By Sandro Gvaramia
Studying a year abroad is both an amazing and a challenging experience. You get to meet people, make friends, and get a second family (if you’re lucky enough) outside of your home country.
Imagine leaving your normal life behind – your family and everyone and everything you’re used to ever since you were a baby – and starting a new life without people you have been with all your life. Although it might seem really hard at first, it actually gets easier as you start to adjust and open up. Plus, it helps when you’re aware that this is just for a year or so.
Rockwell’s foreign exchange students pose for a photo. Credit: Ashlee Milton
There are many ways to spend an academic year abroad. You can pay for it on your own or you can win a scholarship which completely pays for the year abroad. Either way, you become an exchange student, but if you’re not mentally and psychologically prepared for it then you should maybe give it a second thought. There are cases when exchange students cannot finish what they started for many reasons, but usually it’s because of being homesick.
“I miss my family, but my boyfriend and friends help keep my mind off of it.” says Rockwell senior, Sarah Olsen, from Denmark.
Speaking of homesickness, I think this is the hardest part. Now you will not be homesick the day you arrive in a foreign country because you are all excited, but after several weeks or maybe months you’ll start to feel homesick, and not just about your family, but about everything and the way things used to be. This is totally normal, and there are countless ways to cope with it.
Another thing that may come as an obstacle is the foreign language. For some students it can be really difficult, especially since knowing just your native language can make it hard enough not to say anything about speaking the second language fluently. Nobody expects of you to know the second language fluently, so there’s nothing to worry about. You might just need a basic knowledge of ways to interact with people that do not speak your first language. If you are really determined to have a successful exchange year, you can always find a way to master the language.
Besides being homesick, a cultural shock can be really hard to bear especially if you have not been fully prepared for what’s to come.
For exchange students that spend their years in the United States it can be a lot easier because every foreign exchange student goes through trainings where students are informed about what living in the United States is like. The people who inform you this stuff are Americans, so students are getting first-hand information about what their exchange experience will be like.
Regardless of preparation, there are still students who have a really hard time adjusting, which is totally normal. It can be stressful feeling constantly culture-shocked, but this is where the host family can be of help.
Host families are a huge part of an exchange year. If you win a scholarship, you are funded by the US Government, and then wait to be notified about your host family. No exchange student gets to choose which state they will be placed in or which family they’ll be living with.
“My host family is great at taking me places.” says Reia Martaba, a Rockwell junior from Japan.
Some exchange students get really lucky with their host family. They form strong relationships with their host family as they become like second families outside of their home country who they really bond with.
I have learned a lot in my experience as an exchange student from the country Georgia. I think the biggest thing I have learned so far is how to be more of an adult and become more independent. Each exchange student will get something different out of their experience abroad – it all depends on the student and how they react to things that may happen during their year. Experiences will vary with ups-and-downs, but it all comes down to how the student is willing to shape their exchange year based on their involvement, their attitude, and their relationship with their host family.
Premy Tangpong, a junior from Thailand says, “I think joining the sports team and school in general is one of the highlights of my exchange year.”