What I wish I knew before exchange

Preparing to leave for exchange was by far the most emotionally overwhelming experience of my life. I can really only describe it as an emotional roller coaster.

There are serious highs, like the day you get your acceptance email and realize its actually happening, or when you remember that you’ll casually be able to jet off to Paris for the weekend if you so choose.

But, there are also some serious lows – a swirling eddy of questions and doubts that loom most strong just before you leave: How am I going to survive on my own in a foreign country for that long? What if I don’t make any friends? What if I get there and realize I can’t handle it?

And as much as everyone tries to be supportive and reassure you that you’ll have a blast and everything will be just fine, something about their comments made me that much more terrified to go.

But speaking as a successful exchange goer, they were all one hundred percent right. I did indeed have the time of my life.

No amount of advice or preparing can adequately ready you for the challenges you’ll face or the self-growth you’ll experience, but here are a couple things that I wish I had known before I gone away – traveller to traveller.

Pace Yourself.

When you’re away, especially in the beginning, there are so many new and exciting things to do all the time that sometimes you feel pressured to try and fit everything in at once. Although it was often a lot of fun, pushing myself too hard for too long lead to week-long colds and periods of exhaustion. Being on exchange for six months is vastly different than touring somewhere for a week, so view it as a marathon rather than a sprint. Spreading things out helps you to enjoy each experience more and ensures that you always have things to look forward to. Remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day, so you shouldn’t try to tour it in one either.

Take travel advice with a grain of salt.

Most people, whether it’s before you leave or out on the road, will try to help you by sharing their own past experiences, both positive and negative. Although this can quite often be helpful, be wary that not everyone has the same tastes or views as you might. I had a friend who’d been on exchange to the same school tell me how awful getting residence in a certain city would be. When I happened to get placed into that exact residence, I panicked about how bad it would be. As it turns out, I loved it.
Just because one person doesn’t like something, doesn’t mean you won’t, so take all advice with a grain of salt. Don’t let bad reviews sway you – another person’s bad experience may end up being your favourite city!

Travel is measured by quality, not quantity.

The advice to pace yourself also applies here. To people at home, you constantly seem to be “living the dream” as you jet from country to country, but there is definitely still traveller envy as you listen to that one friend or hostel mate brag about completing five major cities in the time it took you to complete three. You may always feel like you’re not seeing enough.

There were many times I would try to slot in just one more country or one more monument just so I could say that I did, but often times it just left me feeling exhausted and under appreciating each new place. Although it is nice to have a wide country count at the end of your trip, think less about the numbers and more about allowing yourself to really get to experience a country like you can in three or four days rather than one or two.

The final and most important thing: There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of.

As I mentioned earlier, I was absolutely terrified before I left, but now I know that this is probably one of the single greatest experiences I will ever get to have in my life. Getting the chance to live in another country for this long and meet people from all over the world is extraordinary. I was tested in ways I never knew possible, like spending four hours lost in the Paris subway trying to find the airport, or trying to navigate my way in Spain with no Wi-Fi or Spanish knowledge. Though sometimes it is difficult and scary, the amount you will learn and grow in just five short months is incredible. I wish that everyone could have this experience for themselves.

Even though I’m severely in debt and will probably have to stay an extra semester at Queen’s, I don’t even care. It was worth absolutely everything.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.