In the vast realm of inspirational quotes to be found on the internet, there is one relevant to student exchange that comes up over and over again. I suppose this makes sense, because that one quote alone perfectly defines the experience of studying in a foreign country, especially as a youth:
“An exchange year is not a year in the life but a life in a year.”
This is a statement that is used time and again by students describing their study abroad experiences, and for good reason. It is not uncommon for students who participate in an exchange year to see their time spent overseas as a completely new life, rather than another three-hundred and sixty-five day period within their “regular” life.
This was certainly the case for me. During my time abroad both as a student and teacher, I remember becoming frustrated when someone from home would ask with the best of intentions, “How is France?” Posing this question to an exchange student is, at least in my experience, like asking someone “How is your life?” and expecting a concise and uncomplicated answer. No one’s entire life can be explained in a matter of sentences over a phone call or an email exchange. The same is true of explaining an overseas exchange experience. You could talk about your school, your host family, your new friends, your daily routine, all of the parts that come together to complete the puzzle that is your existence in another country.
For this reason, returning home from any significant time spent abroad can be difficult because it requires falling back into a life that you haven’t lived since you were almost a year younger and less wise than you are today. You have changed and become accustomed to a new reality and become part of a family and community that is now an ocean away. Commonly referred to as reverse culture shock, this can be every bit as difficult as culture shock, which is the period of adjustment many people experience after arriving in a foreign country.
Not only is an exchange year a “year, in a life,” but for me, it also serves as a memory tool. I remember events solely by whether they happened before or after my time spent living abroad. I must say, this has been quite helpful in determining when many of my memories occurred that may otherwise be blurred together! What’s more, I think I remember a higher concentration of events, emotions and experiences during those “lives within years” spent away from my home country. I’ve never been happier, lonelier, braver or more scared than I was during those nine months. I met people with whom I remained in contact with for only a few short weeks and people to whom I still speak regularly; they all have had a profound influence on who I am and how I see the world today. I wouldn’t trade those “lives” for anything.
But don’t think you have to leave home to have a life in a year; being part of a host family provides a similar experience. Clear memories defined by a new family member’s presence, meeting someone who may only be part of your every day life for a short while but will remain in your heart forever.