By Kendra Wingerter, Exchange to Sciences Po Paris, France
Most people are aware that when they go on their exchange term, they are going to meet a few challenges in their new life abroad. Culture shock, language barriers, getting lost (a lot), making new friends and missing old ones. It’s a lot of change for anyone to face, even for someone with travel experience and itchy feet. But what do you do when the bigger shock is coming home?
As an SFU Vancouver student who is originally from Calgary, I knew how hard it is to leave your home and find yourself in a totally unfamiliar city, even if there are tons of fun times and new friends around you. Since I’d been through the shock of moving away for school before, I knew what to expect when I moved again, and thought that by the end of my 5 months abroad, I’d be absolutely dying to come home to familiar faces and a culture that I’m an expert at. But the lonely moments, the cultural self-consciousness, and the desire for home never came. After my first month in Paris (which is where I spent my semester abroad) I realized that the initial challenges of moving hadn’t really affected me that much, and while I considered trying to extend my exchange, I abandoned that idea thinking that even though I wasn’t feeling it yet, by the end of my planned 5 months abroad I would be more than ready to go home.
Then the half-way mark of my exchange came, and then the 4-month mark, and then suddenly I found myself packing my bags to go home, but not feeling too good about it. I had checked everything off on my Paris bucket-list, and I didn’t feel like my exchange itself was incomplete or lacking, but I liked my little apartment in the city; the hundreds of museums and historical sites that were at my fingertips every day, the luxury of being close to so many other interesting countries, the every-day language learning experiences, and the relaxed pace of French culture. I had close friends who had become more like family to me, I had favourite coffee shops and hang-out spots, I had daily and weekly routines, and I had gotten really, reaaalllly good at making crepes.
So at first leaving was incredibly difficult. I stopped in London for a few nights on my way home and during my time there I felt like I was going through the worse breakup ever. All I wanted to do was lie in bed, and cry, and eat chocolate, and hold a cat. When I first returned home, the sinking feeling in my stomach was still there, but each day as I saw more and more of my loved ones, went to my favourite Canadian coffee shops, remembered the ease of speaking in my first language, and was reacquainted with the luxuries of living in a modern culture, the idea of being at home was no longer so daunting.
I come out of this experience feeling like a stronger person, now knowing with confidence that I am capable of adjusting to and being happy in a far-away world (which, as an International Studies major, is nice to know). If I’d stayed in Paris, more challenges would have come; my friends would have gone home and I would have been left back at social-square-one, I would have had to find a new apartment and figure out a way to fund the rest of my stay. Though I miss Paris, recognizing these challenges has made it easier to leave my life there, because had I stayed, it would have been a very different life anyway. Instead of regret, I’m trying to channel any feelings of reverse culture-shock into something constructive: I see it as a positive thing that I left my exchange still wanting to be there (it means I had an amazing experience!) and I have now found my motivation to start looking up those Parisian co-op placements. Whether going or coming, every exchange has its good parts and it’s bad, you just need to focus on the silver lining to find both your feet and your smile, no matter where you are.