Every year, Greenheart Travel awards scholarships for First Time Travelers who haven’t had the chance to go abroad before. Greenheart Travel knows the power of travel and we really believe that the world would be a better place if everyone had more chances to interact with people from different ways of life than their own.
Here is a report from Lauren, a First Time Traveler award winner, who is spending her exchange year in a Netherlands high school. Her experience is a reminder to keep an open mind and enjoy the moments.
Choosing to go on an exchange year is a huge decision, and one that has both advantages and disadvantages. While you are leaving your family, friends, and basically your whole life behind for an entire year, you are also getting the opportunity to see a new country and really delve into a different culture. While applying and planning for my exchange year, I wasn’t able to really picture what it would be like and how I would feel while on my exchange. But now that I have lived abroad in the Netherlands for a few months, I am able to speak much more about this topic. For the past couple of weeks I have really started to reflect on the fact that I left my life in the United States behind for an entire year. It’s a crazy thing to think about.
Traveling to a new continent for the first time was quite overwhelming and anxiety inducing, so it was very comforting to have the first week with other exchange students. We were all experiencing the same thing, and really feeling like we had no idea what was going on. Apart from being comforting, the orientation week was one of the best experiences of my life. I made so many new friends from around the world and it was truly amazing to hear about their different lives and cultures. I’ve kept in touch with a few of those I became closest with, and this is one of the things that I recommend doing most. It is extremely helpful to have someone who can relate to how you feel, especially when it comes to experiencing homesickness and culture shock. However, it is important to also remember that you are here to experience a new country and culture, so you should also focus on making friends that are actually from your host country. Those who I became friends with are people that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
After orientation week, I hit a low. I was in a new country, in a new home, and with a new family. It was pretty overwhelming. I took it day by day and kept reminding myself that I was finally experiencing the thing I had dreamed about for so long. As I got settled into school, found a routine, and made new friends it became much better. It’s really important to remember that these feelings of homesickness and sadness are completely normal. It’s just part of being an exchange student.
School in the Netherlands is very different from school in the United States. I usually start school at nine in the morning, but some days it is earlier or later. I wake up and get ready to ride my bike to the bus stop. I live in a small town in the north of the Netherlands, and lately it has been very foggy and cold in the mornings. Still, I enjoy it. From my town to school, it is about a twenty minute bus ride. Many kids, including myself, live in a different town than the one they go to school in. You can either bike, ride the bus, or ride the train to school. Riding the bus is actually something that I enjoy doing, as long as it isn’t too crowded and I get a seat. Once I get to school, I go to the classes that I have that day. Another way that Dutch school is different from American school is that you have different classes each day and, often, you have gap hours in between classes. During the gap hours my friends and I usually walk to a supermarket nearby to get some snacks. It’s a small thing, but it really is fun! After school I ride the bus back to my town and then bike to my house. I end school at a different time each day, which is typical for Dutch schools. Some days I’ll do my homework right when I get home, but other days it’s nice to just relax. Learning in a foreign language is a difficult thing to do and my brain needs a rest sometimes!
Another thing that I recommend doing while on your exchange year is joining some sort of sport or activity after school. I joined the local soccer team in my town and it has been a really good way to make friends that live where I do, especially since I go to school in a different city. It’s really nice to have something to do after school and on the weekends. It definitely also helps me with my Dutch because I learn so many new words that I frequently hear at practices and games. I know many other exchange students who participate in sports or other activities and they all really enjoy it.
While I have only been on my exchange year in the Netherlands for about three months, I’ve still been able to do so much. I have made so many new friends, both Dutch and other exchange students, and I’ve been able to see many different parts of the country. I visited two other exchange students in their placement cities, Arnhem and Enschede. I really enjoyed visiting these cities, and they are probably not ones that I would have gone to if I were a tourist. I would say that that is an advantage of being an exchange student. You visit places in your chosen country that you wouldn’t normally go to as a tourist! I’ve also been able to visit Amsterdam twice, and I have been to Rotterdam and Leeuwarden! In addition to this, I have had the opportunity to visit different parts of Friesland, the province that I live in, with my host family. It has truly been amazing to see so many different parts of the Netherlands!
Being an exchange student is a hard thing to do, but it is an experience that is extremely rewarding. Even though I am not even halfway done with my exchange year, I can already see some of these rewards. I’ve navigated some tough situations, made new friends from around the world that I’m already planning to visit, and gained more independence. Despite any feelings of homesickness, all the good parts of my exchange have made it worth it.
Thanks Lauren for sharing!