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Two UBC students chatting on the grassy knoll outside the AMS Nest
December 17, 2018
5 mins read

Returning home from exchange

Going on exchange to London was one of the best experiences of my life. It was something I had always wanted to do, and it challenged me and helped me grow in so many amazing ways.

However, as exciting as it was to go on exchange, one of the biggest challenges I faced was also one that I didn’t initially expect—coming home.

While I knew I would be sad to leave London, I thought that returning to my routine in Vancouver would only take two or three weeks. After that, I could apply all the great things I learned while I was away and move forward.

I was wrong. Feeling normal in Vancouver didn’t take me two or three weeks—it took me almost four months. That’s as long as most people’s whole exchange term.

Rather than the smooth transition I thought it would be, coming home was a rocky road with a lot of pitfalls, some of which I’m still navigating. It hasn’t been easy, but coming home has taught me almost as much as going away—it’s an important part of the journey, too.

Whether you’ve just come home from exchange or will be at some point in the future, here are some things to think about as you adjust back to your “regular” life:

Reconnecting with friends

I went on exchange for the whole academic year, which ended up being almost ten months. When I came back, one of my friends matter-of-factly stated that I had been gone for a year-and-a-half, almost twice as long as I had actually been gone.

The year had felt like a long time to me, but it felt like a really long time to my friends.

I tried to keep in touch while I was away, but everyone’s busy schedule, the time difference, and all the new things I was experiencing made it difficult. This meant I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I came home—what were my relationships going to be like?

Initially, everyone seemed exactly the same as when I left.

However, I realized that, just as I had changed over the year, my friends had as well, and so had their own relationships.

While I picked up where I left off with a lot of people, my friends were used to living life without me, and I wasn’t immediately part of people’s routines again.

Initiating social events myself helped, and so did making as much effort to learn about people’s years as they did about mine. Chances are, your friends did some pretty interesting things while you were away, and it’s important you hear about them.

Getting reacquainted with your friends can be really exciting, because you can see all the cool ways they’ve grown. You may have the impulse to just be alone when you come back, but it’s important to make some room to reconnect with the special people in your life at home. It may take time, but with a bit of patience, you’ll find your place among your friends again.

Finding the new you back home

In the few weeks leading up to my return to Vancouver, all the things I had discovered and learned over my year seemed to come together. Finding a sense of home in a new country had given me a better sense of who I was, increased self-confidence, and a more optimistic outlook on the world than I had before.

Coming back to Vancouver really challenged these feelings. Building a life in the U.K. meant that I didn’t really have much structure left in Canada. Finding work and housing was very stressful, and starting from (what felt like) scratch was bruising to my ego and confidence.

The financial and emotional insecurity made it really difficult to implement all the things I learned in London. It became clear to me that I would have to build my life in Vancouver from the ground-up again to reach that same confident spot I had been at in London.

If I could give advice to myself, it would have been to put in more effort before my flight home to look for employment and housing back in Vancouver—but hindsight is 20/20.

Part of the experience of going on exchange is coming home, and having to figure your life out again.

Even though it was challenging to create a sense of normalcy again, as I’ve found jobs and resettled into a structure of my life in Vancouver, I’ve gained a much better perspective of what I want out of my life. Being able to compare my life on exchange, and my “real” life back here has made me realize that there is no set “track” I need to be on, and I can live my life however works best for me. I’m more comfortable with taking risks, and I’ve learned to trust my instincts a lot more.

Now, I’m slowly incorporating the lessons I learned on my exchange about self-confidence. Things moved really fast while I was away, and my life goes slower here, meaning that I don’t have crazy revelations on the regular or travel to new countries every other week. It’s ok to take time to build the “you” that you want to be.

Your discovery doesn’t have to end

When I got back, I just wanted things to feel like they had before I left. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, because it can be comforting to settle back into an old routine. Finding solace in the familiar was a good way for me to reconnect with Vancouver.

Now, I can look past the familiar and expand my routine to include the sense of wonder I had on exchange. The excitement of discovery you experience on your exchange doesn’t have to end when you come home. Keep saying yes to new things and stepping out of your comfort zone, because there’s new people to meet and new things to do wherever you may be in the world.

You aren’t defined by your location. Vancouver is an amazing city, and so is London, but at the end of the day, I’ve found that I can be the best version of myself regardless of where I’m living.

Perspective from past to future

One last thing—there have been times when I felt like my exchange never happened at all. As much as you may talk about your time abroad and as much as your friends and family may try to understand it, it’s a very individual experience that can be hard to grasp for other people who haven’t gone through something similar.

It’s ok to reminisce sometimes if you’re feeling a little isolated. There’s nothing wrong with looking at some pictures and thinking about the great times you had. More importantly, keep in touch with the friends you shared your exchange experience with—they could end up being life-long friendships!

Just remember that a lot of retrospective learning and growth come from reflecting with the present and future in mind. Your exchange was great, but how can that make you into a better person today and tomorrow? There’s a whole world of new opportunities for you to keep exploring.

Coming home can be hard, but if you approach it with the same open mind you approached your exchange with, you could find that it’s just as much of an opportunity to learn.