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Student Exchange: the Opportunity of a Lifetime

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In my mind, there is no experience more meaningful, more enriching, and more eye-opening than international student exchange. 
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Photo by Helena Lopes

It would be extremely difficult to reflect on such an experience and not feel as though it expanded your global competencies and enabled you to develop comparative perspectives. The act of learning to appreciate and effectively harness diverse perspectives is crucial to think outside of “the quintessential box” (i.e., our socialized, ethnocentric brains) and to adopt more creative and innovative approaches to solving problems that transcend borders and affect us all.  As you plan your student exchange, be sure to consider your goals, before you select the location and duration of your program and accommodations. Now, more than ever, intercultural dialogue is vital to engaging in desperately needed global collaboration. 

Three important considerations:

  1. What do you wish to learn and experience?
  2. To what extent will you immerse yourself in the local, authentic culture?
  3. The role of language in your exchange and how you can truly benefit from language immersion. 

Proficiency in more than one language is not only of great personal and professional benefit but it holds the key to effective cross-cultural collaboration. As most of you are concerned with the likelihood of fewer global employment opportunities in a post-pandemic world economy, adding additional languages to your professional toolkit will expand your possibilities.

Among the global competencies, intercultural communication skills are of vital importance. Therefore - consider all program details in terms of how they will facilitate or hinder your ability to engage with locals in the local language and to practise communicating in the target language as much as possible.

With so many programs offered in English, make the extra effort to learn the local language as well.  Seize the opportunities to practice communicating with locals in their language, especially as many of you might decide to stay and work or return to work in that host country at a later date. In Germany, for example, there are requirements for non-EU passport holding residents to successfully complete the B1 “German test for immigrants” (Deutschtest für Zuwanderer, DTZ), in order to extend their permanent residency beyond three years. The desire is for new residents to learn the language and the local customs to truly integrate into the culture. 

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Student Exchange: the Opportunity of a Lifetime

Personally, I wish that I had more carefully considered the role of language prior to my international student exchanges. While I was fortunate to study in Italy and Mexico on various occasions, all exchanges were quite different in terms of the extent to which I was able to practice and acquire the local language. 

My first experience abroad was an academic semester in Florence in which I lived with 3 other native English speakers in a flat. My opportunities to practice the local language were rare as my flatmates had limited Italian language skills. As Florence is such a popular tourist destination, many locals speak some English, and their desire to practice English meant fewer opportunities to practice speaking Italian. 

On the flip side, I spent a few months studying in the city of Reggio Calabria, a far less known tourist destination in Italy’s Deep South where English was rarely heard. My flatmate was a student from Spain and we made every effort to speak only Italian. As we developed friendships with local residents, our attempts to speak the language were well-received and crucial to overcoming barriers and developing trust. Those were some of the most rewarding memories of my combined exchanges as we were invited into peoples’ everyday lives and allowed to partake in authentic experiences.

During a summer term in the city of Guanajuato, Mexico, I lived with a Mexican family and had endless opportunities to converse in Spanish while expanding my knowledge of the culture and customs. The downside to an exchange during a summer term was its brevity and that many students seemed less focused on their research and learning and more interested in hedonistic pursuits.

looking at phone, other people around
Student Exchange: the Opportunity of a Lifetime

So, if you value acquiring language skills and perceive student exchange as a vehicle for cultural and linguistic immersion, consider how you can best expand your language skills prior to arrival in your chosen destination of study. 

As language and linguistics are likely not your core academic focus, consider how you can improve your language skills, outside of a classroom. Digital language learning tools exist that can help you quickly acquire some degree of fluency in your target language, even if you never leave the comfort of your own home. Rosetta Stone, for example, offers an online platform that recreates an immersive environment in which you are engaged in your target language. Endless opportunities to practice the language and refine your accent will boost your confidence and conversation skills before you arrive or join that virtual call. Award-winning mobile apps allow you to dive in at your convenience, from any place, anytime. 

When you invest the time to explore the language, prior to arrival, you prepare yourself for linguistic success. Quickly acclimate to the local culture and make the very most of your student exchange. Bravo!

Content sponsored by Rosetta Stone. Written by Jennifer Bauer, Ph.D.