The ugly side of student exchange that no one told you about

Student exchange is one of the best things you can do during your university life. You get to push the ‘pause’ button on your stressful studying life in Singapore, drop everything and leave your worries and troubles behind for a few months.

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Friends who have gone on exchange before you rave about how exciting it all is – frolicking in one of Barcelona’s many beaches between classes, exploring hidden gems in Prague during the weekend; basically everything that is far beyond your reach in Singapore.

Finally, it is your turn to face a completely foreign but exciting world and live independently on your own. With your passport in hand (and hopefully a substantially thick wallet), you are ready to conquer the world.

Not so fast. I hate to rain on your parade, but exchange life is not necessarily the bed of roses you envision it to be. There is a gaping valley between perception and reality that past exchange students conveniently forget about (I call it Repressed Memory Syndrome) or play down when relaying their supposedly perfect exchange experiences. Therefore, I am taking it upon myself to play Devil’s Advocate to those who are planning to embark on exchange during the course of their university life.

The problem with freedom is that it entails responsibility.

This quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky sums it all up. Something many people have conveniently forgotten to tell future exchange students is that for every good thing you receive, there is something to be sacrificed.

While you might feel that you are much freer in your exchange country than in Singapore with no one to nag at you or strict rules to follow, think again.

While you have free rein to do whatever you so please, such freedom comes at a cost. As a student in Singapore, other than studying and basic household responsibilities, there is not much that one has to worry about. However, when you are alone in a foreign country, everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) lies on your shoulders.

Lights short-circuited? You fix it. Toilet clogged? You unclog it. Pesky banking procedures? You guessed it, you queue 2 hours for it. I could go on, but you get the drift.

The problem is exacerbated depending on where your exchange country is. Unlike Singapore, grocery stores or ATMs are not a stone’s throw away from your accommodation. You may even need to take a bus ride or walk 20 mins just to perform simple errands.

Freedom can be tiring at times, especially when you arrive with the incorrect mindset.

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Feeling of unfamiliarity

No matter how much of an extrovert you claim yourself to be, there will always be a level of loneliness felt during your first few months of exchange. The regular students in your exchange university and neighbours in your accommodation probably have known each other longer. It is natural, of course – you are in an unfamiliar place, and things work differently around there.

This problem is exacerbated by the language barrier faced. One such instance during my exchange in Germany was when I first met my roommates. English is not their mother tongue and they were terrible at it, making communication (and friendship) close to impossible. Despite attempts to bond, the communication breakdown due to language barriers proved too strong. Needless to say, this led to many misunderstandings and unhappiness.

Culture shock is another big factor that affects your exchange experience. When I first arrived in Europe, I was shocked by how inefficient the train systems in certain parts of Europe were. I could no longer leave my house and expect to arrive on time as planned, as there would be some delay somewhere. (I feel ashamed complaining about SMRT delays back in Singapore.)

The novelty of being in Europe for exchange wears off eventually, and what’s left can often be nerve-wrecking for some.

Safety is not a given

It’s common knowledge – crime rates in Singapore are shockingly low that one can feel safe walking home at night. This, however, cannot be said for countries in Europe like Milan or Berlin, where you need to exercise extra caution walking through a dodgy alley even in the day. Robberies are commonplace, and ambulances are constantly racing here and there to some accident that happened.

I remember my Parisian friend warning me prior to my trip to Paris to never hold your phone while on public transport or even on the streets because phones can easily be snatched this way. This is very different from Singapore where we casually put our phones in our back pockets or our bags on the tables unattended and expect it to still be there 30 minutes later.

Add to that the recent spate of terrorist attacks – the most recent one being in London (where I was coincidentally the day before) – you can never be too sure about your safety. While Singapore is definitely not immune to terrorism, I can safely say that I feel more protected in my home country as compared to being a traveller overseas.

Finally…

I hope I have not completely put you off the idea of exchange, that is certainly not my intention. My point is give a holistic view of what student exchange entails.

student exchange

It is more than pretentious travel hashtags on Instagram, or albums upon albums of Facebook photos. Exchange is a life-changing experience, not only because you get to travel the world and see what it has to offer, you also get to experience the struggles of living alone in a foreign place and the difficulties that accompany it.

Exchange is more than self-exploration by means of travelling, but by means of struggle as well. Once we own up to these struggles, only then will we truly grow. That, to me, is the true meaning of student exchange.