For the past six or seven years, I have aspired to be a foreign exchange student- the travel, the adventure, the experience, everything sounded appealing to me. I would catch myself daydreaming about it in class, but yet, I was afraid of the unknown of living thousands of miles away for a year. I was also worried that my poor mental health wouldn’t allow me to travel freely like that. But last fall, I decided to look into it a little bit more.
I had began researching study abroad programs and I discovered Rotary International’s Youth Exchange Programs. After looking at my current financial and health situations, I had come to a conclusion that a year long program would not be best right now, but I discovered Rotary’s Short Term Exchange Program.
It was a 2 month long program where you are matched up with another teen in a different country. You host your partner for a month and travel for a month, it is the best of both worlds. You have to fill out an in-depth application that includes your mental and physical health history. My heart sank when I saw the application because I felt I wouldn’t get in due to my diagnoses, but I decided to take a chance anyway.
I applied to the program and I got in. Just like that.
I was amazed that someone like me with my mental and physical health would be a prime candidate for something as crazy as this. But I was. I spent the entire last year, filling out applications, attending orientations, and planning for my trip. My trip served as a good goal for me to get out of Intensive Care and focus on the future.
I was paired up with a girl who lives in Helsinki, Finland who was completely opposite to me (Maybe that’s why we got along so good, maybe that’s why we also wanted to kill each other from time to time.) She came and lived with my family and me in our small little city. We went on many adventures with my friends, we went to the city, we went around town, we did everything. It was a fantastic month, that only led up to an even more fantastic trip.
I traveled to 5,000 miles away from my home. To Finland. With a stopover in Iceland. With only my host sister. And it was amazing.
I moved in with her family and got settled in their modern-esque house 15 minutes away from downtown Helsinki. I traveled all over the country going to Kotka, Porvoo, Hamina, Hämeenlinna, Kirkkonummi, Klaukkala, and of course Helsinki. I went to Estonia. I have done so much in the past two and a half weeks that it’s insane!
Now it hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine, there have definitely been rough spots; homesickness, culture shock, frustration with my host family, dealing with my illnesses 5,000 miles away from my treatment team, and not to mention having to juggle school work while abroad, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I am still here for a little bit over a week and a half, and although I am so excited to see my friends and family, I do not want to leave my new life here.
But the moral of the story is this: don’t let your mental illness be the thing that is stopping you from achieving your dreams. You do not have to be neurotypical or perfectly cured in order to do the things you want, you just need faith in yourself. Go forth and turn your dreams into a reality.
Photo Source: Samantha Slais