This August marks the 8th anniversary of the beginning of my exchange year, when I was only a 16 years old kid who was trying to survive high school like everybody. That day I left the comfort of my reality in Chile with this program called AFS (American Field Service) and went to this unknown country named Norway, only knowing the name of the capital, the name of my host family, and how to count from 1 to 8 in the local language. Like many former exchange students, I could go for hours about all the stories I have from that year, both good and bad: New Year’s Eve with a blizzard, that time I fell on the snow while walking downhill, the joy and the cultural shocks I had with my host family and school, the russetid, the conversation with a thai friend about the differences of the word «you» in both spanish and thai, etc. However, there is but one thing I always highlight of that period: it redefined my life, my behaviour and ideas. The person I am today was born during that year.
As time went by and I came back to Chile, volunteering with other exchange students was the only place where I felt I connected. At school I didn’t have many friends and having different priorities from my classmates eventually drove us apart. My mom hasn’t gone on exchange at any point of her life, but she somehow understood what I was going through, that my dreams and expectations were different from the people around me, and that the exchange students’ community was my place. When I finished high school and decided to move to the capital for university, she gave me this smile and told me «I knew you would leave and do your own thing, because you never really got off the plane».
I didn’t have any idea of what she meant at that point, but I had a new year ahead so I just went with it. New city, new people, new life. And of course, I kept being a volunteer with AFS. I eventually became the contact person to a Finnish student and the applicants I did the personal interview became returnees, and then volunteers themselves. I was in my zone, with all the stories of cultural shocks and learning how to deal with them, understanding our own national identity through the stories of internationals, meeting different cultures from all over the place, languages, other ways of thinking, and so and so on.
One day, some people went to my Faculty to promote the Exchange Program between my home university and several institutions around the world. The University of Oslo was among the names, I checked the programs, some classes and I called my mom telling her that I wanted to go on exchange to Norway again, if she could help me out financially and such. Her answer was «What took you so long?». The application letter was rather easy because I clearly knew the reasons of why I wanted to go back to Norway: I was in love with the country and with being an exchange student, the decision of studying Environmental Engineering was heavily influenced by my year there. I got accepted and while I was doing all the visa procedures I wrote an email to AFS Norway telling them I was going back and wanted to be a volunteer there. «Drop by when you come to Oslo » was their answer.
So in August 2014, I arrived once again to the Oslo airport. Walking in front of me was this woman whose passport fell to the ground, I grabbed it and told her «Unnskyld, det er din» («Sorry, it’s yours»), to which she told me thanks in Norwegian. My first conversation in Norwegian in almost four years. It felt like home.
Sometimes, it was quite overwhelming to be a volunteer in Norway since many of the doubts the exchange students had were the same I personally had during my own exchange: how to interact with norwegians, how to speak to that person, how to behave with my host family. I was reviving my own exchange through the experiences of these kids. Besides AFS, I also joined the Erasmus community within the University (even though I wasn’t an Erasmus myself), and with my own itchy feet I filled my schedule with all sort of international-related activities. Damn, I even joined the norwegian student parlament representing the international students.
In the AFS preorientation for the norwegian students who would go on exchange soon, I met this girl who was going to Chile, so we of course, ended up talking about this strange and thin piece of land. She began her exchange at the beginning of August 2015, almost at the same time I finished mine in Norway. It was yet another side on the exchange experience, as some of the cultural shocks and experiences she was going through in Chile, I lived them on reverse in the other hemisphere.
It seemed that the intercultural learning would follow me everywhere I went, and I think I now understand what my mom meant with the «you never got off the plane». I have been conciously and unconciously tied with internationaly-minded people since I first went on exchange, with the vast amount of humans that live here. I have taken a bunch of planes here and there, but the dream of making the world a better place through mutual understanding among different cultures remains the same regardless of what’s the closest airport I have at the given moment. Some say «Exchange is not a year in your life, but a life in a year», for me exchange has been a life within itself, this story of exchange is my story and the story of many other fellow people who have embraced the same life. The moral of this long post? Those of you have got inside the plane, don’t get off, the exchange will last as much as you want it. If that means forever, so be it!
This guest post was written by Javier Æøå, originally from Chile and an AFS exchange student in Norway.