(Note from Matt: This is a lightly-edited excerpt from the forthcoming book “How to have a Successful High-School Exchange”, which will be available for purchase from ExchangeStudentTips.com later in 2019)
The “wanting to go home” problem is a kind of evolution of the “homesickness” problem. Being homesick is one thing. Taking the next step and deciding to quit your student exchange and go home is quite another.
There are times where it’s totally appropriate to want to return home. This includes situations where you are in physical danger, or suffer a major illness. It can also include situations where your host family is unwilling or unable to support you due to illness or a death in their family, and your exchange organisation is unable to make alternative arrangements for you. In these situations, wanting to go home is a totally understandable solution to an intractable problem. I encourage you to return home under such circumstances.
However, in situations where your decision to go home is basically just evolved homesickness, I urge you to reconsider. Nearly every exchange student wants to go home early at some point during his or her exchange. The gravitational pull of home, the longing to be with biological parents and school friends, and the desire to be in a familiar environment can all be incredibly strong. However, the yearning for all of these things which seems irresistible eventually passes.
If you’re having trouble resisting the siren’s call of an early return home, try to talk yourself out of it by taking some of the actions below.
Give yourself a quick pep talk
Initially, try to give yourself a quick pep talk which effectively takes the “going home” option off the table. Tell yourself the following
OK. This is tough. Really tough, much more than I expected. I am trying my best and working really hard every day, but things don’t seem to be getting easier. School is hard. The language is hard. It takes a lot of courage just to get out of bed in the mornings and start the day and I am always so tired at night.
But, I am not going to quit. I am going to do something great here and I am not going to leave and go home until I do it. I have goals that I want to achieve. There are places that I haven’t been to yet and things I still want to do. There are a lot of good things about my host country that I don’t want to give up, yet. I have met some really kind people who have helped me a lot and who will keep helping me.
I will not quit. I want to kick ass and I will not quit.
I know that in three months’ time – one month even – things will be easier. My language skills will be better. I’ll know my way around better. I’ll be more relaxed and happier. If I go home now, I’ll miss those times and all the other good things that lie ahead.
I miss Mom and Dad and my friends at home, and they miss me. But they want me to be here and want me to do well. I want to go home – not early, but at the appointed time – and look them in the eye and feel how proud they are of what I’ve done. Because I stuck it out and did something really hard, but that will benefit me for the rest of my life.
Thousands of other exchange students have done it. And I will do it, too.
Think about the negative consequences
When you think about leaving your exchange and going home early, you probably only focus on the positive consequences of doing so. You think about seeing your biological family and friends again. You think about going back to your former, easier life, with no culture shock and no language barrier. You think that you’ll get on the plane and that’ll be it. Easy, peasy.
Ask yourself, though- if you return home, what will the negative consequences be? In student exchange terms, a student who decides to go home early is basically exercising the nuclear option. It’s a decision which usually leaves a lot of wreckage behind.
For one, your decision may leave many people disappointed and upset. A lot of people have worked hard to give you the opportunity to be on exchange, including your biological parents, your exchange organisation, your host family and people at the school which is hosting you. All of these people will most likely feel that the time, effort and money which they have put in amounted to nothing.
Your host family in particular might take your decision personally, and may feel like failures. Your host parents and your host school may decide not to host another exchange student, which may prevent others from having the opportunity that you’ve had.
You might also experience some personal negative consequences. For example, when you return to your school at home, many people will want to know why you came back early. If you’re honest, your explanation will be that you found it too difficult to be on exchange and decided to come home. Unfairly or otherwise, people might think that you simply gave up or were too scared or weak to see your exchange through to the end. Likewise, while a completed student exchange will look great on your resume, and can be a real asset to your career, you will need to explain a half-completed exchange (and the reasons it was half-completed) to any potential employer.
Will you regret your decision later?
If you’ve ever participated in a competitive sport, you’ll know that sometimes, something unusual happens.
When you don’t win a game, or don’t run as fast as you wanted to, or swim fewer laps than you wanted to, the overriding feeling isn’t anger or loss. Sometimes, the strongest emotion is a feeling of guilt and disappointment in yourself. In the shower after the game, or on the ride home, you feel that you could have met your goal or won the game if you’d just given an extra 5 or 10 per cent. Because you didn’t, you feel guilty and remorseful.
People who break off a student exchange and return home often experience similar emotions. While it felt impossible for them to complete their student exchanges at the time, in hindsight, it was just very difficult. Looking back, they realise that they had it within them to complete their exchange, and wish that they’d done so.
Ask yourself – is the situation you find yourself in now really an impossible one? Or is it just one which is difficult, and which will seem like a temporary setback if you choose to return home? Remember that you’re much stronger and more able than you think you are. Don’t underestimate yourself.
Think about what you’d be giving up
Another thing that may encourage you to re-consider a decision to return home early is to focus on what you’ll be giving up if you return to your home country.
For most exchange students, being on exchange is their one and only chance to live in a foreign country for an extended period. They get a chance to do new things and meet new people almost every day. Most exchange students who complete their exchanges have very fond memories of their time on exchange. They see that time as a brief but extremely valuable interlude which greatly enriched their lives, opened many doors and gave them many cherished friendships, skills and memories.
By comparison, your biological family and home country will always be there. In fact, it’s likely that you’ll spend the remainder of your life in your home country, in close and regular contact with your biological family. The time you have in your host country, on the other hand, is extremely limited. When it comes to an end, it will likely do so forever.
Sadly, also, once you’ve been home for a couple of months and are back into your old groove, that groove may start to feel like a rut. You may begin to regret your decision to come home. You may start to think about the new and exciting experiences you voluntarily passed up in order to get back to a situation which now feels like a rut.
For many people, a student exchange is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Once it’s gone, that’s it. Don’t pass up that chance unless you absolutely have to.
Avoid triggering events
While it’s possible to take steps to deal with a desire to return home, ultimately it’s far better not to have that desire in the first place.
What turns mere homesickness into a genuine desire to return home? Often, there’ll be an event which triggers the change. Most commonly, a student’s boyfriend or girlfriend or parents from home will come to visit. Such visits can be extremely disruptive and often leave the student feeling more homesick than ever. As discussed elsewhere in this book, if your parents, boyfriend or girlfriend want to visit you whilst you’re on exchange, either discourage them from doing so altogether, or ask them to visit only towards the very end of your exchange.
Alternatively, the student might have some sort of big showdown or confrontation with a member of his or her host family. Instead of eating humble pie, saying sorry and trying to repair the relationship, exchange students will sometimes use such a situation as a pretext for going home. If this happens to you, be humble enough to make amends with your host family – even if you think they’re in the wrong – and move on. Being able to say sorry will be an essential skill later in your life – particularly in your marriage, but also in your career – and can make a big difference to your success as an exchange student.
Try to avoid events which will push you from being someone who’s merely homesick, to someone who is actively trying to return home.
For your sake, and for the sake of those who’ve supported you and want your student exchange to succeed, please don’t make a rushed decision to return home mid-exchange. Do your absolute best to make it work.