I remember with clarity the moment when my exchange coordinator told me the big news: “You’re going to Brazil!” she exclaimed, and I just stood there not knowing how I would make it.
Six of the most important weeks of my life began the day I stepped on the plane. Arriving in Sao Paulo, I was easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of the airport, and the chaotic zig-zag of busy travellers didn’t do much to calm my nerves. Little did I know that not only was I stepping onto foreign terrain, I was embarking on a journey of rediscovery, for the things you learn during exchange are unique, and valuable for the rest of your life.
Here are five insightful revelations I experienced during my exchange:
Your Comfort Zone Is Bigger Than You Think
“Look”, someone told me honestly, “if you’re going to just sit around, your exchange will pass you by”. Hearing this, I realized my exchange began outside the gates of my host family’s house. That afternoon, a humid summer’s day in Florianopolis, I decided to take a walk.
The logical thing to do would be to stop, ask for directions, and follow them obediently. After all, who wants to get lost in a foreign country?
But we seldom do the logical thing, and like any other human being, I simply walked.
Getting lost stops being frightening as soon as you regard yourself as part of the landscape. People approach you, sometimes out of curiosity, others out of need, and you watch yourself grow more open, talk more, and, most importantly, listen more to those with whom you interact.
That moment when you are able to catch the bus by yourself, and arrive at your destination without hiccups, you will feel a sense of pride rising in you, but what really happens is that you find yourself suddenly a confident person abroad. You realize that the fears you once had are slowly becoming working points, and you find yourself constantly pushing the envelope of your own worries.
Trying Something New Is Good
It doesn’t matter if the plate of food looks familiar, because even though the rest of the group is pressuring you to have a taste, there is still a small hesitation in you.
What if I don’t like it?
Exchange students are constantly confronted with this question. Every day, every time, everywhere. Something as simple as waking up triggers a series of contemplative questions that exchange students must understand.
An answer is often found by trying the new things that come to you.
Early in the journey, you will learn to regret not having tried something new. Not because it is the thing itself that counts, but really the effect of the risk on you.
You grow, you push yourself, and in trying new things, you discover new things about yourself.
Never in my dreams would I have visualized myself eating something called “chocolate pizza”, but because I gave it a try, I opened the door to an entire world of delicacies and unique gastronomic experiences, and became appreciative of the way other people relate to food.
Strangers Are Your Best Friends
Make friends with strangers
When you are an exchange student, you learn that trust works as a deposit. You don’t wait for people to prove themselves trustworthy, you simply begin the relationship by trusting them. Not because you are naïve, but because you are genuinely optimistic, and understand that the people you think of as strangers can guide you in the smallest things.
Countless times, in getting lost in a city, I’ve counted on the help of strangers to give me directions, or to offer to walk me to the specific thing I was looking for, or to give me advice about the best eateries and the local tricks for getting around.
These can be seen as trivial interactions, but as an exchange student, you are coming in with little or no knowledge about the daily life of your new town’s people.
I remember a particular moment, when I got on the wrong bus. After reaching the end of the route, the driver looked back and asked me why I hadn’t stopped along the say. Hesitating, I told him I was lost, and suspected that this was the wrong bus.
Very calmly, he approached me and asked for my destination. Using shops and restaurants as references, he understood where I needed to be and kindly drove me to the nearest station to catch a bus to my destination.
It is hard to believe that, sometimes, strangers are people who can have the best intentions at heart.
Helping Others Empowers You
The same way exchange students learn to rely on strangers in time of need, so do we learn to offer our help without hesitation.
As we grow through our exchange journey, we come face to face with the harsh realities of where we find ourselves. We interact daily with people who study, work, and have their own problems in life, and we cannot be indifferent to this.
Actions that may be initially seen as small, such as offering to buy some bread for a homeless kid, or taking some time to help an elderly woman cross the street, possess great value and meaning. As foreigners, this is the way in which we claim local citizenship, when we see ourselves deeply immersed in the social dynamics so much, that we also become people others can rely on.
It’s reciprocal. Today, you might be helped by a woman who lent you the money to cover the bus fare. Tomorrow, you will find yourself spontaneously walking someone to where he or she needs to be.
Coming Home As A New Person
Coming Home As New Person
This is, perhaps, the hardest lesson to learn.
Returning home is not easy, after you’ve watched yourself grow and change over the course of your exchange journey. You’ve been exposed, pushed, and tested by your challenges and achievements, and yet you come home to find that everything around you is just the way it was.
Your family and friends don’t always immediately perceive all the internal changes in you, and this can be frustrating, especially when you are expected to explain your new opinions and attitudes.
But it gets better, because coming back home, you’ve brought all the lessons you learned on your exchange.
You’re more open, you trust more people, and you have a genuine belief in them. You are always ready to help with no limitations, and you value the small things people do for you.
The things you didn’t do then, you do now, since you’ve realized that trying new things is a great way to discover yourself.
Most importantly, you are thankful that home is a constant in your life. After spending time abroad, in constant motion, you are more than able to appreciate the present.
So what is the thing that connects all these lessons, and that encourages youth all over the world to go on exchange? Confucius famously said, “wherever you go, there you are”, and exchange is no different. The real point of exchange is not to go somewhere new and discover the new place, but to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Exchange is a type of travel that give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in the lives of others, to claim a new space through actively contributing to the wellbeing of those around you, and to understand that everything you learn about yourself makes you a better person.