Being an exchange student. This means different things to different people. For me I have both been an exchange student, hosted an exchange student, and befriended many exchange students. You can go abroad all over the world and experience a completely different life. What does this mean you ask? It means leaving your friends and family for new friends and family. It means you wake up in a different bed, with a new language, and new customs and cultures. It is both wonderful and scary. You never know what is going to happen and how it will effect you. Because it is near impossible to leave on exchange and come back as the same person after.
For most, being an exchange student is the first time you leave home. You leave your protective family that you’ve grown up with your whole life. You don’t know what it will be like with your new family. Will you fit in? Will you have the same bond? Well… Sometimes it isn’t a great fit, and sometimes it is. The first host family I was with wasn’t a good fit. Do I regret it? No. I learned a lot from them and it was an experience that made me stronger. The second host family though… Them I connected with instantly. They became my real family. We had inside jokes, real talks, and we had a very open and honest relationship.
So while leaving your real home IS scary, you never know what will happen. But no matter what happens, you will learn something.
When you first arrive in your host country, everyone knows you. You are the foreign exchange student, you are the new celebrity at school. But after a while this does pass and you become old news. So when you have the spotlight, go out, make friends, and make those connections that will help you your entire exchange. I had the best support system of friends on my exchange, a good mixture of both locals and exchange students. It is easy to make friends with other exchange students because you understand each other. But you have to get out and make friends with locals too, this is what an exchange is all about.
Cultures and Customs
You will most likely face cultural differences. I was an exchange student in France, I have eaten live oysters, made sushi for the first time, and had many language miscommunications. I was raised a vegetarian my whole life. So this was a big stretch for me. But when you are on exchange it doesn’t matter if things scare you or you’re not sure if you’ll like it or not. You might end up liking it, you’ll have a great story to tell your family back home, or you might just end up with a great photo of you trying escargot for the first time. So no matter how crazy it might seem, try it, you can never be told you don’t have an open mind.
If you’re like me, you went on exchange knowing not one word of your host language. It’s hard. Don’t feel frustrated though by all the people who already have experience. You get to learn your host language from the locals. This means most likely, you’ll have a more authentic accent. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! It WILL happen, and when it does, it will be embarrassing. But you can laugh about it later. I got the words mixed up for “maybe” and the “f” word, then I proceeded to say it to both my host mom and my teacher. Hey, it happens. Apologize and move on. Just do your best and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. But whatever you do, don’t spend your exchange speaking in your native language. It might be easier at first, but you will regret it later.
In the beginning time seems to creep by. But the farther along you get the quicker it seems to go. Like a toilet paper roll, the closer you are to the end, the faster it seems to disappear. Take LOTS of pictures and write in a little planner about what you do each day, it’s fun to look back on later. When you are at the end you really look back and realize how much you have really learned. You appreciate things more and you realize how much you want to stay. Saying goodbye is hard. On one hand you know you’ll be able to rediscover your family and friends back home, but on the other, you know that things won’t ever be the same. You don’t know the next time you’ll see your host family and friends again. And trust me, it hurts. I cried for days and weeks after saying goodbye. I still think about them and hope to go back and visit, maybe even stay.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Exchanges are a live changing experience. I would recommend an exchange year to everyone. It opens your mind, you get a sense of independence, you get to see the world, and you get connections that will last you a lifetime. However there is a downside. I read a quote that describes it perfectly “Being an exchange student is like letting your heart be divided into tiny pieces and spread all over the world, and hoping that one day they can be put together again.” Saying goodbye to your exchange year is hard. When you come back everything seems different, till you realize that it’s you who’s changed. You look at pictures of people before and after exchange and you can see the growth and independence that overtakes them. Because it’s not a year in your life, it is a life in a year.