Where do you even begin when you’re asked to sum up six months of your life? There is no possible way to explain/describe every experience, feeling and achievement. So, rather than make a rather poor attempt at it, I thought I would focus on the five skills the 360 International team say we will master while on exchange – although I can only speak from my experience and I’m sure that it is different for everyone.
Google maps will quickly become your best friend, I know it became mine within the first week. However, don’t forget about good old traditional maps, they provide by far the best over view of a city as they have the advantage of showing the whole city/area in a reasonable level of detail, while I find to see the same level of detail on google maps I end up having to zoom in and only look at a small part of the city. Like in any city you will quickly become familiar with your regular or daily route but I would encourage you to mix it up every once in a while or not to follow the map and just wander around. This is by far the best way to see things you might have otherwise missed.
Going on exchange to a country that speaks a different language adds a whole new level of complexity to an already challenging experience. While communication isn’t only about language, it is a key component. Regardless of where you go and what language is spoken you will have to work on your communication. Not only will you be interpreting slang that you may never have used before, but you will also have to adjust how you communicate to make sure that you are understood. At no point was this clearer to me than when I was meeting new groups of Spanish students on a daily basis. But even when I would meet other English speaking students from different countries, I found myself having to adjust how I was communicating to make sure that I was being understood – you would be surprised how many don’t understand that we refer to ourselves as “kiwis”, I had to explain this many times.
I don’t think my time management skills improved all that much, maybe they did and it just doesn’t feel like it? I was still no better at starting my assignments early, finishing them a little before the due date so that I could check them or starting to study for a test well in advance. This may be down to the fact that I spent quite a few weekends away, travelling in the north of Spain, but it may also be related to the fact that we were not given an exact plan for the semester. The one thing I do think you learn in terms of time management though is what a good balance between studying and socialising is for you. Everyone I met on exchange did this differently. I know one of my neighbours would go out till 10 or 12pm and then return home and spend the whole night catching up on the study she missed as a result of this. Something like this would never work for me!!
Being responsible for everything is both a great feeling and a huge challenge, especially for someone like me who has never lived away from home. I have really made the most of being the one in charge. The sense of freedom that comes with living by yourself is incredible but I did face my share of challenges too. Having the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted meant that my self-discipline had to improve a lot, there was no one standing over my shoulder telling me that I couldn’t watch the next episode or that I should get to bed before midnight when I had early mornings. Although it can be easy to forget being on your own and so far away, it is always ok to call friends and family from home for advice when it comes to making some decisions. As the semester went on and I found myself growing into my sudden independence I didn’t have to call home for advice anymore.
The Art of Conversation
I have two things to say on this topic. The first is that it is very hard to notice your own confidence growing, it isn’t until you compare how you acted around new people at the beginning of your exchange to how you are acting around them when you are getting ready to leave. The second is that during the course of my exchange I didn’t feel like I was more willing to start conversations with strangers, let alone in another language! But looking back now and comparing my behaviour I would definitely say that I find myself being able to make friends much easier than before my exchange experience.
An exchange is a huge opportunity for anyone, it is an opportunity to grow and have experiences that you would never normally have. My advice to anyone considering going on an exchange is to do it! But remember that it is still real life and that the experience won’t be perfect or a walk in the park; you will experience the same ups and downs that you experience at any other point in your life.