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.
4 comments on “How I got a semester’s worth of credits and didn’t set foot on campus for eight months”
Great post! I love that you went to Stockholm during reading week and then just.. went back. I went to Sweden last summer and absolutely loved it. I’ve been dreaming about going back on exchange ever since. I haven’t had the chance to do an exchange yet because of all my program requirements/money/summer work but you’ve convinced me to ‘get out there’ and find a way to just do it. I’m in fourth year and running out of time!
Thanks for your comment! It’s so nice to hear from someone who shares my sentiments 🙂 Don’t let time/money/life! be a reason for not being an exchange student – there are generous scholarship programs available and from what I’ve heard, you’re still able to get OSAP as an exchange student. Also, you’re only paying your U of T fees, so the additional costs are essentially a plane ticket and health insurance. I was lucky enough to be granted a substantial scholarship for my time abroad for which I am forever grateful, but even without it, it would definitely have been worth the costs in time and money. Talk to the people at the Centre for International Experience! There are definitely ways of making this happen!
You’re right. Yeah, I’m gonna need some scholarships, definitely gonna try for this summer 🙂 Thanks for your advice! If you don’t mind my asking, which university did you go to in Sweden? I’m thinking Uppsala but am a little bit concerned about transferring credits, so I’m leaning towards Summer Abroad instead..
I went to Uppsala, which probably has the best student life in all of Sweden… I would highly recommend it!! I had absolutely no problem with transfer credits (except that the process was a little long, but that was because I did an independent study there also). As long as you stick to Uppsala’s course offerings (which you can view online before you apply/go), you can even get your courses pre-approved for transfer credit by U of T departments before you go. The advantage of exchange over study abroad is that it is significantly less expensive. By “significantly less expensive,” I mean that my 7 months in Sweden cost less than a 3 week Summer Abroad would have …. but different people have different goals for their time overseas, so I would definitely recommend chatting with the people at the Centre for International Experience to see which option is right for you 🙂