I was lucky enough to spend a year in Sweden, and damn, it was amazing. Within the first week of being at my exchange university, I had already joined two student societies and an orchestra and threw myself into freshers week. My Facebook friends list rapidly grew with each new flat party or ESN event I attended, and I savoured each trip I took to a new country. Even the classes I took were better than those at home (one subject per term and constant coffee breaks in lectures and seminars with the tutor bringing biscuits for the students).
And then it was time to go home.
I enrolled for my final year at my home university and applied for courses out of a shortlist of choices while reminiscing about the exciting specialist subjects you could take in Sweden. I moved into my new flat while remembering my student accommodation and the 30 other people that lived on my floor. I walked to my first lecture of the year on a cold rainy September morning with an instant coffee in hand, recalling the sunny bike rides I used to enjoy to my faculty via my favourite café. I felt like my life had become mundane. Is this what my life was like before I went on an exchange?
And then, when I was talking to a friend who had returned from Norway, she mentioned that she felt the same, and her brother did too when he went on his exchange. More so, even. He had returned from his 8 months to exams over the summer and had no adjustment period. It was a reverse cultural shock to return to what life was before his time abroad, and he felt his old friends had grown used to life without him being around. And they didn’t connect with him in the same way, they were slowly growing apart. They hadn’t shared the experience, so they struggled to understand it at all.
I was really lucky, living with a friend who had also gone abroad for a year and feeling the lack of Scandinavia. Quite often, Norway or Sweden rose in conversation, and we threw Norwegian or Swedish phrases at each other, having somewhat learnt the languages when abroad. We threw Nordic Nights featuring cinnamon buns and board games with friends, and the ache lessened. My boyfriend, who I had met during my exchange, moved over to Scotland, and I slowly grew a network of post-exchange students around me.
A few months into being back home, life started feeling happier again. It became the norm, and I felt like I was falling into step with my old habits again – except they weren’t old habits. I realised that the way I was living life was a mixture of my life before and during the exchange, the best of both working in harmony. This was when I realised how much my exchange had changed me for the better. It wasn’t a matter of how much I had changed as a person, but my outlook on life and the positive habits I had developed. My study habits and practices were much healthier as I was making sure I took regular breaks and social time as the Swedish do. I had become more confident in speaking up in class and talking to my tutors about anything I was unsure about, where a few years before I would have been terrified to voice any opinion in the fear it was wrong. And most importantly, I still kept up a part of my Swedish life, integrating it into my new one.
The most valuable lesson I learned from my exchange was not how the Swedish or the Scottish live their lives, and what was better or worse, but rather how to live my own life. I became much more confident in myself and developed positive habits. Yes, an exchange is about living in a new country for a while, and yes your eyes are opened to an international culture, and yes there are amazing people and countries you meet and visit. But most importantly, you learn about yourself. Post-Erasmus depression taught me this – always look at the positives of life and how you can become a better person. Constantly look to develop yourself and throw yourself into whatever opportunities come your way. Just because you are no longer on an exchange doesn’t mean you can’t join a new society or still be involved in the international groups in your community.
Finally, the biggest thing that helped me become grounded again was to join my local ESN section when I returned to my home country. Having events and projects to work on that would help international students feel at home in their host country let me give back to a network that helped me so much at the beginning of my exchange. The students I was helping to engage in their new country were in the same boat as I had been in last year, so we were able to form connections very quickly and help each other to feel at home. I was also able to talk to other people who had come back from the exchange and were feeling the same as me and missing their host country. Having a network of people around you to support the transition back to your home country is really important to help you adapt back while also having someone to talk to who completely understands your pain. ESN gave me an international family and made me feel at home again.
Plus, there is always a Masters or job abroad, right?!