, the moments I will always wish to relive and the people I will always hold close to my heart- those are the main things exchange give to you. When I left the States, I had this one quote in mind from Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”. I think this quote sums up an exchange year in one single sentence.
So, if you’re a returning exchange student and someone asks you “How was it?”, this is your answer. Because come on, one cannot ask “How was it” if you stayed in a foreign country for a year. But it’s okay because they will never understand unless they went themselves. Exchange is an opportunity that only a few of us get, an opportunity to meet friends from all around the world. I was lucky enough to become a camp ambassador after my exchange year, along with my other friend from Italy, also from Ohio. It’s fair to say that the summer of 2018 was the best one in my life. Not only did I live the last months in Ohio to the fullest with all my new friends on the swim team, with my new best friend and my host family, but I also got the opportunity to guide and help new exchange students start their journey. That is probably when I learned my most important lessons and when I finally solved the biggest issue of my life- what I want to be when I grow up.
The lessons I learned was that you cannot fully help someone else if you cannot be comfortable with yourself and with your opinions. It is important, most important, to always have your own back. If this is the case, you will come across as confident and you will pass on the confidence.
Second lesson was that whoever you are helping, guiding, leading will maybe give as much back to you as you’re giving them. Not directly perhaps but seeing someone succeed in something, with or without your help, that they thought impossible, is way better than achieving it yourself. This last lesson is what solved my biggest life issue. I decided that I wanted to become a doctor and when I returned home from my exchange it was as if my life had untangled itself and I finally saw the horizon clear ahead.
Exchange doesn’t stop influencing your life once we leave for home. It will always be there, in the back of our minds, pushing us forward with good (and bad) memories to hold on to. Exchange will polish and cut off the bumpy edges of your character and make them strong, if you are brave enough to let it. No one can say what exchange is going to have for an input on anyone before it’s happened, but that is just the point- would it have the same input if we all knew that we would get fatter because of all the fast food for example, or would we avoid the fast food?
This is the beauty of it all. First, we take the step to the unknown and we leave with the quote of Winnie the Pooh and polished edges on our character. Nothing this good can ever be bought from money, except perhaps through adoption (or cell service for Switzerland).