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How to survive a difficult exchange year

The view over Névache village from the author's front yard. (Ayda Uğurel/YJI)

Névache, FRANCE – Not every exchange year is a dream. Yes, that’s right, not every exchange student is experiencing that incredible and the most unforgettable school year of their lives.

In fact, we all do have various and pretty subjective problems. I know that, because I am an exchange student too, right now, in the French Alps. My exchange year is going to end in less than a month and I wanted to make the future exchange students know that they’re not alone. 

The author when she first arrived in Paris with all the other exchange students on a boat trip across the river Seine, in front of Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. (Ayda Uğurel/YJI)

I came to Paris nine months ago with a bunch of other exchange students from all around the world. After a two-day-long orientation camp in the capital city, we all got scattered in different regions of France where our host families live.

I came to a tiny village called Névache, at an altitude of 1,596 meters in the middle of the Alps, where there are only 360 inhabitants. I knew that it was going to be really different from what I was used to, as I was coming from Istanbul, Türkiye – the largest city in Europe – but I never thought that I would experience so many big changes at once.

I’ve been living here for nine months now and I’m still not used to this place.

I’m still having a hard time and it’s obvious that this lifestyle is not my cup of tea. So here comes my first piece of advice: if you’re not feeling comfortable where you’re hosted, don’t be afraid to change your host family, if you can.

I was so scared to do it, as I didn’t know whether my new host family would be better than my current one. This is my biggest regret. Your exchange year is an adventure and you shouldn’t be scared of taking risks sometimes. I’m not saying that I don’t like my host family, but the space they created for me was not in my shape and I couldn’t fit in – I see it like that. 

I was lucky. My friends and my teachers were amazing. They helped me a lot during this year and I’m so grateful.

The view of the French Alps from Col de l’Echelle, Névache. (Ayda Uğurel/YJI)

But it’s inevitable that as an exchange student, you’re going to be on your own a little bit more than you were in your home country, which is a great thing, in my opinion. You’ll be able to get to know yourself better, and sometimes the only place where you’ll find peace is in your own solitude.

Your desire to be on your own can worry those around you and they may not realize how exhausted you are from all the changes. In times like these, you may feel like you’re missing out on a lot. You came here to say yes to life and you may blame yourself for that, but I’m telling you: that’s okay and that’s normal.

Your mental health is more important than anything and you definitely should listen to the needs of your body. Some days you won’t find the energy either for certain activities or for some interactions with other people, but most of the days you will. 

Food is a really important part of a culture. Stress or dissatisfaction can make you eat a lot and that can make you gain weight. Or vice versa – you can lose weight as a result of changes in the nourishment you’re getting. Both situations can trigger some body issues – or worse – eating disorders.

I want you to know that this is also normal. I know a lot of exchange students, and the number of people who did not experience changes in their bodies is very small.

I gained 10 kilos in a really short period of time and had to change all my wardrobe in order to fit into my clothes, but I also lost the extra weight when I finally managed to have a daily routine.

Generally, you come back to your habitual weight when you go back home, but even if you don’t, that’s okay. 

A typical snowy day during winter in the French Alps, Roubion, France. (Ayda Uğurel/YJI)

Homesickness is probably the best known exchange student problem. It happens when you don’t feel like you belong where you’re hosted. And it doesn’t have a schedule, it can happen anytime, anywhere, in any circumstance.

Most of the people say that if you call your family or friends in your home country, homesickness gets worse, but I don’t completely agree. Sometimes they are the ones we need the most and we look for a familiar voice, a familiar language, a familiar attitude of mind.

Still, don’t call them very often, because then your friends and family back home – and your host family – will worry about you. It makes it hard on everyone, including you.

It’s tough to live in between two worlds and if you try to be full-time present in both of them, you’ll certainly get overwhelmed.

You might be suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out), but the life that you have to concentrate on is the one abroad.

It’s a hard choice, I know, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you need to try to make the most of it. 

Being an exchange student is difficult, and being “the stranger” makes it harder. But in spite of everything, I’m glad I embarked on this journey.

The best part is that you get to know a lot of different people from all around the world and you build up special international, even intercontinental, friendships.

You learn how to deal with your hardships and how to express yourself more effectively.

If you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out for it. Communication is the key and we’re all human at the end of the day.

Be proud of yourself for you’ve made a courageous decision that’ll help you become a better version of yourself.

Seize the day. 

Ayda Uğurel is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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