Being a student in a foreign country, especially as a teenager, is a unique experience and once in a lifetime opportunity that allows you to broaden your horizons not only as a student, but also as an individual.
I went to the United States in 2016, the summer after my second year in high school. I was given a chance to be an exchange student, and I am so glad I took it. I was placed in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where I attended Brookwood High School. Making this decision was somewhat hard and scary. However, what’s even scarier is regret.
This is not like any other experience, simply because this one taught me different things that helped me finally grow as a person and get to know myself and my goals.
These are the 5 things I learned by being an exchange student:
- Getting out of my comfort zone
You can’t really prepare yourself for what’s coming or predict what’s going to happen. But what you can do is learn how to go with the flow. You need to be open-minded, take the initiative and literally talk to everyone. Also, get in as many clubs in school as possible, because that’s where you find friends! I know it can be awkward when you go somewhere and you don’t know a single soul. While everyone knows everything about you, you can’t even remember if Bailey was a guy, girl or a dog you talked like 5min ago. However, you have to stay persistent because by becoming friends with people, who have different cultural background, skin color etc. you break stereotypes and make special bonds. Do not just wait for people to come talk to you. They have no obligations towards you, they have their own friends and lives and that is not their exchange. Be open to try new things. Your grandma called you to try the food she made? Go. A random friend asked you to go with her to a gas station to fill up her tank? Yes! Literally, that was my favorite question. Just remember – the only way to have a friend is to be one!
- You think you know your country? Think again.
When you go abroad, you learn as much about your own country as the country you are visiting. When you think of America, things that pop in our minds are usually freedom, Disney World, Starbucks, Target or even fast food and American football. And do you know what Americans think of Montenegro? The first thing someone asked me was: ,,Wait. What’s Montenegro?”, the journey filled with all kind of questions began there. People would stop me in the hallways to tell me: ,,No way, your cursive is so pretty and neat! I love your handwriting. Do you speak Latin?’’. How long does it take me to travel to Europe or if I spoke European, were some of the questions I was asked. Don’t get angry when this happens. This is the time where you shine! You are an ambassador of your country, so answer all the questions and share your culture with them. Being there you will be able to see differences in their culture and way they do things. They’re not better, not worse, just different.
3. Little things matter.
Not having many friends to hang out with in the beginning will make you feel lonely sometimes. But, it’s all part of the experience and the growing process. How to deal with it? Pay attention to small things, like a note on the napkin your host mom left you in the lunch bag, compliment from a teacher, lunch you had at a local church or a hug you got from your host sibling. I remember how excited I was when a friend asked me to go grab dinner with him. I almost passed out from jumping around. Be grateful because it helps you value small things more than good/big things. You will appreciate these moments more when you are away from home.
- Independence is now your middle name
Before my exchange year, I was momma’s baby. I would ask her to do everything for me. She was my google and Wikipedia, seriously. Is $3 too much to spend on bananas? Can you do it for me? Can I shove all of my clothes in the washer or do I really need to do separate loads? How many ibuprofen can I take before I die? What? Don’t act as if you never asked your mom these questions. Maybe not the same ones, but different versions of it. In America, I was embarrassed to ask anyone these (now stupid) questions and that is the way I learned to do things on my own. Trust me, once you go abroad, it feels like you lost your mom in a grocery store. For a year.
5. Home is where your heart is
So, my departure date was change because the organization was still trying to find my family. I cried the whole summer asking myself why nobody wants me. Then I got an e-mail with a profile of a beautiful family in AL. Now when I read AL I thought it was Alaska and freaked out, but then I googled it and it was all fine. By the way, it is the first google search I can share with people. Anyway, being placed in a small town country family was a true blessing! Just the sense of community and family was something that made me feel so happy and thankful! They never made me feel like I was not the part of their family, instead I did everything with them, cooked them my food and was their tall kid. You know, cleaned ceiling fans and stuff. I honestly couldn’t have got a better family. They ask me all the time when I’m coming home…I thought many times, about being places elsewhere. And it seemed impossible to me. Alabama will always have a special place in my heart. And it will always be my home. Roll tide!
Written by Teodora Vucetic ’17