It goes without saying that every exchange student's experience will be as diverse the locations they travel to, but I believe that there are some fundamental difficulties and benefits met by everyone on a year abroad. Armed with the best journalistic intentions, I have set about to talk frankly about each of these, in the most balanced and honest way possible.
First things first. Culture shock IS a thing. Whilst I might have travelled to Canada rather than, say, Singapore, and may not have had to deal with language barriers or drastic cultural differences, the contrasts were undoubtedly there. Dialect makes up a bigger part of our day-to-day conversation than we realise, and it can be unnerving (not to mention embarrassing) when the words we are so accustomed to using are suddenly being jeered at. Try saying the words "trousers", "car park" or "biscuit" to anyone from North America and you'll be greeted either with laughter or simply blank looks.
Culture shock comes in many different guises. It hits us moving from a culture where binge drinking is essentially an acknowledged part of student life (did someone say 'fresher'?), to one in which alcohol is banned in halls of residence and most of your underage friends cannot (legally) drink. It hits us with the nuanced differences in what we wear, listen to, eat, watch on TV, the hobbies we have - which unavoidably constitute much of what we talk about and bond over in everyday life. It hits us moving from a relatively large university to an extremely small one. It comes with every new encounter, each new group of people that we meet, and it is worth knowing that culture shock can be downright hard. Feeling like an outsider, feeling lost and intensely missing everything I knew were some of the legitimate and very real feelings felt during my first weeks on exchange.
But after a few weeks I began to notice something. As disorientating and strange as culture shock was, it also allowed for many fruitful, funny and memorable conversations - as well as new friendships to be struck up. One of the best things about going on exchange is that you will meet an array of people who are very different to yourself - and you will find, in spite of those differences, a capacity to share friendships undefined by small or insignificant things. Some of the closest friends I have are in fact very different to myself, and it is this diversity which I think we should celebrate.
Academically, an exchange placement can feel like a whirlwind of confusion. I can't speak on behalf of any other academic system, but I believe almost any exchange will bring about innumerable academic differences. There are far more assignments at university in Canada, yielding a constant feeling of pressure and requiring better organisation to stay on top of everything. At first, this landed me with a fair amount of stress and anxiety, but it eventually became something I got used to and even preferred over assessment at my home university, York. I could take on a multitude of courses I had never been offered at York - Creative Writing, French, and American Literature - allowing me far more freedom to pursue my academic interests. The flexibility with which the higher education system is structured in North America, allowing most students to take a Major, a Minor and as several "electives", is something I believe universities in England could really benefit from introducing.
What about homesickness? Again, this is a double-sided coin, and very much depends on the kind of person you are. Personally, I was not overwhelmingly struck with homesickness, and have actually enjoyed the amount of independence I gained from living abroad. I'd even go as far as to say that my exchange program has made me better at staying in touch - via facetime, skype, and Facebook messenger - with family and friends. That being said, the eight hour time difference means I have to contact anyone from home in the mornings, so if I wish to curl up in bed and speak to a friend over skype for hours, it is usually on a Saturday morning, hungover, whilst swallowing ibuprofen and scrunching my hands over my weary eyes.
In summary - would I recommend taking a year abroad? Yes. It is such an enriching experience and one of the single best things you can do to diversify your years at university. There are aspects that are tough, without doubt, and there will be times that you feel lost and alone and uncertain in a way that staying at home would never have made you feel. Yet these downsides can, in their own way, flourish into positives when considering the subsequent independence and personal growth to be gleaned from them. The friends I have made, places visited, and personal growth I have made would never have happened if I hadn't set foot in BC, Canada, and for that I am profoundly grateful. I don't wish to sugar-coat my exchange (which would not only be untruthful, but unhelpful) -but I do hope to have given an accurate and honest reflection of my experience, for anyone who is considering the challenge. Be prepared for challenges, be open-minded, and you are bound to not just survive but thrive through your exchange.