There are so many things that have an impact on you when you study abroad and people keep talking about how much it changed them and what a great experience it was. However, I am not going to focus too much on the details of my exchange, you have all heard the cliches of how it is an experience of a lifetime, how you will meet a bunch of new friends, and so on. While this is all true, I want to focus more on something that, in my experience people don’t mention as much. I do not feel like I hear a lot about the experience of coming back home to your old routines and life as you knew it, but with new friends and new memories.
I always wanted to study abroad. I even looked into doing a year in a Swedish school in another country during upper secondary school, however I did not end up doing that since I switched study programmes midway through upper secondary schooll. Once I started at KTH I therefore knew that doing an exchange was something I really wanted to do at some point throughout my studies. During my third year I sent in my application to start the whole process of doing an exchange and last semester, the spring semester of my fourth year, it was time.
I study Interactive Media Technology here at KTH, and my host university also provides a Media Technology master programme, although it is smaller than the one here. My exchange was probably therefore quite different from other people's experience in the sense that all the courses I chose were the same ones that are included in their mandatory courses, so I took all the courses together with the same group of people. All of my lectures also took place in the same room, which sometimes made it feel a bit like being back in middle school and having a homeroom, but instead of the teacher decorating the space we were allowed to put things up on the walls.
Since the class wasn't that big it was also possible to go out and do things such as grab a drink with everyone. That, combined with the fact that one of our courses ended with a three day public exhibition where we spent a lot of time around each other, resulted in everyone in the class becoming rather close towards the end of the semester.
For me this eliminated the need of seeking out other exchange students in order to belong to a group, so the only exchange students I hung out with were the ones I met during the introduction week and the ones taking part in the same international buddy programme as me. I did however do more things with classmates than with the other exchange students, and this is something I have come to understand is quite different from other people’s experiences, when I have talked to friends that have been on exchange in other places.
Leaving home was fairly easy for me, but it was not something that left me unaffected and I certainly shed a tear saying my goodbyes to certain people. The uncertainty of what would meet me after the flight did worry me a bit, but the excitement for the adventure I was about to begin was bigger than the worries.
Returning home on the other hand felt heavy. The first couple of weeks back home I missed all the people I met and the place I had come to call home for a short while. I always knew it would be hard to say goodbye to all the new friends I made, but I was not prepared for the feeling of guilt since it felt as if I longed back and missed the exchange more than I ever longed home while away. Then the revelation hit me.
While I was away I rarely missed home, but there were three main reasons. Firstly, I was never truly alone since a friend of mine did the same exchange and we could always talk about everything. Secondly, I had people visiting me a few times and in a way they brought a piece of home with them to me instead. Lastly, and probably the biggest reason for not longing home as much, I knew that it would only be half a year. The knowledge that I would be back home with family and friends soon, that the exchange had a clear timeframe, was all I needed to feel better once I did start to miss home. Returning home was different.
Once home I had no clue when, or in some cases even if, I would meet the people I had gotten to know again. While I did not go far from home for my exchange, there were people I had to say goodbye to that went home to Singapore when I went home to Sweden. There were also several international students in my class who might leave and go back to their home countries once they graduate, and such go further away from me.
Don’t get me wrong. I of course like being back home! Now that some months have passed and I am back to my old routines I look back at my time away with happiness rather than wishing I was back there. The problem I am facing now is that I know myself, I know that I am not always great at reaching out to people, and therefore might have a hard time keeping in touch with people that I met during my exchange. I am still in the groupchat for the class I was in, and even though the class has split up to different electives there is a message about doing activities together every once in a while, and it is when I read those messages that my longing to the last couple weeks of my time there when the class was really close flares up again.
Being back at KTH now, having courses with many different people, and not knowing even close to half of the names, I feel quite anonymous walking through campus. A small speck in a vast ocean. When this feeling hits, I think back to the familiarity in room 4.28 and the people I met on my exchange. I hope that I have made friends for life, but it will take some work to keep in contact.