Doing an exchange semester abroad: 7 things they do not tell you

Having changed the plan/course of my life significantly from not wanting to pursue higher education to becoming a passionate enthusiast in educational experiences around the globe, I continue to accumulate knowledge and wisdom on the right approach and outlook you should take on studying in places where you aren’t enrolled as a full-time undergraduate student. Mind you – you don’t find this information on the LonelyPlanets & TripAdvisors of travel.

If you are planning an exchange semester of study in a new part of the world, your in for a roller-coaster ride whose trajectory your parents and friends cannot fully predict by merely listening to the screams of the ones with balls. Here is my heads-up on 7 things most people, schools, and websites will not tell you about planning for your experience which will play a big role in determining the quality of your experience:

1. Different ethnic backgrounds. Different cultures. But Same expectations. Same needs.

Excited about a new city, new culture & new people? Sure you are! But at the same time you wonder: “How are the people going to perceive me?” and “Am I going to be comfortable talking to (Asians, Americans, Europeans, Indians)?”. Put in a dumpster all those thoughts about if you are going to fit in and if local students would match your wave-length. Because here is the real deal: yes, they may look different. Yes, they may have different accents. Yes, they may not catch your jokes and vice-versa. Yes, their traditions, values and religious beliefs may be different. But what you need to know is that there is a lot of stuff that is common in the both of you. They are as connected, as progressive, as funny, as excited and as full of youth energy as you are. They are as “hip” as you are. They even have the same problems, same aspirations and same thoughts as you do. They are as nervous about being worthy hosts as you are about being a respectful guest. They are most willing to forgive you for the cultural mistakes you make and the norms you break in your early days. They are young students like you – and they have the very same needs and expectations from life as you do. So, don’t be intimidated, don’t be afraid to mix and question, don’t hide in your comfort zone. Be super-friendly. Be yourself!

2. Travel light. Travel smart.

If it is a common scene in your house to have your parents pack your bags a night before you fly, I wish to alert you. It is easy to get carried away when parents insist that you must carry x pairs of clothing, y packets of food and z number of body and lifestyle products. Ultimately, and more commonly, you tend to throw away most food or forcefully stuff it in your body by the end of the first month, repeat clothes more often than you thought, and simply ignore all those beauty and lifestyle products which were an integral part of your life at home. Exchange semesters are your big opportunity to explore. Learn to maximize your experience by trying local foods and finding some taste in them. Give a shot trying on clothes that local people wear. And there is just no way how you are going to stop yourself from buying a lot of souvenirs and local products – you want some space in your luggage, now don’t you? This also gives you an opportunity to save sweating out in moving those huge bags on the first few days when you are trying to settle in well. Take only the stuff you absolutely need. Those fancy boots can wait at home 😉

3. Keep your expectations low.

Even more appropriately: Don’t have any expectations. High expectations are probably the biggest cause for disappointing exchange semesters. A lot of what you see in the photos and on television is overrated and not an average traveler’s experience. Even if it is, those are glorified depictions. It is very common for host universities to market their campus life as extra-ordinarily amazing. The descriptions of the cuisine in the city give a reader the impression that the food they eat at home is tasteless. And all this gets us naive undergraduates’ expectations to hit the roof. Here’s the reality: A lot of traditions and activities may not impress you. The foreign language that earlier sounded like romance-speak may later sound like cattle grazing in your ears. The food might be too sour or too bland compared to what you like. The courses at the university might just be too difficult, while the night life might be too dull. Let these not disappoint you. Take everything in the best stride and enjoy the experience for what it is. Learn to appreciate diversity. Only then will you find beauty and joy in the little things you experience 🙂 (Don’t confuse this with excitement levels. You should be psyched about this experience!)

4. Facebook status and information updates are good.

I bet most of your friends and acquaintances claim to be way too overwhelmed with work or other stuff in life. Even if that means spending an awful lot of time sleeping or watching television. It’s time you stop waiting for them to ask you about what you are up to, and take an active step in telling people where you are. Use tools like Facebook and email to announce your new location, your telephone number and your willingness to hear from them. In many cases, as it turns out, your friends have great pals or relatives in this city your going to be spending your semester in. And very often, if you have at least >100 friends, somebody is going to respond to you telling you something they know about the place. Also, this way you will safely have some saving grace from those “you-did-not-tell-me-that-you-were-going-to-Madagascar!” messages. Here is why this is important: there is a high likely-hood that you may feel awfully homesick by mid-semester. You might begin to miss all your douche friends back at home uploading a million pictures every day. There is nothing you can really do about this – just try and make sure you are making quality friendships in the new city, while you are acting like a perfect tourist. Meanwhile, you may occasionally have a school friend visit you or call you once in a while to make you comfortable.

(Avoid statuses like: “This is awful! I want to go home :'(“. These make you hate circumstances even more. The “Like”s and “Awwww…” responses aren’t going to help either)

5. Stand-out at your home. Learn to become a nobody at the other’s place.

Hello Mr/Mrs Awesome! So you have the sickest ride, eh? Or are you the chick everyone is talking about? Good for you. But here is a tip if you are keen on deeply exploring another culture and society on your exchange semester: leave at home your accolades gallery and completely give-up your ego. These achievements might just become the difference between you blending in with your new schoolmates and being a complete outcast. Give a chance for others to approach you and know you better. Give yourself a chance to stop thinking of someone being worse than you at something. What you really want to be able to do is to mix in with everybody and learn about what different people are all about. You will soon realize that your discoveries in all kinds of people will become your favorite aspect about the exchange semester, and the international experience as a whole 🙂

6. Buffer is golden.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines buffer as “an old man”. Oops! Wrong definition – never mind! Buffer is actually that space or that cushion which prevents oneself from shock. And if you thought you are the world’s best planner and that does not apply to you – you might have just misunderstood the business of traveling. You should expect shocks everywhere – a surprise fee for your visa on arrival in the country, a delayed connecting flight, a missed connection, heavy road traffic, lack of enough information with the housing you are going to arrive in, no one understanding your language/accent, a delay in airport pick-up, a receipt for your meal in the airplane, etc. But if these are all unexpected, what do you do about this? Buy yourself some buffer. Print those extra reservation documents and emails about your travel, carry those returned forms from the embassy, buy yourself adequate time to catch the next flight, learn some basic conversations in the language you expect people to use – using Google Translate, carry some extra money on you (don’t expect ATMs to be as widespread as Coca-cola), etc. Do a run-through of your journey, possibly with an experienced traveler, and prepare yourself with some buffer.

7. Set goals for the semester: they tend to save you from sinking into laziness

(Read the title. It’s self explanatory)

All that taken care of, you should look forward to an experience of a lifetime. I am already so excited for you!

This entry was posted in Culture, Living, Pittsburgh, Singapore, Social, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Doing an exchange semester abroad: 7 things they do not tell you

  1. Dave says:

    Varun, you are so cool! Amazing reflections. Seriously.

    • Varun Arora says:

      Thank you so much, Dave! You are way too awesome. Thank you for watching the blog frequently and reading all the stuff we write 🙂

      Lastly, thanks for making CMU-Q the way it is today!

  2. Mélina says:

    Great article!

  3. I cannot tell you how much I agree on point number 5! I was an exchange student in Scotland in 2009/2010, and that was my mindset throughout the year – and right enough I had the best year of my life! I met so many fantastic people, and got to know the culture in a completely different way than what I would have if I hadn’t came with that mind set. Your blog is fantastic, even though I’m just discovering it now – keep up the good work!

  4. Marta says:

    I cannot tell you how much I agree on point number 4! Less is more

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