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Returning Home From Your Exchange ...

A topic that isn’t often talked about is coming back home from an exchange year, which can feel impossible to explain sometimes. It can be overwhelming and one can often...

A topic that isn’t often talked about is coming back home from an exchange year, which can feel impossible to explain sometimes. It can be overwhelming and one can often feel alone and misunderstood. I'm Silvia from the exchange student podcast Paella&Pizza, and this is my experience and advice about returning ”home”. 

I did my exchange in Oregon in 2021-2022, and it was the most amazing experience ever! It was eye-opening, full of new friends and it transformed me as a person, a lot more than I thought it would. When Pamela, my exchange student friend from Italy, left, it started feeling real. I was like “this is happening”, and “we are leaving”. Graduation (of all my senior friends) and the last day of school also felt unreal, as that was the last time I would see some of these people. Eventually, I realized the feeling that hit me the hardest: I will never feel like this again. This set of circumstances, these people, and experiences were unique to this time and will not be repeated under the same conditions. 

The last week was filled with anxiety for me. I got to spend three lovely days with one of my best friends, as well as my host mom, in a house in the mountains, but unfortunately, my mind wasn’t at ease. Those last three days, when packing started (a thing I procrastinated on and I recommend doing a bit sooner) I was CONSTANTLY on the verge of tears. It takes a lot for me to cry, but for those last 72 hours, I was a fountain of tears. Even though I hated every second of it, it’s important to not suppress those feelings, you can only hold them in for so long. It’s far healthier to express them in healthy ways when they come rather than ignoring them until we explode. The day of the departure was the worst of them all. I had a friend coming with me to stay in Spain for 10 days, which was an amazing opportunity (more on that topic later), but I was filled with doubt, fear, and anxiety. Whatever you feel, it's okay, it's valid and it's normal. There is no right way to go about this. If you are excited to go back to your home country, that's also perfectly fine! One thing to remember in your departure,  if you are either preparing for it or you are already back “home”, is that most likely you won't feel like your normal self. You may act weird, be anxious, be stressed, or be overly excited and mask those emotions. I know for me I didn't know what I wanted and was a complete hot mess! For example, I love my friend who came with me from the States, but the first 2-3 days were weird because she was a reminder of what I had left behind. Even though none of it was her fault, and I wanted to feel okay as soon as possible, you can’t speed up the process of healing. 

When I got to my home in Spain, I remember super vividly arriving in Madrid and hugging one of my friends who came to the airport and (holding tears in), I said “I wanna go back to Oregon”. I don't know how unique this feeling is, but it sure kept me up all night before my departure: what if I'm not happy to see my parents, friends…? And even though I was so grateful to see and hug them again, I WAS NOT filled with an overwhelming sense of joy. These emotions can make you feel terrible but remember you are not a bad person for wanting to return to the moment where you were the happiest. 

“Life is filled with grey areas and this is one of them; you can love your family in your home country AND want to be back in your host country.”

There is an expectation of what you have to do when you get back to your home country, get rid of those as soon as you can. I know that for Europeans it's common to party a lot, and it may be expected that after a year of probably not partying as much, you need to go out ASAP. If that is what you want, go ahead and have fun, but that also may be the last thing on your mind as you are recovering physically (don't forget jet lag) and emotionally. The best thing you can do is allow yourself to do whatever it is that you are feeling you need to do. There may also be expectations on who you are supposed to see and when, but again expectations won’t get you anywhere. Hang out with the people that make you the happiest and with those that have demonstrated true friendship throughout your year abroad. An unfortunate truth is that you will lose some friends or the relationship you used to have with them. Some may recover them, and some may decide it's time to let them go, it's YOUR choice. 

“As exchange students, we are supposed to press “pause” in our lives and then “resume” as we come back, while everyone else has been on “continue” this whole time.”

I felt left behind. I felt like I wasn't in the loop of things anymore; my aunt and uncle got divorced, my parents bought a new TV, my best friend was a stranger, my dad broke his foot and my friend group’s dynamic had completely changed. While some of these are not so deep, it all adds up to that feeling of “what the heck happened while I was gone”

Here are five things that helped me in my process of adapting back to my home country:


TALK ABOUT YOUR YEAR

I found that the more I talked about my life back in Oregon, the better mood I was in. My parents loved to hear all about it, so I would just rant on everything: sports, friends, school, what activities we did…This made me value my experiences as I was sharing them with others. It felt like explaining my old life and remembering everything that happened while appreciating the people I have here to share it with. 


BE PATIENT

As a kid, I HATED being told that I needed to have more patience, but now this is the advice that I'm giving you. This is also an example of ways one can change, things you used to like you may now dislike, or vice versa. Remember, the people around you haven't been there with you this year, so be patient while you express your new likes/dislikes and give the rest time to adapt to them.


HAVE FUN

Even if you have to look deep into your memories, I can assure you there was a time when you had fun in your home country. Embrace those moments, and repeat them! By having my friend from the States be in Spain with me, I was doing fun things and showing her around 24/7, and even if I didn't want to, it got me out of bed and motivated me. The point is not to exhaust yourself, but to help you cope with sadness when it feels too heavy. 


JOURNAL, JOURNAL, JOURNAL

As I said in the podcast episode about mental health, I am a huge advocate of journaling, which helped me a lot during those first days. There are so many feelings and thoughts going on, and your mind never seems to stop, but putting them on paper can help clear them. Even if you are someone who doesn't normally journal, I would still recommend writing things down in whatever shape or form works for you, it can be on a piece of paper which you then burn, a plate and you then break it, an old notebook or just a random notepad you’ll up crinkle afterward. I can assure you it will give you some relief and peace to recognize those feelings. Of course, you can check the diary we created to document and journal your exchange here.


IT'S NEVER REALLY OVER

Yes, your exchange year is over, but you will carry the experiences and friendships with you forever. Cherish that. Facetime your family, post pictures with your friends, and plan a trip to your host country! Remember you still can be connected with those who you miss the most.

Last reminder: you will be okay. I hated it when people told me that, but it’s a cliché for a reason: it’s true. You were able to thrive in a completely different country and start your life from scratch. You are ready to face new challenges in your life. Repeat this as much as you need to. Time goes by faster than you think, hang in there, and sooner than you think you'll be back in your second home.

We hope this helps you in any way. Don’t forget that it’s very normal to feel very confused and lost, we all went through that after we returned from our exchanges, I don’t know anyone that didn’t. Also, make sure to check out our community @exchangelifecommunity, where other exchange students share their stories and experiences, it will probably offer some great help, and make you realize that you’re not the only one, it’s normal to feel some type of way.

Thank you for reading! I hope that you can put some of this advice to use, and feel heard and understood throughout the post. Don’t hesitate to contact me with any requests or questions. You can check out our podcast here! Available on multiple platforms and starting to upload again in September.

1 comment on Returning Home From Your Exchange ...
  • Laura Mangum-Childers
    Laura Mangum-Childers August 08, 2022

    Silvia is my host daughter. Not “was” Because she forever will be my daughter. As I’ve told her 100 times, sometimes I forget I did not birth her myself. As you can tell, she’s an incredible young woman and my family has been changed forever because of her. The pain was so real That last week. The last 24 hours were excruciatingly painful. And I knew she was hurting and as a parent that’s the hardest thing in the world…to not be able to relieve pain from your children. All these feelings are real. Lots of love to all host families, students and loved ones. And especially mija, Silvia

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Exchange isn’t a period in your life, it’s a life within a period…
Exchange isn’t a period in your life, it’s a life within a period…
Exchange isn’t a period in your life, it’s a life within a period…
Exchange isn’t a period in your life, it’s a life within a period…
Exchange isn’t a period in your life, it’s a life within a period…
Exchange isn’t a period in your life, it’s a life within a period…

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