By Rileigh Hutchinson
Hey, y’all! My name is Rileigh. I’m 17 years old, originally from Springfield, Missouri, and this year I am studying abroad in Norway! I made the decision to graduate early to have this opportunity and I can say it has truly been the best decision I made. As I’m writing this, I just hit my five-month mark of being here in Norway and I can say with my heart that this experience is the wildest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I chose to study abroad because I wanted to get outside of my comfort zone and do something new. I wanted to experience a new culture and way of living, to learn a new language, but I also wanted to meet new people and grow as an individual. I believe that coming to Norway and studying abroad has really changed me as a person. There have been a lot of ups and downs that I felt were important to share with someone who wants to study abroad, but I also want to share tips to overcome things you might experience and feel in your exchange year.
A lot of students who study abroad stick with the same host family for the duration of their time, but others end up switching host families at some point, which is exactly what I had to do. The first thing I feel like mentioning is that it’s perfectly okay if you don’t feel like you’ve connected with your host family. It can be really hard to connect with a family you’ve never met before and to adapt to the way they live. In my case, I had tried to connect with my first host family but it was extremely difficult. I just felt that it wasn’t a compatible situation and I couldn’t adapt to the way they were living no matter how hard I tried. It was a difficult experience and I was very nervous to talk to them and the program about it, but I am very glad I did. I will admit that it was very scary to bring up and tell my first family that it just wasn’t a good situation and that I wanted to get a new family, but I’m very glad I did. It’s very important for you to feel comfortable with the family you’re with and happy. Those are two things that can make your exchange a great time. I got my new family about a month and a half into my exchange year and it was the best thing I could’ve done for myself. Now I don’t want this to deter you from studying abroad because everyone has a different experience with their host family and this program does an amazing job of matching host families. My host family has done an amazing job making sure I am comfortable and included in their family. They help me with school and learning Norwegian, and they’re an amazing family. I’m very glad that I have a second family and I love them dearly. In my opinion, that’s one of the best feelings to find during an exchange year because you’re away from your actual family, and managing to find a second family is great.
When you’re getting ready to embark on your exchange, your program will tell you that you’ll feel homesick at some point in your time abroad, and it’s completely true. I started feeling homesick a few weeks into my exchange year, and it ended up going away for a few months. Whenever the Christmas season came around, I became extremely homesick. It’s definitely hard being away from your family during the holiday season, but my host family has helped me tremendously with my homesickness. One tip I have is to limit talking with your family and friends back home. It sounds hard, but it’s a lot more draining to talk to them constantly because it really does increase your homesickness and makes it harder for you to connect with people that you’re around. I used to talk to my family and friends two to three times a week, and it made it hard for me to connect with my friends and family here in Norway, so I decided to talk to my family about limiting our talking time to once every other week, and it has really helped. After I put that distance between us, it really helped me feel better here. Homesickness comes in waves, but I always tell myself that I’ll be home sooner than I think and that I need to focus on life here and live in the moment because I don’t know when I will get to experience this again. Do not be afraid to reach out to the people around you such as teachers, counselors, friends, and or your host family. Talking to someone about how you’re feeling and what you’re going through makes all the difference, and I assure you that you will feel a little lighter afterward.
School on its own can be challenging, but school in a country where you know no one and it’s in a completely different language is beyond challenging. When I was picking my classes, the only question I could ask myself was “how am I going to be able to do this?” Luckily for me, I have already graduated from high school back in the states, so my grades don’t matter a tremendous amount as they would if I was still in high school. This brings me to my first tip! Before you leave your school to go and study abroad, you need to talk with your school counselor or administrators and see if there are any classes you’re required to take while you’re abroad to make sure you gather enough credits to eventually graduate from high school. Then, make sure you talk to the administrators at your new school to see if they have a class that fits into the curriculum that’s needed to be completed. Because that isn’t necessary for me, I got to pick and choose classes from a wider variety. Currently, I am taking Political Science and Human Rights in the third year, along with English Two, as well as taking History, Norwegian, Communications and Culture, Mathematics, and Gym in the second year. My school has been very flexible and helpful with finding classes that work well for me, and they have been amazing!
Additionally, I was very nervous to try and make friends at my new school. I knew that it would be challenging with the language barrier between me and the other students, but I also assumed that they wouldn’t be very interested in getting to know me. However, my assumption was incorrect for the most part. Many people I had met were extremely friendly and more than willing to talk to me and get to know me. On my second day of school, I met my best friends that have made my exchange year the best so far. Something really cool about going on an exchange is, for the most part, everyone is excited to meet you and get to know you! My school doesn’t have many exchange students and none of them had stayed for a whole year, so it was extremely exciting to have someone from a different country be a part of your life for the next 11 months! Some of my friends refused to talk to me for the first two and a half months or so into my exchange year because they were shy and uncomfortable speaking English, so I had to take the initiative to approach and talk to them first. It was a little challenging and uncomfortable at first, but once you start feeling comfortable with each other, it’s so much easier to communicate. One of my best friends that I met here didn’t start talking to me until October, about three months into my exchange year, because he just didn’t like speaking English. I talked to him every day, whether it be the small Norwegian phrases I know or something short and sweet in English. I would even talk to him about Football and that caught his interest and opened the door to our friendship.
The biggest thing I learned going to school and meeting new people is that as an exchange student and as an outsider, you must be willing to put your neck out and make the first move to start a conversation. Especially in a country like Norway where people tend to be pretty reserved, it can be really difficult to make friends if you don’t reach out and if you’re not willing to take initiative. The whole aspect of going on an exchange is to meet new people, learn a new culture and language, and step outside of your comfort zone. It can definitely be intimidating, but it pays off in the end!
These past five months have been nothing but life-changing. Even with the struggles that I face as an exchange student, every day I wake up and realize how the struggle is so worth it because I am living my dream every day. If you’re considering studying abroad, DO IT!!! Don’t be shy, scared, or intimidated, because this is truly an opportunity that you’ll regret missing for the rest of your life. Don’t let the bad part dissuade you because they’re only small bumps in the road! It’s important to look at the positives and see all the important reasons that it’s worth it. For every negative, there are hundreds of positives, and that’s the mindset you have to have as an exchange student. I know that when I look back on my exchange year, I’ll realize that it was the best thing I could have ever done for myself, and I am so happy that I took the risk of leaving home for a year, because this year is one that I’ll never get back and I will never have this experience again, and that’s what makes it perfect.
We invite you to read more about becoming an exchange student and our study abroad programs. To find out even more about different available options, complete our Travel & Study Abroad interest form and our program coordinator will get in touch with you as soon as possible.
Please note that ISE now offers study abroad scholarships to our host families’ kids. Check out our host family section of the website to learn more about other benefits of hosting an exchange student.