Being in a place that is unfamiliar can be very challenging. It can be an opportunity to explore your surroundings and to explore yourself. To be the only person in a room that is from your own country is a rare situation however it makes you dig deep into yourself to bring out qualities that you did not know existed. Here are the most important things that I learned during my student exchange experience to the University of Guelph, Canada in 2003:
1. How to build new communities and bonds with different people.
It’s amazing how a bond with someone can be forged when you are in the same situation. Regardless of their age, gender, culture or beliefs, making friends with someone who has the same thing in common (student exchange) can be enough of a reason when you are abroad. My friendship circle in Canada consisted of students from France, Spain, Sweden, Scotland and Mexico in addition to the friends I made from Canada. The University supported the International Students by providing meetings and events for us. Not too long after, we started to make our own connections with each other. It helped so much to feel connected to a group. Some of the friends that I made are friends for life, simply because they shared the unique experience with me.
2. Building inner strength and resilience.
Being in another country for an extended period of time is quite challenging. Not like a holiday where you are taken away from your daily routine, living in another country means building the resources and knowledge to live day to day. When everything is new, it’s up to you to find out where the supermarkets are, the bus routes, the local doctor if you need it, any part time work if you want it and also where other facilities are that are essential for daily life. You are in complete control of yourself and when things go pear shaped, it’s up to you to solve the problems without the help of those who are usually there for you back at home. This is where you find out how capable you really are and your level of resilience is tested.
3. Learning to adapt to the customs of another country.
When you step into another culture, the rules change. Everything that you learned growing up in your own country is not always relevant to the situations that you will be faced with in another country. We see this all the time on the news when people get into situations overseas that would normally be accepted in Australia. It can be a huge challenge to adapt to the social norms that are encountered and to also respect them. It is a great opportunity to see how other societies deal with different situations and to observe the set of rules that apply, by stepping back and just watching instead of participating.
4. How to appreciate what you have.
It is so easy to take life for granted when you are comfortable. When you are not challenged and things are secure, it’s hard to see the little things that make the day enjoyable. However, when those things are not there it breeds appreciation for them. Here are just a few of the little things that I came to hold dear when I was aboard: a hug, having a pet in the house, watching an Australian news program, the smell of the ocean, seeing the stars at night, eating vegemite on toast without being looked at like a freak, Jimmy Barnes on the radio, driving on the ‘right’ side of the road, Tim Tams, getting mail, ranting about our politicians and hearing the chitter-chatter of Australian accents at the next table. Such simple things can help you feel part of the bigger picture but when these things are not there it can take away the sense of being part of a group.
5. The ability to strengthen your sense of identity.
As previously mentioned, the little things that you take for granted in your life help add up to your identity. It is not just what you are studying, where you work, what you aspire to do that is your identity, it can be what music you like, which footy team you go for and how you choose to spend your free time. Having the opportunity to take on new experiences or just be exposed to them can help you evaluate your identity in two ways: what you like and what you don’t like. Living in another country is an opportunity to take you out of your comfort zone and evaluate your preferences.
6. How to cope when bad things happen at home.
This challenge was an immense one for the exchange students and I when we were there. Something that you kind of forget when you leave your home is that life still goes on. You get a false feeling that everything stops and will resume once you return but this is certainly not the case. During the time I spent on exchange, there was a bombing in Madrid by the way of a terrorist attack. Luckily all the Spanish exchange students did not have any friends or family in the event, but that did not matter. From the time that the news hit us, to the time that they found out that none of their loved ones were involved, it was an extremely stressful time. We pulled together to support each other even though there was nothing we could do, just asking and being concerned was the only option. Family and friends are usually the people we go to when things go wrong. Our little community was there for each other.
7. How to not take life too seriously.
When you take on such a huge challenge, your perspective on life can change. Now some of the little things that annoy you become trivial because of the incredible experience that you have gone through. Moving to another country, surviving, being deprived of home comforts, these are big things for a person. They are also opportunities to see your world in a different light and to make braver decisions in the future that you would have not normally made.
There is no doubt that the benefits of doing a student exchange program are much more than studying at another university—it’s learning about yourself and testing your capabilities. It’s about building connections and thriving in unfamiliar territory. It’s about testing yourself, but all of this may only be discovered after you get home. If you asked me at the time if I learned these things while I was in Canada the answer would be no. In hindsight I see how incredibly brave it was to do this and the lessons that I had learned because of the experience. Oh yeah, the classes were good. I learned heaps, I think. I can’t quite remember a lot of the actual study that I did.
Words by Lisa Merlot
Artwork by Sheydin Dew