January 2017: My final month in Ottawa, the city where I was born and raised. I was set to embark on February 10th for my year of exchange, and the only thing between me and Santiago was a school-free month to say farewell to friends and family, pack my bags, and relax a bit before heading off. Seemed like a piece of cake at the time. Oddly enough, January turned out to be one of the more challenging months, mentally and emotionally, that I have experienced in the past few years of my life. I imagine that some of you reading this have gone through that strange and emotionally complex period of time where all you can think of is a date on a plane ticket and what awaits you beyond it, and perhaps those who have will relate to some of what I write about in this blog. However, for those who have not yet gone on exchange, or perhaps are waiting to depart this summer, I hope that this post can help prepare you for what many people (including myself) often overlook about moving abroad; the final moments prior to embarking. Let’s call them the Jumping Off Point.
For some of you, it may be a month or so between finishing exams in December and leaving on exchange in January. For some of you, it may the entire summer between second and third year. Some of you may not experience the Jumping Off Point at all. Nevertheless, there is a period prior to departure where you may start to feel as if you are living in limbo. For me, it was January. While I was still very much living in Canada (believe me, I couldn’t leave the house without wearing five layers), mentally all I could only think about was being in Chile. It was a confusing month. I felt out of place, as if everything I was doing (catching the game with a friend, taking the dog for a walk, helping plan an event) wasn’t leading to anything, since I would be moving to another hemisphere in a few weeks anyways. It was frustrating at times, as I felt like taking this year abroad was just cutting into the progression of my life. I would be leaving friends and family behind, putting aside any school and job opportunities in Canada, and moving to a city (and country) where I would barely know anybody or anything about how things worked. It was a daunting period of time, especially as I had spent my entire life up to that point living in Ottawa. The month went by as a roller coaster ride of constantly changing outlooks and emotions.
Days went by where I itched to pack my bags and get on a plane, the only thoughts on my mind revolving around what awaited me in Chile. There were also days where you could have woken me up and told me that the exchange had been cancelled, and I would have let out a sigh of relief.
I decided to name this the Jumping Off Point because upon reflection, I found that this experience was comparable to the first time I jumped off of the diving tower at summer camp. I never really liked heights, let alone jumping off of them. When I attended summer camp as a kid, I was more than happy to stay in the pool and cheer on my friends as they climbed up the stairs and jumped off into the waters below. One day, however, I succumbed to the pressures of my friends, and decided that at the end of the day I would jump off of the tower for the first time in my life. It was the last day of camp, after all, and as we ate lunch in the cafeteria I realized that I had nothing to lose (besides my appetite as I thought about the five-metre drop to the pool).
And yes, I did say five metres. Only five metres. I reaalllly hated heights as a kid.
For the rest of the day leading up to the jump, I rotated between being excited and completely, absolutely terrified. My friends talked about what kind of tricks they were planning on doing mid-jump, and I thought, “how bad could it be?” I would even get excited for a few moments. How cool was it going to be to go home afterwards and brag about the double-front-flip-reverse-twist I was planning? Then, the panic would set in. I was going to die, wasn’t I? Jump at the wrong angle, hit the pool belly first and shatter into a million pieces. Or worse, chicken out at the last second in front of all of the other campers, and have to do the embarrassing walk of shame down the stairs. It was all I thought about for the rest of the day. Soccer and dodge ball flew by, snack time seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. And then, all of a sudden, there I was; standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at that ugly, concrete slab I was about to jump off of.
Unlike the past few hours, the walk up those stairs seemed to last a lifetime. Like January, I felt like I was living in a limbo. Every step was a different emotion; fear, excitement, discomfort, regret…you name it. Thinking about the moments after the jump made me want to run up the stairs and dive without a thought, but then I would think about the standing on the edge, and shudder with fear. I felt the same way in January. Some days, my mind would be fixated on what lay ahead of me; travel, a new city, friends to be made, experiences to be had. Those days I couldn’t wait to leave. On days where I let my mind slip into thoughts of what I was leaving behind, I felt apprehensive and nervous, my desire to go on exchange diminished.
Eventually, I made it to the top. That inevitable moment will come to everybody, whether it’s the edge of a diving tower or a drive to the airport. To make a long story short, I jumped off of the diving tower and did not die. My memory of the jump itself is a little blurry, but I imagine I probably pulled off a perfectly executed front flip and landed gracefully in the pool without a splash (or did a pencil-dive and screeched… one of the two). However, I do remember that as the lifeguard signalled that it was my turn to jump, I hit a point where I realized, “This is happening.” During my moments leading up to exchange, that moment came while sitting in the departure lounge at MacDonald Cartier Airport after hugging my family goodbye. I had climbed up the stairs, and reached the Jumping Off Point. There was only one direction to go, and the floodgates of excitement had fully opened up. All I could think about was what lay ahead, and thoughts of what I was leaving behind were nowhere to be found.
While writing this blog and reflecting on my moments prior to exchange, I realized something important. There is no point pretending that leaving on exchange is easy for everybody. For someone like myself, who spent their whole life living in Ottawa, it is a challenging experience to walk up those stairs to the Jumping Off Point. But it important to try as best you can to stay focused on what lays ahead and what you are looking forward to. Like any new experience, the moments leading up to it will be filled with uncertainty and doubt. It will take some strength to keep yourself focused on why you have decided to undertake this new experience, especially since we are hardwired to doubt ourselves and our challenges. But if my nervous, skinny 10-year-old self was able to climb up and jump off the tower, then I am willing to bet that most of you embarking on exchange will be able to reach the Jumping Off Point, and probably pull off a pretty graceful dive while you’re at it.
Cheers, see everyone at the next post!