Eight years ago today, I was 16 years old, pretending to be brave while standing at Logan Airport saying goodbye to my parents and sister as I left for my year abroad in Finland. I remember that day like it happened yesterday: I can tell you exactly what I was wearing and word for word what my parents said to me. I remember what gate I was at and exactly how the TSA guy tried to cheer me up when he saw that I was tearing up while waiting in line. I was terrified and so beyond excited. I couldn’t believe my parents were actually letting me leave home to go spend 11 months in Europe: how could that be anything but amazing? What I didn’t realize was that those 11 months were not only about to change my life in an immediate sense, but also that they would continue to change it for the next 8 years.
I don’t really know what I expected when I decided to go abroad. I wanted to get away from my teeny tiny hometown and high school, meet new people and collect a ton of cool stories to tell when I got back. What I did not expect was that I would meet people who would change the way I thought about myself and the world, or that I would learn another language, become a better student, involve my entire family in the program and find a second family. I definitely did not expect to still be learning, growing and changing as much as I am 8 years later because of that experience.
I studied abroad with Rotary Youth Exchange, who placed me with two amazing host families in Finland, allowing me to forge countless friendships with people from all over the world. The same year that I was abroad, my family back in the States hosted our first exchange student, Caridad, from Ecuador. We’re going to visit her in two weeks. Since then, we’ve hosted students from Finland, Japan, Slovakia, Belgium, Chile, Turkey and Zanzibar. My mom now runs the program and we have helped mentor and put through orientations both inbound and outbound students for seven years. It’s been an amazing international family to be a part of!
I think the biggest way being an exchange student impacted my life is through the people I met. I never woul dhave come into contact with these friends from Finland and around the world otherwise, and I’m still in touch with them 8 years later. I have visited them in their home states and countries and they have visited me. In the last year alone I was able to experience two incredible trips with people from exchange at extremely pivotal points in my career and my life. Spending time with them helped change my perspective immensely and helped me make some really big decisions that led me to a point where I am pursuing a career that I’m passionate about, improving my quality of life and even considering a big move!
Throughout my trip to Bali and Australia I was continuously shocked at how the people I was traveling with were people I met, now, 8 years ago. No matter how long it’s been since I’ve seen them it feels like we’ve never been apart. The friendships I made that year are ones that have withstood 8 years and countless miles, and I hope will continue to last.
I was also bit by the travel bug in the best and biggest way. Finland was only my second time out of the country, but since then I have been fortunate enough to travel to over 25 countries and (after Ecuador) every continent but Antarctica, including a second study abroad program in London. I’m so glad I’ve been able to experience some of these things with my family, but I’ve loved being able to experience so many more alone and with friends, old and new!
These are just a few ways that being an exchange student changed my life. If you have been around me when I start talking about it, you know that I tell everyone that they should study abroad. The experiences you will have and the bonds you form while living away from familiarity and far out of your comfort zone in a foreign country are unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. Being an exchange student gave me a love of travel, and traveling has allowed me to form some of the best friendships in my life.
This post was a little bit different and a lot bit personal so thanks for sticking around and reading!