Living abroad - Part 1: My year as a highschool exchange student

Friday, May 22, 2015

Depending of what life stage you're in there are different ways of realizing the dream of living abroad. One of Sarah's and mine greatest passions has always been traveling, but at some point we craved for more than just a simple vacation in another country. To really get to know another culture and learn a new language it's great to move abroad for a longer time period. That's why when I was 15 I decided that I wanted to take part in a highschool exchange. My dad and his siblings all spend a year in the US during their highschool time, thus I learned early on that this actually is a possibility. Especially, since my dad always told me stories about his time in Maryland and all the fun stuff he did, I've always wanted to embark on this kind of adventure as well.

Source: AFS
The organization I chose to go on exchange with is called AFS and they offer spots on every continent. It's one of the oldest exchange organizations in the world and is also a not-for-profit organization. Initially, AFS (which stands for American field Service) was a group of American ambulance drivers who operated during World War I & II. However, instead of just helping their soldiers and allies, they picked up everyone in need of help. In the hospitals they then noticed that all soldiers, no matter which side they were fighting for, started talking to each other and sharing experiences. This inspired the AFSers to create an exchange between different cultures in order to foster understanding leading to peace. First, the exchange was mainly between German highschool students and US students, but soon it grew and now there are AFS offices in more than 50 countries and even more countries are participating in the exchange program. To this day I still volunteer for AFS and counsel exchange students.

But now more about my personal experience: So after I applied and also got selected to participate in the AFS program to Quebec, Canada, I've had three preparation weekends and lots of paperwork to do. Then, a couple of months later, on the 20th August 2010, and after lots of hugs and tears, I finally boarded the plane that would take me to Montreal. Upon my arrival there, my hostfamily picked me up and we drove to their place (about an hour drive east of Montreal) where I've got to meet everyone and see the house I'd be living in for the next eleven months. Since AFS is a not-for-profit organization the host families aren't paid for hosting students, but solely do so for the experience. To qualify as an AFS host family you just have to have a spare room and a welcoming household, you can be a single parent, retired, childless, gay, of any religion and so on. The only thing that matters is that you will take good care of the exchange student. My hostfamily consists of a mum and dad as well as three little boys and still to this day I consider them my second family and home.

Neighborhood of my host family's house

Parc Nationale de la Yamaska - 5 minutes from my host family's house
After a few days it was my time for my first day at school and it was super exciting. I know, it sounds scary to fly to a continent where you don't know anyone, live with a family you don't know, and then walk into a high school where you don't know anyone while not speaking the local language (In Quebec people mainly speak French), but it's also one of the most inspiring things I've ever done in my life. I learned French in a couple of months and quickly I started to adapt to my new life. Because that's what an exchange year is really all about: creating a life in another country. As soon as the snow started falling, I spent most of my time on the mountain snowboarding with my friends and hostfamily and I have to admit that I ditched school more than once to enjoy some fresh snow.

Give me a mountain covered in snow and my snowboard and I'm the happiest girl alive
Backyard fun
The year I've spent in Canada definitely was one of the best in my life, but I also went through phases of homesickness. There were times when all I wanted to do is go hop on a plane and run into my mum's arms, but I guess every exchange student sometimes feels this way. After all, I have the most amazing hostfamily that always made me feel welcome and appreciated. Especially my little host brothers are just the cutest yet annoying little guys.

Road trip with my hostfamily

Early morning at the St. Lawrence River
Together with my hostfamily I've got to see quite a bit of Quebec and we also went on a trip to New York City together. I also went to Toronto and Ottawa, but definitely still need to go on a trip to the western part of Canada. Even though, eleven months sounds like a long time, looking back it feels like the time passed a lot quicker. Once you're actually able to follow conversations, start getting invited to everyone's birthday parties and start getting annoyed by school, the time just flies. Before you know it you're on a plane back home and then once you get home you'll be "homesick" for your exchange destination. Or at least that's what I experienced. Of course I was super excited to see my family and friends in Germany, but the first few weeks back home were quite tough on me. Canada simply became my second home. Since coming back from my exchange, I went to Canada two more times to see my hostfamily and friends and each time it's nearly as tough to leave them as it was when I first went back to Germany.

The parents of one of my friends kindly invited me to go on a boat trip with them
Old streets of Montreal
Road trip to Toronto
Anyways, long story short: An highschool exchange is an experience I recommend to everyone no matter for how long or where. Unfortunately, it can end up being quite expensive, but if you plan ahead and try to score a scholarship (and there are lots!) it gets easier.

I'll be forever grateful to my parents who supported me in my decision to go abroad and lived through some teary Skype calls, to my hostfamily for making me part of their family, my Quebecer friends who still make fun of my accent, and the other exchange students with whom laughed about weird Quebecer traditions. My exchange year in Canada has had a huge impact on my life decisions and I wouldn't trade all the fun memories I've made in Quebec for the world. So I hope this posts shows you that going on exchange is not as scary as it sounds. It taught me to depend on myself and showed me that your origins do not define who you are. What matters is what you do with your life and what impact you have on other people's lives.

- Svenja

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