Wednesday, May 10, 2017

When You Are an Exchange Student....

         Since I have some friends who are going to be exchange students soon or who are considering taking the jump, I thought I'd give them some pointers on what it's like in our world, particularly mine. I guess this could apply to any period of time, but I, of course, am writing from a ten month point of view. It's all from experience!

         1. Expect to be asked questions...a lot. I am not kidding. When you first arrive, you will be the talk of the school, well, really the town. Your host family will introduce you to their friends and family like you are a prize they won. People will know who you are before they've even met you. Questions will vary simply from "Why did you choose this country?" to silly stereotypes on your own country to everything in between. You will find yourself replying to the same question over and over again and to questions that you can't really explain. Hang in there! After a while, the attention dies down, but there are always people who ask you if you speak your host language eight months after you've arrived.

         2. Prepare your loved ones. When you first go, your parents might not really realize that you really are gone. I had been on exchange for two months and my dad told me he was still in denial that I had even left. You have to make it clear to everyone back home that you will not be on Facetime with them every night or even every two weeks. You simply can not be in your home country in your head and in your host country. I suggest doing a blog or having a social media account so that you can keep your loved ones updated. This works better than texting or e-mailing for two reasons. Instead of writing the same thing to twenty different people, you can update them all at once. Secondly, you will be doing yourself a favor because you will not be actually talking to your mom, which can bring about or worsen homesickness, but she will still know you are alive and well. That said, a note written back home every once in a while or a separate e-mail for a birthday does not hurt.

       3. Decide why you are going abroad. Each student studies abroad for different reasons. It is so important to write your reasons down, and don't lose the paper like I did. When it gets hard, go back to that paper and it will encourage you to keep going.

      4. Savor each moment. This is a year of your life you will not forget. You don't have to enjoy every moment, but just realize that each moment will be looked back on as irreplacable. You will look back on the harder moments with some type of feeling in between sadness, pride, relief that it's over and the desire to experience it again.

      5. Keep a journal. You don't have to tell everyone everything. Simply keep a journal. I haven't even left yet, and I look at my journal from time to time. It's special. Write in your host language to see your improvement!

      6. Get connected with your host family and friends. You will quickly find that the things you never did with your mom or dad are being done with your host parents. Either they will invite you just to go to the store with them, or you will find yourself sad because they didn't invite you to. While it is likely that you stayed on your phone in your room while your mom did this in your native country, things like this are a great way to get to know your host family and friends. Also, you can learn new vocabulary in your second language! If they are doing something or going somewhere and they don't think of inviting you, ask to participate. (You can use google translate if you can't speak the language. They will get the idea.)

       7. Learn your country's expressions. I wish I had done this before leaving. It would've helped a lot. Just do it. It only takes a few minutes and is very amusing!

      8. You don't have to be strong all the time, but don't give up. You will have hard times on your exchange. It could be as simple as you getting tired of not being understood in your second language or as hard as a host family change. Get the emotions out. Talk to someone. I know what you might be thinking. How am I supposed to tell my host family what is going on if I barely know the language... or them? (Note: Exchange students are a great resource because they are (to at least some degree) going through the same thing that you are. Also, they become some of the people after your year abroad that you can really connect with.) You will see that the hardest parts of the exchange help you grow and they are your proudest moments. If you really have no one to go to and you are going to get lost if you step out of your appartment, turn on the shower and just let it out. There's a solution for everything.

       9. Don't expect to be understood. I haven't gone home yet, but I expect it to be a little frustrating. I have experienced so much, but many people just think I just spent 310 days in Paris. (Close family and friends: In case you are reading this, that last sentence does not apply to you.) For those who know better can only hear my voice as I tell them the first time I celebrated a French Christmas, not experience what I have, or even have the desire to. No one understands, and no one will. It's ok.

      10. Use humor. When people ask you what you miss about your home country, don't be shy. I love when the French do something that is typically American. I will then leave a sly comment, indicating how I feel about that particular custom. For example, if I see my friends hugging, I will say "Oh, we're not kissing anymore! We must be in America!" with a giant smile, and then they will say, "Oh, do you want a hug Janae?" That's how reputations are born.

       Those are ten basic tips I would give to any exchange student, although I could go on all day.  I know that no one will follow each of these because I certainly didn't follow every tip that I had been given before going abroad. That's ok. That's part of why each of our experiences are different. You learn along the way.

 Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. 
                                                                     -Neal Donald Walsch

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