As many previous exchange students will tell you, the first month of exchange is a whirlwind of new experiences and emotions. I still can’t quite believe it has already been over month since I landed in frosty Stockholm at 3pm when the sun had already set. Fast-forward five weeks and the snow has all but melted away and the days are already getting longer and sunnier.
To say that exchange has been all smooth sailing would be an overstatement. Indeed, my first few days were much harder than expected. A combination of settling in to a foreign place, not being able to understand the language, trying to adapt to the university system and not meeting many people at the start added to my exchange anxieties; fear that I would not make friends or settle in to life in Sweden; fear that I had chosen the wrong place to go on exchange; fear my classes were so intensive and I would not have the opportunity to experience Sweden or travel.
It frustrated me to feel so anxious my first few days because I consider myself such an open and adventurous person who has been fortunate enough to have travelled widely. I had done solo trips before, had been in much more unfamiliar places, and I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone many times. I thought I was prepared for my adventure, and yet I still experienced these obstacles upon arrival. But I want to let you know that it’s okay to feel like this, and that’s what I reminded myself every day. No matter how independent, well-travelled and open-minded you are, sometimes these moments of doubt and foreignness can still hit you.
There’s this expectation that exchange will be this completely uncompromisingly life-changing and perfect experience. It can sometimes be overly romanticised as this time in your life where every second of your time away is incredible, filled primarily with travelling, eating delicious food, making new friends and diving into new experiences. And yes, exchange certainly is all this, but that does not mean you won’t face hardship or have moments where you feel low, even if you are in the most beautiful places doing wonderful things.
Allow yourself to feel these things. It is okay to not be okay. Take every day one step at a time. You don’t have to hit the ground running. It probably took me 2 weeks for the anxiety to calm down, and another 2 weeks to really feel really settled. When you’re balancing all these new things alongside an intense study-load and the desire to make the most out of your time overseas, you have to remember that it takes time to find a rhythm.
The most important thing to remember is never to compare your exchange experience with anybody else’s. The challenges you face will be unique to you, but they will make your triumphs much more important. You will learn things about yourself, push yourself out of your comfort zone, and gain so much more out of the experience.
Overall, the past few weeks have indeed been some of the most extraordinary weeks I have had. While my uni workload has been intense, I have tried to make the most out of my circumstances and made sure to still have as much fun and adventure as possible. I have loved exploring my new city, learning more about Swedish language and culture, and am planning many more trips around Europe. I have a wonderful group of friends from across the world and am still making new ones every day. I am staying healthy, cooking meals with other exchange students and exercising regularly (yes this is possible!). I have ice-skated in the city centre, tried reindeer meatballs, gotten lost in Ikea, watched a professional ice-hockey game, had countless Swedish fika (coffee and cake) and done some crazy things like jump into a half-frozen lake after a sauna session. And I already know that when it will be time to say goodbye that it will be very hard.
**If you’re on exchange and need a friend to talk to or if you’re thinking of going on exchange to Stockholm in the future, feel free to reach out to me via social media or you can follow my adventures on Instagram at @jess.wat