Tessa Brown Jones is a Beedie Luminary from Cohort 2020. Born in Vancouver and a local to Victoria, British Columbia, Tessa attends the University of Victoria where she is completing a dual major in Geography and Environmental Studies. However, the last few months of her life on exchange have looked a little different, but no less beautiful.
Eager to learn more about the world beyond Victoria, Tessa pushed her anxieties aside and trusted her gut feeling. That’s where this story begins, and the rest is history. Now on exchange in Utrecht, Netherlands, Tessa shares experiences from her exchange beyond the time change. See more of Tessa here.
Hi Tessa, where are you? How’d you get there?
TESSA BROWN JONES — When I was in middle school, Victoria BC was my whole world. I couldn’t have known how quickly it would feel small, especially after hosting several international students throughout high school (who soon became family), and after remaining in my hometown for the first two years of university.
The choice to go on exchange in Utrecht, the Netherlands (next to Amsterdam) was an easy one. And I took my search for independence one step further – by solo backpacking through five European countries during the summer before school started.
At the same time, I also couldn’t have known that my tiny world in Victoria would connect me to nearly every country I would visit.
For instance, like how my international sister would invite me to stay with her family in Zurich, Switzerland, or that my international brother would host me in Rome after not seeing each other for two years. Or that I would find out that my future best friend during my studies abroad has been connected to me since before we were born…
Yes, the universe did not hold back. After settling down in the Netherlands in September, my new friend Emma and I quickly hit it off through rock climbing, cafe hopping, and our shared passion of sustainability studies. But I also discovered that – while otherwise growing up in Spain, Mexico, Ghana, and Saudi Arabia – she had lived in Victoria for one year in 2015, AND we had been at the same middle school!
Okay, wow. Talk about coincidence! Or… is it?
Not only that, but during one of our cappuccino dates at a popular Dutch cafe, Emma got a facetime call from her mom. I thought that the name on the screen sounded familiar – and it’s because I had heard it growing up. Because it turns out that Emma’s mom and my aunt had been best friends in Victoria in the 80s, working together at the gas-station-turned-indie-diner Pluto’s.
Just years later, my aunt had a daughter, Kiah (my cousin), who is now my roommate in the Netherlands. And in September, our whole family journeyed to Silves, Portugal for her wedding – where I got to be the florist! The five of us (me, Kiah, her husband Nick, and their dog Waffles and cat Brioche) now share a little flat in Utrecht along a cobblestoned street. Each day, I bike to campus, Kiah commutes to her design job in Amsterdam, and Nick manages his wine shop on the canal.
And… the end? What happened when you had to leave?
From Utrecht’s phenomenal sustainability classes, to the dozens of international friendships, to Nick’s michelin-star level cooking from his years as a chef… I knew that there was no way I could only stay for one term. By October 2022, I had made the decision to extend my exchange for a whole year.
This would mean my first Christmas away from home – but after hearing about our impossible multigenerational connection, Emma’s family of six generously invited me to spend the holidays with them in Spain. In her hometown of Sant Carles de la Rapita (two hours south of Barcelona), it was two weeks of swimming in the Mediterranean, playing guitar at sunrise, and learning how to make traditional paella with her neighbours.
Here’s a photo of Christmas dinner at Emma’s family home in Spain.
Did you get to travel anywhere else?
Yes! I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Galway, Ireland over my reading break, where I stayed with friends I had met while backpacking over the summer. We originally bonded at our hostel in south France, and our connection stayed strong even after months and borders apart. I got to meet some of the most giving, empathetic Galwegians over break in their artsy seaside town. Some highlights included swimming at Salthill pier in a storm, having a picnic in a forest, and getting to help my friend with a photoshoot for her magazine at Galway University.
At this point, I know that eventually going home to Victoria is going to be a lot harder than it was to leave. But the middle school me who thought that Victoria was her whole world wasn’t necessarily wrong. Because if anything, being abroad has taught me that no matter where I am, I will always be connected. Whether it’s with past, present, or future versions of myself – or with incredible people who are willing to share their own worlds with me.
Spaces could never feel small now because of the people that fill them up – and how lucky am I to have a world of hometown friendships, family, and support like the Luminaries to eventually return to. And the pieces of me in every country I’ve visited will never be far away. After all, the stranger I pass in the halls could be my best friend seven years down the line.
What a beautiful story. After all of this, do you have any advice to give?
Yes, I do. I’m going to call them “Tessa’s Top Tips for Students Considering Exchange”.
Going on exchange is an incredibly unique and once in a lifetime experience. There are opportunities every day to see new places, meet new people, and try incredible new things – and you cannot pass them up!
Of course, making sure you stay in good academic standing is important. And also taking advantage of the unique perspectives on your studies that international institutions offer! But be open to the idea of your studies taking a bit more of a back seat overall.
Also, and especially if you’re a prospective or new uni student – try to save your electives if you can! It’s rare that you’ll find a class abroad that’s exactly equivalent to your degree requirements, so it makes the registration process a lot easier.
It’s also more fun to have flexibility and be able to study something that you normally couldn’t, or that’s unique to the country (for example – I got to take a class on Dutch spatial planning!).
Being away from your closest friends and family can be really hard sometimes, but it is also a phenomenal chance to learn about yourself. Travelling has forced me to be 100% comfortable in my own company, and also helped me realise exactly what I want from the connections in my life.
One of the hardest parts of exchange is having to build community from scratch – but you’ll be surprised how quickly one connection can multiply. Join clubs, teams, student committees, volunteer, get to know the people in your group projects, anything!!
Also, I really recommend the app Polarsteps for keeping your friends and family back home updated. It makes a map of everywhere you’ve been, and you can post pictures, videos, and writing for each place you go! I found it helped me stay in the moment a bit more when I travelled, and not have to step away to do calls, facetime, and emails as much.
I had a lot of worries before I moved abroad… What if I can’t handle the language barrier? How do I apply for a residence permit? How do I know the right insurance to get? What if I feel alone or too homesick? Plus a hundred more concerns that almost made going on exchange not seem worth it.
BUT – I cannot stress enough how important it is to take the leap. There are inevitably going to be hurdles, difficult things to figure out, and moments of frustration. But you can prepare yourself by doing your research about the country and the institution, and the exchange coordinators at your university have helped students through these exact concerns hundreds of times before!
As well, if you’re someone like me who struggles with mental health, it does not have to stop you. It was important for me to set up a solid foundation of my own coping tools before I left, and to also make sure that I would have resources abroad if I needed them. As expected, my struggles still showed up here, but knowing that I had prepared helped me deal with them the same way that I would have at home.
And to repeat some of the best advice that Florence gave me: trust that yourself in the future is just as capable of figuring things out as you are now (if not even more capable!).
Exchange can feel like a huge, mysterious thing when you’re not in it, especially if it’s planned so far in the future. Don’t forget that anywhere you are you are still you – with all the same wisdom, resources, and connections you have now to deal with new situations.
Thanks for stopping by, Tessa! We can’t wait to catch up when you’re back. Until next time!
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