Living abroad is one of the most freshening and exciting things a student will ever do in their life. It offers a new perspective, gives a completely different view on the world, and allows students the opportunity to completely rebuild themselves. While I've never met an exchange student who ever ended up regretting going abroad, I think I can speak for all of us when I say there are a few different things we wish non-study abroaders understood.
1. Many exchange students study culture not curriculum
One of the most brilliant perks of studying abroad is accomplishing complete cultural immersion. It allows students to fill their minds with all of the wonders of living in a new country. With completely different foods, social norms and (depending on where you go) no English proficiency, entirely immersing into the culture is the #1 priority for most exchange students to survive their exchange. Therefore, we often primarily go to day-to-day classes as a crucial part of engaging first hand with the culture. The process of becoming 100% comfortable with a new nation's culture and language is absolutely priceless and no grade could ever be substantial enough to account for the information exchange students obtain and process while abroad.
2. Yes, we want to talk about our exchanges
Living abroad in a cultural immersion program is one of the most extensive and challenging things a human being can do. Everything we have been raised to know and appreciate is challenged. All of the morals we are raised to abide by are no longer relevant. So, yes, we want to talk about what a challenging and extremely life-changing experience we had. There is so much hands-on research that goes into living abroad, and we as exchange students feel like our heads are going to explode if we don't share our experience with our friends and families.
3. No, we are not trying to brag
We get it, non-exchange students think we talk about our exchanges in an attempt to brag or make ourselves look cooler than we are. I promise, for the majority of us, that's not the case. Going through the process of an exchange program is often one of the most life-altering things any exchange student has ever done, so we want to talk about it because there are a plethora of things to talk about.
We get told to shut up about our exchanges more often than you'd expect, so if a returnee of an exchange program tries to tell you about his/her experience...just listen! You'll likely learn some amazing facts about a new country and you'll probably end up with crazy wanderlust and a burning desire to travel...effective immediately.
4. Exchange ≠ Extended vacation
Many people view exchanges as a quick and painless extended vacation. However, any participant of a study abroad program will tell you otherwise. While obviously studying abroad is an enjoyable experience, you don't really get to be a tourist when the whole point of living in your host country is to learn to fit into the culture as accurately as possible.
For me personally, my host country was Malaysia, which is notoriously known for being a very conservative country. I wasn't able to go to the beach in my bikini. I wasn't sippin' on margaritas in a condo with my gal pals while listening to Beyonce. I was going to school. I was learning a brand new language. I was learning about new Malay foods while trying to keep up with the fast-paced dinner conversation in a language I was learning on my own. I was definitely not on an extended vacation.
5. Our host countries are our homes
It is nearly impossible to not fall in love with your host country when you are studying abroad. Often times, non-exchange students will become confused when exchange students refer to their host countries as their other home. The reason we do this is because we immerse ourselves as much as possible into our host nations in order to be one with the country. We feel the pulse of the country, we learn its quirks. We figure out what facial expressions are considered unruly in that culture and we learn not to use them. We fall in love with the food. We fall in love with our host families.. our schools..our classmates..the sweet cashier at the food stand on the street across from our classroom.
We make life-long friends that helped us in ways we may never experience in again. Our host countries become our homes because you cannot study abroad and not fall in love with the heartbeat of the country that takes you in.