BY MO MICHELS
For the UAS Whalesong
“Not good, not bad, just different.” I said these words to myself as I sat on the plastic like mattress in the white painted brick walled room. What had I got myself into?
I applied to the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP) in the Fall of 2014 with my heart set on traveling back to a country where I had lived in for 11 months a few years previous. My heart was set on it, really. Yet, a back-up plan is always important. So when my original exchange plan fell through I obtained the help of Marsha Squires, the incredible Study Away/Exchange coordinator at UAS. Instead of an international experience, I studied and traveled to a place within the boundaries of my own country, Johnson, Vermont through with National Student Exchange (NSE) program in the Fall of 2015.
I hoped Vermont would bring me out of the realm of comfort into a part of the United States that had previously not been on my radar – “the east”, and yet still this area might have some similar characteristics to home like mountains and a small town. What I knew of Vermont could be summed up into three bullet points: maple syrup, home to a few friends, and snow in winter.
I learned from my high school exchange the importance of having as few expectations as possible of the place you are visiting. And so it was, that when I flew across the country, I intentionally had very little knowledge of my exchange destination.
As I sat on that mattress surrounded by my belongings (bicycle box, duffel, backpack, suitcase) in the dorm room that was to be my home for the semester, I thought to myself…. having no expectations was great but maybe I should have evaluated the expectations I had of myself too. Traveling somewhere new, leaving the comfortable routine of what you know, and setting yourself within a landscape where no face is familiar is challenging. Even when you have previous experience it is still important to remember to be patient with yourself. Transitioning into a new environment is an adjustment. When a situation, place, or experience is different than what you expect, it is important not to quickly judge whether the outcome will be good or bad, but again it is just different.
At home, when you are exposed to new, strange, and even challenging experiences you have established relationships with your community and environment. These relationships provide a support system or foundation from which to grow and learn. When I arrived in Vermont, I did not have a single friend among the 1,400 students attending Johnson State College. At home, there had been the benefit of time to develop connections and become comfortable. However, on exchange, the fact that time is finite demanded I push my boundaries.
Every day whether I was in class, on the quad, or eating in the cafeteria, I forced myself to stick my hand out and meet new people. My mantra became, “Hi, my name is Morgan. What’s your name?” I would not have labeled myself an extrovert prior to studying in Vermont but there I learned to let myself be vulnerable and with determination began to build connections within the school around me.
Eventually, friendships were formed and although not all of them were deep and meaningful each was equally important to my new experience. My dorm room that had at first seemed uninviting was actually in a building full of caring and interesting people. An art student named Mina lived in a single; Ben and Maia lived together and studied wellness and alternative medicine; Allison was a basketball player and biology student, Matt and Tyler were brimming with energy and excitement every day, they studied outdoor education. It just so happened that not only was I living in the only co-ed floor on campus but we were also in possession of the only dorm kitchen. While I was still exposed to new experiences and situations daily I began to gain a sense of familiarity within my new school and surroundings.
Campus was small (similar to Juneau) and located on a hill above the just slightly larger town of Johnson with a view of Vermont’s Green Mountains (aptly named for there were trees as far as the eye could see). There were many firsts throughout the semester. I experienced more species of deciduous tree than I could count on two hands, crickets chirping all day, the extensive hiking trail system of New England, river kayaking, all kinds of farming, lightning bugs, colonial architecture, and heat and humidity at the same time.
Not everything went smoothly. I felt isolated at times, and school was challenging at others. However, these struggles were no different than those I would have faced at home. What my exchange offered was the ability to take on these challenges with new perspective. For instance, I often plan more obligations and responsibilities than I can manage which results in me feeling worthless and irresponsible. In this new place I was forced to recognize that there was simply too many new experiences for me to do, especially everything at once, and that using my time and energy efficiently by taking on only a few obligations at a time let me be more present, and led to my overall happiness.
Studying away challenges what you know about yourself by placing you within an unfamiliar context. Reflecting back on my exchange experiences at Johnson State College in Vermont, I realize that the most valuable part of my exchange is the self-awareness that I now carry. Taking myself outside of the realm of what I thought I knew allowed me to grow and gain perspectives that I now benefit from back home in Alaska.