It's been a year since I came back from exchange. I haven't seen a lot of exchange students write about what it was like to come home, and back when I was going through it I really would have liked to hear someone else's thoughts about it. So here's my experience: what it was like to come back, why it was hard, and what I've learnt since then. Enjoy!
Almost exactly a year ago, on the 25th of June, 2018, I came home after spending 10 months in Michigan as a foreign exchange student. During those 10 months Ann Arbor had become my second home, where I had awesome friends, a lovely host family, routines and hobbies, a whole another life. I had had the best time during those 10 months; I had made memories I'd never forget and learnt important things one can't learn at school. I had made friends who had been strangers to me just a year ago but were now so important, that it was hard to imagine what my life would be like without them. A place I had never even heard of before my exchange felt like a home to me, it had become my comfort zone.
So you can imagine how weird leaving all this behind and going back to Finland for good was to me. At the end of my exchange, my home country felt like a blurry old memory, the life I had lived prior to my exchange was like a distant dream. I felt like I had grown and changed so much during those 10 months abroad that it was hard to imagine fitting back to the routines of my "old life". I wasn't the same person I was when I left anymore. I was new, and this new Iida liked to speak English full time, take Mrs. Fitz's American Literature at school, play tennis in the school team, hang out in Downtown til late at night with her friends, take walks around sunny Burns Park and spend hours talking with her best friend at Starbucks. I had finally found my place in there and felt comfortable in the routines I had developed. In other words, I really liked my life in America and really didn't want to let go of it.
My last day in Michigan
Leaving was also hard because I didn't know what to expect. I was scared how much I would miss America. I was also scared that I would "lose" all the progress and growth I had done during the year. I was scared that the minute I'd go back to Finland, I would change back to be the same "old Iida", which I didn't want to be anymore. I wanted to hold on to being the new Iida. It sounds so silly now, but back then I would actually stress out about it.
Of course, I had missed my family and friends and other things in Finland very much during the year, and I was happy to go home and see everyone again. I love Finland with all my heart; the problem wasn't that I didn't wanna go back to Finland. It was that I didn't wanna leave Ann Arbor and the life I had created. But unfortunately, you can't be in two places at the same time...
So, yeah. I went home. At first it felt like the end of the world. I was a MESS the night before I left. It all felt so unreal. I remember how speechless I was when the plane landed in Helsinki. I couldn't get a word out, it was just so weird to be in Finland after what felt like such a long time. I flew home with a big group of other Finnish YFU exchange students, and we were all like "What the heck just happened?!?". It was lovely, though, to first see my sister and then my parents and our dog at the airport! But overall I think I was in shock the whole day when I came home.
The summer after I came home was... weird. I missed my friends and America every day so much that it hurt. I was struggling to find my place here again. I was home but also not. I was incredibly grateful for what I had got to experience, but sad that it was over. I was unsure about everything; when would I see my exchange student friends, who were now scattered around the world again, who would I keep in touch with, when would I be able to go back to Michigan, how would I keep up my English... Luckily, my family and friends here really helped me get through it. They welcomed me back so warmly and were patient with me when I didn't know what to do with myself. When I was with my loved ones, who had waited for me the whole year, I didn't miss Michigan or dwell in my memories. I was able to just live in that moment and enjoy their company I had missed so much. But when I was alone, I kept falling into this deep slump where I would go over my memories from exchange again and again, and all I would want to do was go back to Michigan for even just a second.
It felt impossible to imagine that a year later, I would still be in Finland, not Michigan, and be fully happy and content and balanced with my life.
Finland, however, was even more beautiful than I had remembered; it felt unreal that I lived in a place like it. Finnish summer is honestly pretty amazing. But it took time before this place would start to feel like my actual home again. Which is weird, considering I had lived here for 16 years before leaving for 10 months. It's crazy what just one year can do to you...
After a few months, I kind of calmed down. Facetiming to my friends and sharing thoughts with them helped a lot. I would still sometimes miss everything like hell, but I got slowly used to it. I was happy when school started, because that brought routines, new friends and old friends back into my life. I was able to move on. I was also happy to go to school again and pick up my studies from where I had left off before my exchange (though it was challenging at first). I remembered how much I actually enjoy learning and studying interesting topics after not taking school that seriously for a year. (None of the classes I took in America counted for me in Finland, so I had to redo a year. That's why I didn't really have motivation to do the schoolwork in America.) I would still miss Michigan very very much at times, I had bad days and better days. It wasn't easy to let go of it.
A lot has happened since last summer. I worked my butt off for school, tried new things such as doing theatre at school, kept on playing tennis (I started it in America), turned 18, partied with my girls, loved Finland more than ever, went to the Finnish prom (which was SO much fun), and kept living. In March, I watched my friends take their final exams and leave the school, as I would start studying for yet another regular exam week.
The spring was pretty crazy. Me and my sister Anna and our friend Emmi all won free Interrail passes from the DiscoverEU contest, and we started planning an Interrail trip for June. Anna and I wanted to fund the trip all by ourselves, so we set up a small window cleaning business to raise money. We would wash windows before school, after school, in the evening, and on weekends. While also doing our homework and studying for exams and planning the trip. April and May were probably the busiest months of my life so far, it was just insane. But I also really enjoyed running my own small business. It was so rewarding to see that we could actually earn money if we worked hard enough!
And then, finally, at the beginning of June, we got out of school, my friends graduated and I didn't, and then me and Anna and Emmi went on our own little adventure. Those two weeks of backpacking around Europe were awesome, we truly had the best time. It was so worth all the work!!!
The best possible reward for two months of endless to-do-lists.
So yeah. It's been quite a year. I have grown a lot. I see some things about my exchange differently now. I am more mature, more balanced and more confident than a year ago. I have learnt to trust that true friendship lasts no matter how big the distance is, if you're willing to work for it. Going through the "aftermath" of my exchange has not been easy, but I have learnt a lot about it. I think I will value this experience later in life even more.
But now, I can see that 10 months is such a short period of time in your life, and that there is so much yet to come after that. One year away from everything changed me a lot, but I have so much more yet to learn and it was so silly to think that my evolving would stop when I'd come back from exchange. Sure, one period of time in my life ended, but so what? It could not have gone on forever anyway. And it's definitely not like an exchange year in the middle of high school is the only cool international thing I'm ever gonna do. No, I'm already excited for doing an exchange from university, exploring the world more, maybe going solo traveling and so on!
Even though a year ago I almost couldn't imagine being in this situation, I can now say that I am really happy to be right here, right now. I am happy, and excited for the future. I still think about Michigan every day and miss it a lot. It's always going to be a part of me. But beyond everything, I am grateful. I still think that going on exchange was the best decision of my life. Sometimes I just stop to think how crazy it is how many wonderful things I've already got to experience. Like what did I do to deserve all this? It makes me humble.
To all the exchange students that are going through this right now, I wish you luck, and I promise you'll get over it. If anyone can relate, let me know!!
If you read all the way to the end, thank you, I really appreciate it. This is all I've got to say today. Let me know your thoughts about my post!