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Exchange: Exploring, Chilling and Never Growing Up in Europe – By Siddharth Shah

To begin with, I’d like to reflect upon the advice and experiences I heard when I was preparing to go on exchange last year. From all the blogs I read, the past exchangers I listened to and the Global Learning staff whom I consulted, there were a few recurring benefits mentioned and expectations created. In essence, we were told that going on exchange was a life-changing experience which “broadens your horizons” and “makes you more of a global citizen”. I’m normally quite skeptical of such vague and clichéd phrases but my most honest attempt at summarising the experience is no different. Exchange was the most significant, memorable and valuable half-year of my life and it was the biggest catalyst for change in my attitudes, personality and lifestyle.

Another thing that I was a little skeptical about was how quickly the six months would pass. At this point I may just seem like a cynic but at the time, I couldn’t see university passing by any faster than it already was. I remember a past exchange student who had recently returned to Adelaide saying to a room full of us “I’m jealous of all of you about to embark on exchange”. I couldn’t imagine how someone who had just returned “home” would even think about leaving so soon. However, as my first half-semester came to a close, I couldn’t imagine returning home in just a few months. I did everything I could to extend my exchange for a whole year. I tried to rearrange my subjects completely and even considered extending my whole degree just to stay a little longer. In the end, I ran out of time to enrol for another semester. I would advise anyone who has the possibility to stay for a full year to take the opportunity. Don’t overthink it because most people don’t get a second chance to go on exchange.

One of the most cited reasons to go on exchange is the opportunity to travel and explore other cities/countries on day trips or weekend trips. This is a divided point for me. I studied in Maastricht, a Dutch city which was a 15 minute run away from Belgium and a 3 hour bike ride from Germany. Loads of exchange students managed to travel to a different city almost every weekend, although I have no idea how. However, I kind of fell in love with Maastricht and the people there and so there was always too much happening at home for me to travel as much as others. However, whenever I did, I travelled with friends/friends-to-be and experienced the cities in a totally different, more memorable way than I would have otherwise. It’s so new for me to feel like I have a second “home” on the other side of the world where I will always feel comfortable but still with so much more to discover. As much as I love my friends back home, I’m so pleased I was able to go on exchange without anyone I knew from Adelaide. I would strongly recommend others to do the same if possible. As fun and comfortable as it seems to travel with a friend, so many opportunities opened up for me because I was alone.

The formation and dynamics of friendships made on exchange are entirely different to those made back home. There is something about everyone being extra willing to meet new people and the increased openness that comes with being in a city where no one knows you and has no pre-existing expectations of you. It speeds up the development of friendships and allows you to share your experiences and feelings in a less restricted way giving you the feel of knowing someone for a lifetime when it’s only been a few weeks. Exchange gives you the chance to meet people from all over the world who study different degrees, speak different languages and have different habits and perceptions of the world. Before exchange,  I would have considered myself an accepting person who is used to working with people from different backgrounds. It looked good on job applications but there’s a big difference between being accepting or unprejudiced to actually interacting and really learning about other people. In Australia, I had the luxury of not needing to introduce myself to people or make conversation with strangers in order to make friends. That being said, I ended up finding friendships in the most unexpected ways. For the pragmatists, random interactions like this mean that by the end of your exchange, you’ll probably have a hundred beds to crash in around the world.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, international friendship are opportunities to fulfil your national duty as an Australian and spread the surprisingly believable legend of drop-bears.

One of the most important changes I personally experienced on exchange was a massive increase in productivity. In Australia, I went to only a handful of parties each year, I spent loads of time in my study “studying”, I was allowed to get away with not doing certain chores if I had to study for exams, I didn’t volunteer in any organisations and I still didn’t sleep enough. In Maastricht, I went out with friends weekly, I planned and went on lots of trips during the semester, I volunteered for the UNICEF student team, I cooked for myself almost every night, I applied for loads of internships and I managed to maintain my grades while still finishing seasons and seasons of TV shows. Still not enough sleep but that doesn’t matter. There’s something about the limited time period that made me determined to do as much as possible and also made me say yes to any interesting new experience without overthinking it. I was so keen to try new things that I stopped myself from buying a guitar or borrowing books from the library. Despite how much I missed reading and my music, I decided that I could ignore those short term longings and better use the time to explore the network of tunnels under the city, the only “hill” in Maastricht or anything else.

Another cool thing about dropping yourself into a situation with a blank slate where nobody knows you is that there are no perceptions of who you are supposed to be. There’s something freeing about having no set expectations of your character. The fresh new situation allows you to live a slightly different life and I think, in my case, a more honest version of myself. I had no shame in being the first/last person in the dance floor or admitting that Bieber actually has some good tracks.

Finally, the most overlooked part of studying abroad, the study. I imagine that this aspect would vary a lot with each student, degree and host university. However, for me, I only developed a proper interest in Finance once I started studying at Maastricht University. The style of teaching and learning and the structure of courses was entirely different there. Tutorials are controlled by students, lectures are held only a few times per semester, students are encouraged to learn from each other and tutors don’t lead discussion but rather, just supervise it. The new style of learning and the content of the courses suited me a lot more and I feel like I have retained a lot more of what I learned. We also had to prepare presentations almost weekly and I started to actually enjoy making and delivering them when it used to be one of my most despised assignments.

I don’t really have a common thread or flow for these reflections and so a conclusion is difficult. Exchange has been truly incredible and I wouldn’t change a moment of it. Furthermore, my sign language has improved tremendously to overcome language barriers and I got wayyyy more likes on my Facebook photos than I would have otherwise.

Check out Siddharth’s blog!

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