No one ever talks about what happens after your exchange is over. Until now. I'm currently in Spokane attending Gonzaga University. I absolutely love it here. The atmosphere is great, the people are open, friendly leaders in their community, and I'm thoroughly enjoying campus clubs and my classes.
How my year abroad affects this year: Definitely in a positive way. Everyone I meet here thinks it's really cool that I spent a year abroad and often want to know what it was like. Gonzaga promotes exchanges for their students, so I can go to the program fairs and have a lot better idea of what they're offering and how to deal with that opportunity. I was able to switch straight into a 300 level French class and I still find it easy. I'm a year older than the other freshmen, which I was a little worried about, but no one can tell and it really hasn't been a problem at all. If anything, I'm more mature and I definitely know how to deal with homesickness and independence a lot better than some freshmen.I know how to stay in contact with friends and how long-distance and long-term separation affects social ties. I'm also a lot more confident in myself and am a lot less sheltered than I would have been otherwise. Calculus was a bit of a shock after a year of tech school, but I'm holding my own, and my English and general academic skills don't seem to have disappeared.
A word on alcohol. Here in the US it's rather taboo to talk about it, but we all know it happens. Since I've been around alcohol in Europe and experienced their less terrified approach to alcohol, I am already aware of some problems that go with alcohol consumption and how different people deal with them. Since I've already confronted the clash between a sheltered, teetotaler lifestyle with the acceptance and more facilitated abuse of alcohol, it's easy to strike a balance between the horror and near-panic some people exhibit when the very word alcohol is spoken and all-out abuse and glorification of drunkenness. No, I won't raise my eyebrows too much or ostracize someone if I hear that they got drunk. No, I'm not going to go out drinking in a country where it's illegal. This balance applies to a lot of disapproved things besides alcohol. Many freshman here have never had to deal with these kinds of decisions before, since Mommy and Daddy were always there looking over their shoulder. I've already been through a limited version of this. So I do have less supervision in college than before, but I had a intermediary step instead of jumping straight from being totally monitored to let loose
I have made the transition back to functioning as an American. Or I should say, if I were an onion, I have a central core American that was covered with a Belgian layer that has been covered in turn by another American layer. The Belgian's still there, but the American lifestyle and habits are predominant again. That saying, sometimes I still am shocked or appreciate American culture more than before. For instance, our first night at Gonzaga involved a pep band, cheerleaders, and a lot of yelling and going nuts for school spirit. I was bewildered, shocked, and even a little scared. Belgians would never do this. I had forgotten what it's like to be that proud and loudly devoted to an institution. Or a country, for that matter. After the first few minutes I was able to get back into the American groove and remember how cool it is to be purely passionate and patriotic and not worry about things like fascism. Rediscovering religious people was incredibly exciting, not to mention the lack of stares when I say I'm christian.
I also miss Belgium. I miss my family and friends there, and wish international plane flights were shorter and a lot cheaper. Staying in contact with them is hard, but possible. Sometimes I still revert to speaking French. Having a French class and French music really is a comfort---sometimes I just want to express myself in that other way.
I absolutely do not regret spending that extra year and that extra money as an exchange student. I'm a bigger person, my faith is stronger, and my world is a more real and colorful place. I'm already looking up my next study abroad options. You should too.