3 things I’ve learned on exchange

This winter, I went on exchange as part of my undergraduate studies. I spent four months studying, working and travelling in Europe, with Paris being my home-base. Outside of being extremely excited to see Europe for the first time, I was also eager to connect with the art centre of the world and practice photography.

Having overcome some personal challenges just prior to leaving, I felt hopeful that exchange would bring a positive change to my life and help me to find a sense or purpose, or direction. Not surprisingly, both of these things happened. While it is hard to distill all my experiences, I have tried my best - here are the realizations that changed and guided me.

1 // Second guess yourself

Here are two stories that taught me to value second-guessing myself. Having experienced these two fortunate events, I now take it upon myself to say yes more often.

I made a good friend on exchange - Boss. Boss and I would regularly visit museums and scout for different places to shoot photos. I could count on him to have my back more than my own roommate. But I almost never gave Boss a chance. When I first met Boss I thought he was a pretentious rich kid. He had 300€ loafers and his hat on backwards. What kind of name is Boss anyways? Still, he offered to hang out and I hesitantly agreed. I’m glad I didn’t shut Boss down. The time we spent together accounted for some of the most interesting things I’ve done on exchange, that I would have never considered doing on my own.

I also had a very rewarding internship during my exchange. I worked from the American Library in Paris, helping to host evening events and photograph their speakers. Once, while traveling through Italy, I got put on assignment to photograph in the kitchen of celebrity chef David Lebovitz. I was ecstatic. But I almost never made it out to the Library (funny enough, I also got lost on the way there). My school had arranged a Saturday tour and no one signed up to go. I was interested in seeing the Library, but didn’t want to miss out on whatever activity the other students were doing. In the end, I reassessed my priorities and went anyways. I’m glad I made that first trip. The time I spent working at the Library helped me integrate with the local community and gave me a sense of purpose to my time on exchange.

2// Stay positive

Up until exchange, I had not lived separately from my family since I attended boarding school in 1999. A large part of my experience living alone* again was
learning to manage my feelings when there was no one to turn to. When we live with our family or our partner, we can depend on them to give us affirmation and physical touch. Without this, it’s easy to turn on ourselves or others for not knowing how to address negative emotions. Whenever this happened, I found it useful to think along these lines: in difficult situation, the only variable you have control over is yourself, so do your best to stay positive. If I am sad tonight, tomorrow I can start fresh and try to move past whatever it was that saddened me. If not, I can learn to coexist with these unpleasant feelings and still say yes experiencing new things. it’s important that once you have gotten into the habit of thinking positively, to stay positive. It felt rewarding to know that my positivity benefited the people around me on exchange, as others looked to me for advice.
* living alone is used loosely in context here. I had a roommate who was also my classmate and we had a good dynamic together.

3// Walk everywhere

While this is far less serious in scope that the previous two, I am really proud of this one.

In Toronto, I proudly identify myself as a commuter. As such, walking has never fazed me but travelling put that to the test. What started out as walking everywhere out of necessity eventually became walking everywhere by choice. The pedometer app on my phone was going off the charts. Walking long distances daily helped me become more confident in my physical abilities and more self-sufficient. I felt challenged to be more active, and found inspiration in all the people exercising in the beautiful parks and public spaces in Paris. Having returned from exchange, I took the next step and started running. While it is not much, it is a big deal for me. I had never enjoyed running up until now. With the early stages of training behind me, I am feeling quite accomplished to participate in my first 5k this month.

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