Exchange Expectations vs. Reality

Before leaving on exchange, I had a clear (and very unrealistic!) vision of what my everyday life would be like: I would spend my days wandering around Edinburgh, taking photos and going to beautiful sites, going out for coffee, keeping a travel journal, meeting friends for lunch, going to lots of events, and travelling to different European cities on the weekends. Somehow, nothing school related ever really made it into that vision of everyday life. Lectures? Studying? I wasn’t convinced that those things actually existed when you went on exchange. Wouldn’t they just kind of…stop? Or take care of themselves?

A photo from a weekend trip to Venice, AKA what I thought I would be doing every weekend.
A photo from a weekend trip to Venice, AKA what I thought I would be doing every weekend.

You could probably guess that the answer to those questions is a big, resounding NO. School, assignments, lectures, and readings keep trucking along, even if you are studying abroad, and even if you bury all of your school books under your bed and go on a trip to Rome instead. I – the girl who just emerged from six hours of essay writing at the university library – am living proof of that.

In the first month or so of school, I actually managed to keep up my crazy vision of what life on exchange should be like. I went to classes, of course, but I also spent most of my time exploring the city, going to all of the events I could fit in, taking trips on the weekends and going on coffee dates. I knew that there were assignment deadlines looming, and readings to be done, but none of those things seemed real.

A photo of my favourite spot at the library, AKA what I am ACTUALLY doing on the weekend
A photo of my favourite spot at the library, AKA what I am ACTUALLY doing on the weekend.

But then late October rolled around, and suddenly, those things became very real. I started having to spend all of my time in the library, catching up on all of the studying I had missed, writing papers, and having the occasional meltdown over school work. I stopped going to events, stopped making time for friends, and generally put fun on hold. This new reality was not matching my expectations at all. And it was making me feel sad.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love being on exchange. Walking to the library through Edinburgh’s old town doesn’t really get old. Knowing that I can hop on a plane on the weekend and be in one of Europe’s many cool cities is still wonderful. It’s just that it can be really disappointing when your high expectations and your reality don’t match up.

My disappointment also got me thinking about the idea of work-life balance. It’s an idea you come across a lot when you’re learning about stress management, that basically says that to stay happy and sane, you need to make time for your life outside of work, since we all tend to work too much and play too little when we have a million things going on. I think this is an idea that all university students can relate to at least a little bit – you get to bogged down by assignments and exams that you don’t manage to take time off to have fun and relax.

Recently I’ve had trouble maintaining that balance. I just don’t know how to tear myself away from school work when I feel like there’s a never ending pile of things to do. But earlier on in my exchange, I had trouble maintaining work-life balance in the opposite way. There was a little bit too much fun, and not quite enough work. But while I was wilfully forgetting about real life and assignments, they were not forgetting about me. Now I’m paying the price for that, and it got me thinking – why is it so tricky to balance the fun side of life with the work side? Is it just me, or does it seem like you can only manage one or the other?

So now I’m working on balancing it all out, and keeping my work-life balance, and my expectations and reality in check. But if you guys have any suggestions or strategies, I’m all ears! Let me know in the comments.

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