Exchange: A Spoon in the Road

I am sitting in my kitchen at home, having a cup of tea, and thinking back to this exact time last year.

It was 6 days until I flew to Halifax, and I was so unbelievably focussed on channelling all of my time and energy into my year abroad. I was working ungodly long shifts as a full-time waitress to save up as much money as possible for the year ahead, I was constantly checking online for any new Kijiji roommate ads, I was researching anything and everything Canadian: where I had to go, what I had to see, the food I had to eat… In a word, I was itching to leave Scotland and start a new, albeit temporary, life in Canada.

And now I’m back where it all began, sitting at the same kitchen table where I did all of my research, where I had all of the conversations with my friends and family about how excited I was, and about how much I had ahead of me. I remember feeling this great sense of anticipation in the months leading up to my departure – I felt like this was “it” – at long last I was going to know how it felt to really live in a different culture, rather than simply dip my toes into it for a short time. And yet, one year later, it feels like my year abroad was really no time at all.

Previous study abroad students will tell you the same thing time and time again: the year really does fly by, and you will have to pinch yourself at the end of it all to make sure that it ACTUALLY happened. But it happened alright! And aside from all of the incredible memories that I have made, the wonderful people that I have met, and the truly amazing things that I have seen over the past year, the one thing that continues to radiate in mind is the unfamiliar feeling of being at ease.

It took me a while to try and put my finger on the exact word to describe how I am feeling at this point – the “post-study abroad period”. At first, I came home with great reluctance: I had been travelling for one month and was in no hurry to stop (my bank account begged to differ though!) Now, having been home for over 2 months, I still feel extremely fortunate that I was able to experience my third year abroad, but I have also accumulated a new sense of appreciation for all of the things that I left behind while I was away.

Sitting in the same chair, in the same room, one year later – what has changed? Well, put shortly, nothing. Absolutely nothing of any great scale has changed. And yet, everything seems a little different.

I have never been a big fan of the term “settling in” or “settling down” or “settling” at all for that matter. To me, the “s” word suggests compromise, no matter what the context is. To think that I have settled back into my life at home is a thought that truly terrifies me – why would I want to do that when all I wanted to do was escape my life here in the first place? Coming home doesn’t necessarily equate to settling back in – instead, I think, the post study abroad period should be a time for renewal and change, even if these changes are just on a small scale.

Studying abroad is a bit like the old fork in the road scenario, except I guess going on exchange is more like a spoon in the road (you can tell I’m writing this in my kitchen, can’t you?) Bear with me though! I don’t think that going on exchange is a “fork in the road” kind of decision because your life path (if there is such a thing) isn’t going to change forever as a direct result – but it is a decision that, in many ways, will alter the way you view your own life. Rather than setting off on a new path entirely, going on exchange is simply deviating from the path that you have been walking on so far, only to return to the original path with a broadened perspective (just like the shape of a spoon… right!? I’ll work on that metaphor.)

Aside from spoons, forks and other crockery, I think it is safe to say that I haven’t stopped learning throughout the whole study abroad experience: from the initial knock back of not receiving a place to any of my choices to the sheer joy of getting a last minute email saying “you’re in”, from the pre-departure excitement to the first day nerves, from the late night drinking sessions to the early morning lectures, from the hardest goodbyes in the world to the bittersweet return – there has always been some sort of physical or emotional challenge to combat. Overall, I have come to realise that no matter where you are in the world or what stage of life you are at, it is vital to appreciate what you have right now, to know what you want/be driven by your future ambitions, and most importantly, to embrace the balance between the two.

Having come full circle after my study abroad experience, what would my advice be to those of you who are about to set off? Well, if you are anything like me, I’m sure you have been looking forward to this moment for months, and you have no doubt done all of the preparation that you can! So just relax, take a deep breathe, and just enjoy the ride – it is going to be one hell of a rollercoaster, but I promise that you will never want to get off 🙂

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Many a spoon in the road on our Rocky Mountain map

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