I need to let you all in on a little secret.
I’m a travelaholic. At any given moment, my desk has more guidebooks than textbooks. I dream in maps and mountains and UNESCO world heritage sites. Dropping Introduction to Archaeology because it overlapped with a required course for my program was my current saddest moment of fourth year. That isn’t the secret though. The secret is this: one of the greatest moments of the last two years was when I left U of T.
NO WAIT. CALM DOWN.
It’s because I got the opportunity to be an exchange student!
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I never really considered myself the “exchange student” type. Like most people at U of T, I take academics pretty seriously. I have goals! Dreams! Ambitions! Why then did I choose to leave my entire life, friends, culture, school and family behind for almost an entire year? Why should you?
For me, it was something I stumbled into. My parents took me on my first “real” adventure – 7 countries, 15 days, zero language skills – when I was 17 and from that moment on, natural curiousity became my most defining feature. In second year, I went to Stockholm on my own for reading week, and upon my return, the first email in my inbox was a call for applications to a study abroad program. In Sweden! I thought it was a sign. I applied to it, not really thinking it would actually materialize, or that I was actually signing up for the semester of a lifetime. At the time it was just another email sent into the ether.
That is, until I was accepted, packed my bags, and realized I now had to learn to speak Swedish. From the moment I arrived and spent my first night staying up through the midnight sun, I knew something amazing was happening. That crazy, beautiful line across the maps of my childhood – the arctic circle – all of a sudden wasn’t a barrier to me. Nothing was.
Now I know that going overseas gives you a chance to completely let go of everything that’s trying to become a part of you that just isn’t supposed to be a part of you. It lets you shed layers of social pressure, academic anxiety, and existential uncertainty. It lets you keep the parts of you that you want to keep, and allows the rest to fall away.
Stripped of your culture, familiar friends, and the safety net of routine, you’re forced to encounter yourself. Struggling to speak a language that you do not yet understand not only makes you fully consider the content and impact of your words, but also gives you appreciation for your own thoughts. Living abroad opens the doors to your heart, and even after you return, you tend to want to keep them open. You realize that most of the time, it’s okay to talk to strangers, that the next train from the station is probably going somewhere interesting, and that everyone you meet can teach you something.
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend a “re-entry” conference for returning exchange students from U of T, York, and Ryerson. Discussing our experiences, we unanimously concluded that we’re more open to learning, people, places, and experiences than we ever were before. The hard part was realizing that “home” can be many places simultaneously; once you’ve realized this, you’re forced to carry a sense of both global connectedness and longing, for the rest of your life.
Whatever your goals may be – whether you’ve decided to be a doctor, teacher, activist, artist, or something else entirely – getting outside of yourself will bring you far closer to who you really want to be. You’ll come back more confident, imaginative, social, and alive. You will finally know what your hometown means to you, and what Canadian culture actually is. Suddenly, your goals won’t seem as abstract, and you’ll begin to find intense joy in the little pieces of everyday life. So go – get out there – and come back transformed.