Preparing to Go Home at the End of Your Exchange Year: The Beginning of the End – or just the Beginning?
In my last blog post, I talked about the difficult feelings my students have at this time of year as they begin to realize their exchange year is almost over. They are anxious, happy, and sad; they are looking forward to being back home over the summer and miss their parents and friends, but they know they will miss their host families and new friends here.
This week, I thought I would focus on some practical things students can do as their exchange year draws to a close.
Prepare a “to do” list of things you need to do before you return to your home country.
You might think to yourself that you don’t need a list. But once you start writing things down, you may find there is more to do than you think, and it’s hard to keep track of what you’ve finished and what remains. Think back to a year ago when you were preparing to leave to begin your exchange year. Some things on the list now may be different, but it’s the same concept. Moreover, you’re a year older now; you are expected to keep track of your responsibilities on your own more than you were before. Here’s a start to an “exchange student going home to-do” list; add to it depending on your personal situation.
* Pay bills and close accounts: do you owe any book fees at school? Do you owe any fees at the library?
* Return borrowed items: Have you borrowed clothing from your host sister? Perhaps you borrowed a jacket from a friend at school one night and it’s still hanging in your closet?
* Start the process for obtaining documentation for your school back home: Are you receiving credit for your high school year abroad, and what are the requirements you need to be aware of? How many copies of your US high school transcript do you need? Do you need to leave money for any documents that may not be available until after you leave?
* Clean up your room: Make sure you pick everything up in your bedroom, throw away the trash (and look under the bed!).
Think about packing and airline baggage requirements
Remember that the rules for baggage vary from country to country and from airline to airline. Once your program issues you a return ticket home, you will be able to keep updated on travel information and baggage requirements for the airline on which you will be flying.
* Check baggage requirements with the airline a few weeks before your travel date: Double-check the baggage weight requirements. What are the fees for a second or third bag?
* Do a test packing of your bags a week or two before your travel date: At least get an idea of how much “stuff” you have. Do you really need to bring it all home? Do you need to buy an extra suitcase? Are you trying to stuff too much into a single piece of luggage? (Note: your bags *will* be weighed at the airport. It’s not fun when you are just itching to get through the line and the airline representative pulls you out of the line and makes you re-pack your bags in the middle of the airport!)
* Make sure you have all your important documents (your passport, visa, and other entry documents) in your carry-on baggage.
* Bring extra money (or make double sure you have money on your card) for luggage fees, food at the airport (and maybe a layover or two), and emergencies.
Think about – what will be easy about going back home? What will be difficult?
It’s exciting to think about going home and seeing your friends, your family, your school, and your favorite places. But it’s going to be different, isn’t it! Between now and the time you get on that plane, think about what’s different, what’s the same, what will be easy, and what might not be as easy. Just being aware of these issues will help you when it “hits” after you get there.
Things that you know, and always will know include familiarity with home culture and language; knowing your family, home, and local environment; and people whom you have known for years. These things and these people were there when you left and are still there.
One thing that is different is *you.* You are no longer 100% German, Japanese, Italian, or Spanish. You will see your own culture in a different light. Things you liked about your life back home, you may no longer like as much, now that you have been exposed to a different way of doing things. Things that you didn’t like or appreciate, you may now find matter much more than they did before. You are sure you know your own language, but it may make you a bit anxious when you get off the plane and can’t remember a particular word or phrase in your native language. Your family has gotten used to not seeing you every day, even though they have certainly missed you; their daily life patterns may have changed without you in the house, and as a result that familiar home and daily lifestyle may not be exactly as you remember it. Your friends have lived a different life, even though you may have emailed, texted, or Skyped with them during the exchange year; their daily life, too, has been different – as has your own life. It may take you some time to get used to a life that you thought you already knew.
Show your appreciation and don’t hesitate to show your feelings
It’s easy to forget this, since you have been so long now with your host family and your new circle of friends. You are used to your life here now! So I will leave you with this gentle reminder – don’t take everyone for granted, even now after 9 or 10 months. Leave your host family, school, and community with a positive impression of the person you have become. It’s all too common for students who have been perfect teenagers all year to suddenly withdraw from their host family and act as though they don’t have to listen to their host parents or program coordinators anymore; don’t be that student! Remember you are ambassadors of your family, your country, and your exchange program until the day you leave.
Write thank-you notes to your host parents, friends, and teachers. You could write a letter to the editor of the newspaper, thanking the community for your experience; ask your host parents or program coordinator if you need help with that. Do something special to show your appreciation to your host family – put together a photo album, or cook them a special dinner. It’s a busy time of year for many families, especially with the end of the school year. The gift of time is the best gift you can leave them with.