10 things I Learned from being an Exchange Student
During the summer of 2013, I officially became an international student. I was nineteen and, the way I see it today, just a kid. A Belgian kid who left home, family and friends to live on a campus 5326 km away. A kid who learned and grew so much out of it. I think I took ten years in just half a year. And looking back, I learned 10 things from being an exchange student.
“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” - Miriam Adeney
1. You are stronger than you think.
When I left for Paris, arrived in Montreal, then made it to Quebec City, I was desperate. I had never lived on my own before and I had no idea where to start. My parents, my sisters, my friends, my dogs, they were all gone. I was on the other side of the world and I knew no one. I felt like a little girl. As if I was six again and there was no way I was doing this on my own. I cried and kicked my heels for a while. I wasn’t sure I’d make it. And I got by fine. More than fine, actually. All those things I thought I wasn’t capable of? It turned out I wasn’t so bad. And really, I didn’t think it was even possible but I cried a lot more when I had to leave.
2. You think you know yourself? Think again.
When was the last time you did something for the first time? For half a year, I think I pretty much did something for the first time everyday. It was a different kind of life. Goodbye, comfort zone. But experiencing something new helps a lot when it comes to self-knowledge. Sometimes I feel like that’s the time and place where I learned everything. I had time to reflect on who I was. It wasn’t easy at first, looking at my face in the mirror and being able to live with myself, flaws included. But today I know I got better at saying, ‘Okay. This is what I like; this is what I don’t. This is what I’m good at. This is where I could be better.’ And I think it’s important, knowing your strengths and weaknesses. It allows you to be a better person, know your limits and challenge them from time to time. During that period of my life, and ever since I got back, I don’t think there’s been one week during which I haven’t taken time for myself. Time on my own. In an attempt to do less and be more, I even started meditating!
3. Most people are kind.
What got me through the first days is the way people would never hesitate to help me. No matter the situation I was in. And it could be hard sometimes. I mean, I spent half an hour on my first day waiting for someone to come in the shared kitchen because I couldn’t open my cheese sauce. (I have an emotional eating problem and I basically spent my first days consuming food.) I had bought a bag of chips but couldn’t even open the dip. Talk about real problems. But the first person who popped by helped me. Faith in humanity restored. I am an incredibly optimistic person. I believe most people are inherently good and magical — and not just because of the cheese dip, obviously.
4. Time flies and life goes on.
It feels strange to be an exchange student; it’s like living a short different life inside of your own life. It sounds weird but if you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. When you’re in a place for such a short period of time, you have a totally different notion of time because you realize you only have one chance to seize the moment. You have little time to discover the most amazing places and meet the most precious persons. You live, learn and grow so fast. Also and most of all, the emotional attachment you feel about each and every single wonderful soul you meet is exponential. How can anything come too fast when you have so little time? This is a topic I’ve had (and still have) many discussions about. Because after that, life goes on. With or without you. Whether you accept it or not. And if you feel like it was all a dream, then I hope your eyes were wide open. Because life… Well, it doesn’t wait for anyone. All you can do is make the best of every minute you’re given. Enjoy it. But remember to enjoy it your way. You don’t have to be a people pleaser. Just do what makes you happy.
5. Traveling is the best.
I used to find comfort in some routine, never really tried to change that. I sure knew some of those people who always feel the need for adventure and travel and the unknown. I personally didn’t. I mean, this is one of the things that changed about me. In one year, I’ve visited Miami and the Florida Keys, New York (twice), Montreal (many times), Quebec City, Boston, Barcelona, Brittany (also twice), Krakow in Poland, Budapest in Hungary and Valencia. There are so many things to see, so many humans to meet out there. There’s now a little hungry traveller who lives in me keeps asking for more. If we had the chance to spend time together in the last months, you might know I’m always busy planning my next trip.
6. Home is where the heart is.
Since my parents got divorced eleven years ago, I’ve moved every two years or so. I didn’t really have a home. I mean, I had two actually, but none of them felt like a real one anymore. The only place that hadn’t change during all those years was our secret spot in Brittany, the one I’ve been visiting for more than twenty years now. This is the place where I have some of my best memories, even today. The place where I have always been able to find my balance again. It was my Proust madeleine. And I thought you could only feel that way about one place. I was wrong. I always say, Quebec stole my heart and I might wanna go and get it back. Last week my grandma asked me if I’d still like to go back. Well, of course. I’d leave tonight.
7. It’s the little things.
Because lots of time, we take things and people for granted. We shouldn’t. We forget to be grateful and to rejoice moments. We shouldn’t either. Since I’ve been in Canada, I often make lists of things that made me happy during the week. Those aren’t big things. Those are things like the sun entering my room on a school early morning or a compliment about my smile. I take the time to feel grateful for things as simple as enjoying a hot chocolate or hearing a stranger say hi. I can’t even enumerate all the things I used to take for granted: the roof over my head, the food in my plate, and my parents doing their absolute best… These are only examples that can hardly represent how lucky I am. I’m so grateful for the moments and the faces, the laughs and the tears in my life. Because they made me who I am and led me to where I am. And now I take the occasion to thank those who are here. I don’t think it’s normal for my parents to pay for my student fees, for instance. I think they’re giving me a gift. Gratitude is the attitude.
8. Whatever you feel is okay.
Come as you are. No one is better at being you, than you. Go with your gut. Follow your heart. Trust your intuition. We don’t always listen to them, yet most of the time they know what’s best for us. Also: timing is everything. Things will happen as they are meant to.
9. Vulnerability is a good thing.
I learned that people need other people. Truth is, when you cut yourself from others because you’re afraid to get hurt, you also cut yourself from all the good things. And you just do that: focus on a fear of something that only might happen. It’s risky. But it’s the only way to authenticity. Not that you’ll always get it, some people are just not ready to that type of opening. And that’s okay. Because the more you open yourself up, the more you will attract that kind of people in your life. And that doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful. People will hurt you, but the amount of love and gratitude that you’ll get, will be exponential. And my thought is, it will be worth it.
10. The time is always right to say thank you.
I think it’s safe to say that in the last year, I’ve become much more vulnerable and grateful. And it is actually a good thing. Almost one year later, I still think of this whole experience as the best thing that has ever happened to me. I often get asked why. Well, of course it was nice to spend my time traveling and partying. But above all, it was about the people. I met some of my very best friends during my time in Canada. These aren’t people I get to see every week, of course. It’s not that kind of friendship. And it is likely that, for some of them, we will never meet again. But I learned it’s not what matters the most. Maya Angelou said: “I learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Well I remember how I felt about every human I met during this trip. These feelings have not gone away; and they’re not going anywhere soon. So, to each of you reading this, I say thank you. And to those of you I was lucky enough to come across during my time as an international student in Quebec, I say thank you so much. Here’s to improbable and beautiful friends. Cheers!
This article was created by Tabata Vossen. On Medium she's commenting on ideas, issues and themes that form the texture of my life. Obsessed Twitto, sometimes serious, sometimes not. Traveller. MA in PR. Follow her on Twitter.