It’s hard to believe I’m leaving Canada tomorrow. I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet…
But perhaps since my “prep time” has come to an end, I should take some time to go over the things I remember most vividly about this experience.
It’s your job to have a desire, to have a passion and it’s entirely up to you to pursue it. No one is going to do it for you. You have to know what you like, what you want and what you’re willing to get it. You have to know your own priorities, your own capabilities and all your opportunities. Start planning early, be proactive and really go for whatever you want! I desperately wanted to go on exchange, so I started thinking about it in 1st year, I started asking questions and planning way ahead (because I could only apply in 2nd year) and I really think it helped. I have a friend who also wanted to go on exchange but she started thinking about it a little too late and it didn’t work out the way she’d wanted it to. You also have to be prepared to work hard. You have to do some research.
It takes work, but if you really want to do it, you can and most likely, you will!
You really have to be patient and careful with this part. There are a lot of forms, application papers, online stuff, people to track down… And humans make mistakes. You have to be pretty thorough too – I found two online mistakes made by other people in the school so I went to talk to them about it (face-to-face) and the mistake was fixed or cleared up. If you don’t understand something, go ask about it! And no matter how many forms you have to fill out, just keep going. Most of them ask for the same information over and over again and it can get very tiring and really annoying, but keep going anyway because when you get there, you’ll stop thinking about all the things you’d had to sign!
(It also helps if you have a signature… which I don’t really :-S)
Patience also really comes in handy with all the waiting you have to do. Thinking back on my whole exchange prep experience, I really had to do a lot of waiting. I had to wait for teachers to respond back to me, I had to wait to find out other people’s decisions, I had to wait for medical results, I had to wait for house hunting responses, etc. Be patient, all this waiting is worth it!
I know that wouldn’t make it any easier though.
As with many of the best things in life, exchanges require a lot of investment. There are application fees, medical fees, mailing fees and potentially phone fees as well, or gas fees maybe. Then of course you have to pay for plane tickets, for visas, for accommodations, etc. You have to think ahead about paying for rent each month, for food, for entertainment, for transportation. It can be a real headache and a lot of stress.
I am extremely lucky that my parents support this exchange and truly see this as an investment. I also worked really hard and saved my money as much as I could. I don’t really have too much advice I can offer about this, but it is possible even though it’s hard. It’ll probably take some sacrifices, but I still think it’s worth it. The life experience is worth it – well hopefully, I haven’t actually gone away yet but I’m sure it will be.
Having a birthday right before leaving is also really awesome 🙂
You need to work hard! You will be rewarded for working hard! You also need to plan ahead and find out how different aspects of your education career will be affected by your exchange. Some programs are designed to accommodate exchanges, others are not. Mine isn’t, but I talked about it with an undergraduate supervisor and she encouraged me to go anyway. I just have to come back for a 5th year to get the last few credits for my degree. It’s a small sacrifice to make for such an amazing opportunity!
It’s important to do your homework. Learn about the different schools/countries where you can go, think about the advantages and disadvantages of each one and make informed decisions. Once you find out where you are actually going, research more about the school, the country, etc. Find out about academic year, the classes, find out about the weather, the language, the history. Pay attention to your school/country in the news – you might hear something interesting. Look into neighborhoods, look into transportation (both within the city and outside the city/country), read up on some cultural traditions or food. Get to know the place you’re going to at least a little bit before you get there.
This was a big hassle for me. We’re all planners in this family. Usually we have our vacations thought-out really well way ahead of time – like months in advance. As soon as I found out I was heading to Belgium, I started looking for rooms to rent. It didn’t go well at all. I was consistently getting nothing! The price was beyond my means, the timing wouldn’t work for me, the people I’d be living with and/or renting from were sometimes inflexible. There are a lot of things to consider, a lot of things to look into and a lot of inquiries which sometimes came back negatively.
Before you start looking it’s important to think about where you want to be – consider proximity to your school, nearby public transportation, type of neighborhood (city, suburb, etc.), know your financial limitations. Think about what kind of setting you want to live in too. Do you want to live alone? What rooms are you willing or interested in sharing? How many people do you want to live with? What gender? What stage in life (working adults, students, families)?
Most of all, I have to say, be patient. I really can’t stress this enough. It was simply impossible to have everything planned out ahead of time, so I just kept going. I sent out inquiries to every ad I saw that fit my “musts” – even to some that didn’t and when I got a “no” back, I would have to keep trying and send out the next one. I had a number of really strong potentials, but they didn’t work out anyway.
But now, finally, I have an amazing place to stay! I’m really excited about it.
Yesterday, (on my 20th birthday!) I talked with a landlord and we came to an agreement! She seems incredibly nice too, she added me on Facebook right away and wished me a happy birthday and safe travels, she asked a little bit about my family, about Ottawa, about our travel plans.
The room is affordable (€350/month), it’s in a great location (across the street from campus) and it’s a perfect mix of male/female students for me. It’s a three story house, with a common kitchen and living area on the first floor and two female students on one floor with two male students either on the floor above, or the floor below. Four people, two male, two female – it’s perfect, what more could I want?!?!?
Anyway, I really encourage anyone planning for an exchange to keep at it – even until the last moment. I secured a room two days before we have to leave the country.
The other option is to wait until you get there (plan to arrive before you really NEED to be there) and choose a place you can visit, but to me, this is risky because you’ll be in a place you don’t know, there will be a lot of change all at once and it just seems harder in my mind.
You have to prepare yourself emotionally. I don’t know if I’m there yet or not, so maybe I can’t comment much on this point but I have been reminded my friends and family that keeping in touch is totally possible! The internet exists and it connects people all over the world – even in Belgium 😛
I have Facebook, I have this blog, I have Skype. I’m going to miss home too, so it’ll be in my interest to keep updating people and to find time to chat.
Finding some interesting things to see/do/visit while you’re away is good too, but don’t go overboard on the touristy stuff. You’ll have time to explore cool things since you’re going to be living there.
Plan on using the opportunity to travel. I’m so happy I’ll be in Europe because I’ll be able to visit other countries 🙂
Finally, and this is the biggest piece of advice I have, PRAY! Rely on God. He is our provider and He has the best plans for us. I know a lot of you won’t identify with this sentiment, but I cannot have done any of this exchange preparation without trusting the Lord. I knew He sent me on this trip, so I knew He knew what was going on, especially when I didn’t. Every night I prayed about different aspects of the trip, different people involved and I know if I didn’t have God to lean on, I would have had a hard time getting through the difficult times.
It’s not easy to leave everything you know, it’s not easy to have your plans change at the last moment, surprises aren’t always good, and challenges most definitely arise at the worst possible moments. You’ll get tired, you’ll get frustrated, you’ll get angry, you’ll probably cry and people around you will have different responses too. It was so important for me to have God to talk to about what I was feeling.
Well, now that the prep stuff is done (well mostly) I have to plan for actually living.
Just so you all know, I fly out in the morning to Paris, via Philadelphia. My parents fly out in the evening to Brussels via Montreal and Paris, so we’re meeting up in Paris to get to Brussels in the afternoon on Friday. Saturday morning, we’re flying to Belarus to spend some time with my family, and we’re meeting Alex there too. (I’ll meet with the landlady during our half-day).
So it’s a kind of complicated itinerary, and I’m far from getting settled into my new life, but the next time I write, I’ll be somewhere in Europe!
Remember, I’m not leaving Canada, I’m just going on an adventure. I’ll be back 🙂
The next coffee date will be international 😛
Love, hugs, and smiles.
PS, my mom will be using my cellphone number for the next ten months, so don’t try to text me at my old number. We’ll figure out if I’ll get a cellphone over there, I also have an address and would love to get snail-mail but if you really want to chat, Skype is the best option 🙂