Participating in an exchange program was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Just a bit of background story, I grew up in Hong Kong and was only 17 at the time. I wanted to study abroad but wasn’t sure if I was ready, so I did some research and realized that there were other options. The idea seemed a little bit terrifying at first, but I told myself – screw it, let’s do it. So I took the plunge, went to France for one academic year, and learnt a few things.
PARLEZ-VOUS FRANÇAIS – I didn’t know any French and I lived in a very small town in Provence, so most people didn’t speak English. By immersing myself in an environment where I had no choice but to speak French was actually the best way to learn. Smart phones weren’t common, so I carried a pocket dictionary with me everywhere to get by! I also read lots of Beginner’s French textbooks and did practice exercises every day to speed up the learning process. Guess what? By the end of the year, I was pretty fluent and had no problems with day-to-day conversations.
ALWAYS TIRED – I was constantly drained for the first few weeks so I thought I was jetlagged, but that didn’t stop for another few months… Turns out when you’re constantly experiencing new things and learning a new language, it can really, really wear you out even if you aren’t actively doing anything. Your body is taking it all in and your brain is always working hard to process new information, so make sure you’re giving yourself enough rest. Once I started understanding French better and got used to the new lifestyle, the sleepy head in me went away! Weird how the body works eh?
NEW FAMILY – I lived with a French family during my entire stay, but unlike some of the other exchange students who integrated really well into their host families, I didn’t. I couldn’t really get myself to feel fully comfortable around them, but being a “guest” in someone else’s home was a really unique experience and had taught me a lot – interesting family traditions, general routines and interactions, cultural differences, special recipes… Cool things you might not be able to experience outside of a local home even if you live abroad. If you have the choice to stay with locals, I highly recommend it.
INTERPERSONAL SKILLS – I normally don’t like the phrase “interpersonal skills” because of its vagueness, but it was one thing I had definitely gained from my exchange experience. Again, I was only 17 and I had a pretty sheltered childhood. After just one year, I really grew up and became a completely different person just because I stepped outside of my comfort zone – I became the girl who went all the way to another continent to learn a new language from scratch. I became the girl who took the train across a foreign country all by herself to explore. I became the girl who can do anything!
I WAS READY – One of the reasons that I went to an exchange program was to test the waters and see if I was ready to study abroad. And I had my answer – I was! I became a much more independent person and the idea of living across the globe was no longer intimidating, so I made the decision to go to Toronto to continue my education. I had learnt to take good care of myself and was ready to experience a brand new culture. And of course, having a new language in my pocket that happens to be one of Canada’s official languages didn’t hurt either!
So if you are thinking about studying abroad, maybe try going to an exchange for a few months or more to see if you’re ready for it first! There is less stress on the academics so you can truly immerse yourself into the whole new world, experience the culture, and mentally prepare yourself for the big challenge. If you have any questions about my experience on studying abroad, feel free to reach out to me! Bonne chance et bon voyage!