If you are looking for reasons to go on an overseas student exchange program, read on.
It’s no secret that I love to travel. And if I need to, I am more than comfortable taking off on a trip on my own. But when and how did I figure this out? I grew up in a family that didn’t travel for reasons other than work so that wasn’t it. So what got me started?
My first overseas trip was to Dubai for six months. I did it at the random suggestion of my sister's friend who was living there at the time. I thought, why not? So I took a semester break from uni and off I went. I made friends, I explored, I ate delicious food, I met interesting people. I loved it and six months flew past like six weeks.
I returned to Australia because I HAD to finish university. But I, unexpectedly, had itchy feet. And no money. But I could not shake this nagging desire to keep moving, to keep seeing the world. The sensible thing to do seemed to stay put until I finished. But I had this idea in my head and I couldn't let go of it, even though everything seemed to be conspiring against me. I was determined to find a way to make it happen.
Whoever said watching daytime television was a waste of time! It was during an afternoon of procrastination watching Judge Judy that I saw an ad for student exchange programs. This was it, my answer! I immediately jumped online to my university website and found out that they offered the same program. YIPPEE!
But applications for the following semester had closed three months before and would only reopen again in nine months’ time. BUMMER!
Luckily I’m not the type to give up easily. I spoke with the overseas exchange program coordinator and pleaded with her to accept a (very) late application. I’m not sure what I did or said, but she eventually relented, and I was be given just two weeks to organise all the required paperwork. And there was a lot of paperwork! Very quickly what was just a idea turned into two weeks of scurrying around to hand in an application for the program. I was accepted!
And just like that in a few months I was on a plane heading off to England for nine long, exciting and educational months. But what about the money? Well, my university PAID me to go overseas! You heard it right – they provided me with funds which helped pay for my ticket, insurance, rent and other bits and pieces for the first few months. And I didn't have to pay it back. At the time of applying I had no idea about this so it came as a nice surprise and it certainly helped with the expenses.
So what happened next on my overseas student exchange program?
Studying abroad remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was fun, exciting, scary, challenging, educational and wonderful. There were things that I experienced that I could not have had I remained in Australia. For example, I got to experience what it was like to live on campus. Not many Australians studying locally get that opportunity as it's simply not the done thing here. I've since met many people who have expressed the desire to have had that experience as a student. Well, I did!
Like anything one does for the first time, there were challenges and successes.
I expected that my biggest challenge would be making friends. I am an introvert and initiating conversations with strangers is not one of my strengths. I was prepared for spending plenty of time by myself, maybe have a few awkward conversations. I was somewhat willing to accept that. But I needn't have worried. On my first day, I met a whole bunch of awesome people from around the world I was lucky enough to call my friends. Why? Because, like me, other exchange students were also there on their own. Unlike when you travel and easily come across people traveling in groups, it is rare to find groups doing an exchange program together. Not impossible, just rare. So I was with a group of people all looking to make new friends and that made things a lot easier.
Of course there was study also. I attended a smaller university in the UK and enjoyed the interactive nature of the classes. My lecturers and tutors even knew me by name. I looked forward to my classes and even prepared for them so that I could participate more. I learned that I loved this style of learning – collaboration, presenting ideas confidently, and accepting different ideas.
Another benefit it is that you don't stay in one place all the time. I was only a half hour train journey away from London. I made several trips into the city and fell in love with it. I also spent my holidays with an aunt and cousins in Germany. I got to experience life in that country too ,which I loved. I spent Christmas, New Year and Easter with their friends and family. It was a lovely time and I got to learn about their culture, as well.
And the big one: I learned to live on a budget. As a student, there was never enough money. I learned to eat and drink cheaply. I realised pretty quickly that I was going to have to learn to cook if I wanted to eat. While my meals remained basic, I got the feel for cooking. I picked the cheapest items off the shelves at the grocery store, but I knew not to do the same for fresh meat. I purchased items on sale and in bulk. I did a lot of maths in my head each time I did a shop. And my bottle of wine never cost more than three pound fifty. I still carry some of those skills with me today. Why not stretch your money if can, it leaves you more to spend on travel?
And what about the challenges?
While it was fun, there were also challenges that I had to deal with. I missed home and family a lot, particularly in the early days. I missed my mom's cooking. I missed my car when lugging the grocery bags uphill. I missed my dogs. I missed everything! But I soon got over that.
I also had to learn things I thought I already knew. I went from one English speaking country to another and yet I had to learn the local lingo. Everyday there was something new. But after nine months, I think I learned more than I expected.
And while I made a nice bunch of friends I still found myself alone at times. Sometimes I needed this time off, other times not so much. By the end of the first semester many of my friends headed back home and the group pretty much halved. This meant fewer parties and outings. The dynamic certainly changed.
So why should you go on an overseas exchange program?
1. Learn another language: If you are interested in learning a new language this is the best way to do it. Immerse yourself in the local culture and develop your skills much quicker than only spending time in a classroom.
2. Learn about yourself: Ask any traveler and they'll tell you how much they learned about themselves on the road. This is just another way of doing that. By taking yourself out of your comfort zone, you'll be much wiser about yourself and the things you are capable of. You'll also develop self-confidence, and learn to be independent and self-reliant – great skills to take with you for life.
3. Learn to cook, budget and all that crazy adult stuff: Unless you have very rich parents funding you, these are things you'll have to learn. Don't stress though, it will come much easier than you'll imagine.
4. Make new friends: This is a great opportunity for you to meet people from around the world. But don't forget the locals – that's why you are there, right? Plus, when the time comes for you to travel, it won't be hard to find a couch to crash on.
5. Learn about a different culture and learn to accept differences: Keep an open mind and this will come easily. I always find this to be the most exciting part of my travels. And the more you learn about other cultures, the more you'll appreciate your own.
6. Travel: Use the opportunity to travel, whether locally or to other countries. It won't be difficult to find someone to accompany you on these trips, if you so wish. But since you are already challenging yourself, why not go solo?
7. Your future: One odd thing I noticed on returning home was that many of my potential employers were really impressed that I had done the exchange program. And because they wanted to talk about it, it made interviews less stressful as I was able to relax right from the start. It's also a great story to tell. I'm not sure why, but I find more people are interested about my exchange program than when I traveled for other reasons.
If I haven't convinced you yet, go online and look for experiences of other students. There are plenty, I assure you.
For me, it was a life changing experience. Soon after I returned home I moved cities for work. I've traveled solo. I've become more confident. Making friends has become a bit easier. If I want something, I continue to find ways to get it. I'm less afraid of taking risks.
And for all these reasons and more, life in general, is a little bit sweeter.