By: Matthew Phillips
Anyone who has ever participated in an exchange has experienced a tipping point where they decide to go all in. For some, that point is at the beginning of their first or second year of university. For others, that point was before they even graduated high school. For me, that huge, go all in decision was one week before the deadline to submit applications. I believe most people have some preconceived notion of what living abroad will be like; that there is never a dull moment and that everything works out perfectly, and that isn’t completely wrong! It is the imperfections in your journey that make it memorable and the milestone challenges you overcome that will have the largest impact. To try to paint a more accurate picture of how my experience went, I believe it can be best explained through the five stages of adjustment you may experience abroad.
Stage One: Honeymoon
For many exchange students, the first few days after arriving in their host country is usually described as a time of excitement and happiness, it feels almost surreal as your dream of living abroad is coming true. In this first week, your school may set up fun activities and organize events to get to know other students, and with classes not yet having begun, you are relatively carefree. For me, this stage best exhibited itself before I left for exchange, when all of the excitement of leaving was still building up. In reality however, my own arrival felt like more of a sudden jump to stage two – frustration.
Stage Two: Frustration
In this stage, differences between your home and host culture start to become apparent, problems that may have been small inconveniences at home are now seen as large, daunting tasks. Misunderstandings may begin to add up; you may begin to feel frustrated, anxious or even homesick when trying to adjust to the shock of living in a new country. When I first got to my apartment in Marseille it seemed as if anything that could go wrong, went wrong. Everything from not having any sheets, blanket or pillows on my pull out bed made worse by all stores being closed at 6 p.m., to realizing the administrative process for my travel visa and health insurance was incomplete. All I wanted was help, but I didn’t know anyone yet. This stage is essentially thinking: “how am I going to be able to do this?” But, when you realize that this stage is only temporary, your feelings will quickly change.
Stage Three: Adjustment
You are now a few weeks (or for me, days) in; you start to make friends, develop a routine and become more courageous when it comes to exploring the city. Your day to day becomes easier and you start to feel comfortable in your new home. Also known as the ‘humour’ stage, you might now be able to look back and laugh at the inconveniences you faced in the previous stage of adjustment. For me, this began after making a few friends and realising that I am not in this alone (joining academic/athletic clubs at your school is great for this!). You begin to understand the city layout and figure out the customs/common courtesies. You now realize that you are definitely able to do this.
Stage Four: Acceptance
The fourth stage begins when the thought of returning home feels a little uncomfortable because you start to consider your new life as ‘home’. At this stage, you have begun to adopt aspects your host country’s culture and feel more like part of the community. Those odd social customs that at first seemed foreign have now become your new normal, such as greeting people by a kiss on the cheek. At this point, you are a few months into your journey and you might even begin to picture yourself living there indefinitely. You may have also visited your fair share of countries or cities outside of the one in which you live, and you have gained a new appreciation for just how diverse the world really is. You now consider the people you once saw as strangers as some of your closest friends.
Stage Five: Re-Entry (Coming Home!)
This last stage might also be the most difficult stage because at this point, you have become so familiar with your new home that the thought of leaving actually hurts. You reflect on all the amazing experiences you had and the relationships you have made and realize how fast the semester went by. You and your friends will even start to plan on how to visit each other after you leave. You wish you could stay because it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. This past semester has meant so much to me because I have built lifelong relationships with people from all over the world, I was able to travel Europe on my own and take in the cultures from new cities, and I was able to discover more about myself through handling difficult situations and adapting to a completely new environment that I would have never discovered otherwise.
Studying abroad is something that I believe every student should experience as it truly changes your life for the better. This journey will be an emotional rollercoaster, but I promise you, it will be worth every second.
Matthew is a fourth year student at the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University. He studied abroad for a single term at Kedge School of Business, in Marseille, France. He is currently taking a year off to pursue internships at Scotiabank and CIBC.