Everyone says that they had the time of their lives during their exchange, that it changed them, that everyone should go on an exchange, that you get better grades when you're an exchange student, that it is the best experience you can have during your academic life. But what if your exchange sucks? What if you get bad grades and you don’t meet your best friends for life or you just have a bad experience and never want to go back to the city of your exchange? Okay, breathe. Lower your expectations; so low that everything that happens to you will be good. You saw a dog on the street? Amazing. You have a nice neighbour? Incredible. You don’t loathe the sounds of the garbage truck at night? Fantastic. Hope for the best, expect the worst. Life will be surprisingly easy if you think like this.
The Paperwork (AKA Learning Agreement Madness)
Before, during and after your exchange, the learning agreement will haunt you in your dreams. It is a lot of paperwork to fill, from knowing what courses to take, to possible changes and, finally, getting everything checked out. This can be very stressful, everyone who goes on an exchange knows the struggle. But don’t sweat it. Just breathe, scan that document a third time and know that it will probably not be the last time you’ll see it. Be prepared for the bureaucracy that all of this entails and keep in mind that making changes to your original Learning Agreement is actually a standard procedure and most exchange students do it.
So, you’ve been dropped out of thin air in a country where you don’t speak the language in order to study there for a whole semester? How are you supposed to do that when you don’t even know how to buy bread or get a coffee? It sounds like the worst scenario ever, doesn’t it? So why do thousands of students do it every year? Well, let me tell you, it’s because everyone else is secretly a superhero. Just kidding! It’s because it’s actually worth the awkwardness of pulling your phone out to explain something or mixing languages up to express yourself when you don’t know the language of the country of your exchange.
Find a way to learn the language, whether that’s online, through tools like Duolingo, or by attending a university course (they usually have some for exchange students). Brush up on your language skills, it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be fluent, but you’ll manage to find your way around the language and end up improving your overall communication!
‘I’m all alone, how do I make friends?’
Or as I like to call it: “I’m too shy to go out and don’t know how to be an extrovert”. This is something that caused me a lot of anxiety during my own exchange. Even though I was super extroverted back home, when in a completely different environment, I found it difficult to talk to people and connect with them, because not only did I feel like I had nothing in common with these people, but I also had to speak in a language that wasn’t my own. But as time goes by, it gets better, it really does. Try not to think that you’re going to make a fool of yourself. Stop thinking about what others are going to think of you. Everyone is in the same position: all on an exchange, all lost, all looking for friendship. Just go out and, for example, look at what your ESN section has to offer. Apply for a Buddy through the ESN Buddy System, if it’s available, join a sports team (for many athletic activities speaking the language is not that important), go to a random event and see who you meet, you might end up bumping into some cool people to talk to.
Or “I miss my mum/my pet syndrome” (not an actual syndrome). After some time abroad, everyone misses their home, it’s completely normal. You’re not a weird alien for wanting to retreat and go back to the mother ship so desperately that you start calling your mum for random reasons. It can get scary, knowing that you’re not just a two-hour drive away, but rather a couple of hours away by flight which will leave you with a few hundred euros less in your pocket.
How to solve this? Don’t forget your life back home. Keep in touch with friends and family, without them taking over your life abroad. You’ll end up realising how lucky you are to have someone to call at home. You can travel the world, but you’ll always have a home.
In the end, just be aware that going on an exchange is not stress-free. It’s not a holiday, after all. You’re still living your life. Think of it as a videogame – this is just a different level that you get to unlock that has different hoops to jump through. But you’ll be alright in the end.