Beyond an exchange 

About 6.4 million students decided to study abroad last year, leaving behind their families, friends, customs, and, in short, their lives. It’s the sense of starting from zero and being alone. As if they had just been born, they have to get used to new traditions, pretending to leave what they learned over the years in their home country.

“We land in an unknown territory,” said Sergio Roca, a Spanish exchange student at University of Montana. “It’s scary, but at the end it’s a rewarding turning point.” 

More and more universities are joining exchange programs to strengthen the university stage, inviting their students to belong to centers in other countries and welcoming foreign students to their facilities.  

Once students have reached the midpoint of their degree, they have the chance to apply for a place in their favorite destinations. Universities value the students’ GPA, official language titles and other parameters. Sometimes they get what they ask for, sometimes they don’t. And even though it may seem like a failure, it is still a victory.

Making the welcome as easy as possible in the complicated journey away from comfort is key to the experience. Universities are a reference point for incoming students; facilities offer personal advisors who serve as guides and a sort of bodyguard, psychological and medical care services and protection platforms against abuse cases as well. International students have to start from nothing. And this is one of the biggest fears.

When the plane takes off for their destination, the countdown begins. They only have a few hours left to step in what will be their new home.

“When I arrived, my heart was racing,” said Alba Ortega, a Spanish exchange student at Radboud University. “Everything depended on me. It was my first time doing everything I was doing.”

Alba Ortega at Radboud University (Photo courtesy of Alba Ortega)

From the airport to the residence. Unpacking and settling in. Then came the first days of meetings and orientations. Being around a lot of people and alone at the same time. It is about arriving, and everything happens without having time to assimilate. But everything goes. You get to know people and yourself in depth. Getting used to the other culture, speaking a new language, walking around the area, taking pictures and even traveling around.

“Over the first few days, we have to take time for ourselves to react and think about what we’re living, because all take place at once,” Roca said. “Doing it well requires time.” 

The passage of time is healing and could be considered cathartic. The process can be difficult or easy. There is not an established rule. Cultures and language barriers can affect. Or not. But in the end, students face a personal change for the better, no matter what.  

Arianna Fornaquer, who was leaving Södertön University a year ago after an exchange semester, recognizes that, “the comforting thing is that you don’t make the change alone, because there are hundreds in the same situation.”

Students have the opportunity to share their experience with others who live the same adventure and, for sure, have similar concerns. Although it’s ephemeral, they have the chance of becoming a family.

Knowing that they can find someone to rely on helps them in case they have to cry or even laugh. They can discover and learn together. With them is where your new home will be—with those people, who we don’t know very well but who are unconditional.

During your stay, there comes a point when fears disappear. Being careful is now sounding like, ‘Why not? Let’s do it’. And then you realize that you are not the same person who arrived. You will be more confident and, without doubt, more mature. 

“At the moment you allow yourself to release, everything looks different,” said Ortega. “You noticed you could live a new life there.”

But unfortunately, it finishes. It may have been five months or a year. It’s time to pack your stuff again and come back home. On second thought, though, it’s not quite over, because that’s what matters; what’s immaterial will accompany them until, at least, their next adventure.

“Nonetheless, each experience is unique, as each one sets their own time,” said Roca. “If anyone considers doing it, let them venture, because whatever they live through, no matter what, it’ll be fine, and it will be the best thing that will happen to them.”

Marc Di Tecco is an exchange student from Spain, where he studies journalism. He’s a culture and art passionate. After graduating, he plans to write about fashion and culture stories. Marc would also love to have the opportunity to discover other areas, such as radio and television, in the future.