Photo: Christine Wang.
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Coping with the pressure to make every moment count

So, you’ve finally submitted the mountains of paperwork, written the letters of motivation, received your visa, flew halfway across the world, figured out accommodations and registered for courses. You’ve finally settled in. Now what?

This was the question with which I struggled on the third week of my exchange trip to France.

As someone who has historically been classified as a “type A personality”, I am definitely a non-stop, highly anxious workaholic. I obtained my first job at age 16 and have not spent a semester off since. The thought of not having consistent income, however small, stresses me out to no end. Every spare moment out of school and work has been spent volunteering, playing sports or participating in other extracurriculars to improve my resume.

The third week into my exchange, I hit a surprising set of challenges. It wasn’t the culture shock, as I had been expecting, but my own crisis that I found disconcerting. In week three, I had finally settled in and finished choosing my courses, but most of them had not yet officially begun. That week, it hit me that I had spent so much time working on applications, stressing out about accommodations, and worrying about whether I had saved up enough, that I had not thought about what I would actually be doing when I got to France, beyond learning French.

It finally struck me that I was on a different continent, away from all my friends and family and had essentially nothing to do. According to my student visa, I was not allowed to work past 20 hours a week and I was doubtful I would find a job for only 4 months.

The money wasn’t exactly the problem anyway. I had saved up enough to cover my expenses until the end of my time abroad. It was the stagnancy, the lack of urgent work to do in addition to the lack of people around me to distract me from the lack of work to do. I was like an ant plucked from its well-oiled colony, placed in a virtually utopian habitat. And it completely and utterly stressed me out.

Bad analogies aside, this unexpected conundrum created a weird sort of crisis for me. The intermittent days I made the decision to stay in and spend the night reading or watching a movie instead of going out to explore the city, I felt like I was wasting all my time and money. Then I felt guilty for feeling guilty when I should be enjoying my time.

Of all the problems to have in life, this is definitely one that I would prefer. But if I were to be honest about my experience abroad, this was definitely something I was wholly unprepared for and had no tools to deal with.

I came across a couple blog posts from exchange friends describing similar struggles. After reaching out to them, I realized that it is not just acceptable, but crucial to take time off to reflect and absorb the experience. The more I talked to other exchange students about this issue, the more I realized it was quite common.

Administratively, there is the expectation that when you go on exchange, you’re doing exactly the same things as you would at home but in a different country. The idea is that you pay tuition, select your courses, and go about your daily routine in much the same way you would in your hometown. The reality is that not only will your academic and cultural experience be different, but so will your priorities and lifestyle.

Ultimately, I discovered two strategies that were very helpful in managing this stress. The first was writing a short list of things I wanted to do or accomplish during my semester abroad. This gave me a concrete set of activities to focus on so that I didn’t constantly feel like I was wasting my time.

The second was to learn to live in the moment, as cliché as it sounds. Even now, as I think back on the experience, I have realized that my favourite memories are not just the ones where I traveled and went on crazy adventures, though that was definitely a big part of it. Sometimes, happiness just comes from the joy of being fully present in the moment, whether that means exploring a new city or simply enjoying the walk to the grocery store.

Whether you’re on exchange or on vacation, there is a pressure to make every moment count, especially when you can practically feel the seconds ticking down until the inevitable return home. Often, we are so caught up in the preparation and planning that we forget how to soak in the moment… And that might be the most important part of all.