Secrets of the foreign exchange year


Emmi Raatikainen

“Break rules on Monday, and you’ll be on a plane back home by Wednesday.” As an exchange student from Finland, that was one of the first things I was told by the organization that sponsors me. To other people, the year may seem like a long vacation filled with new experiences. Sure, we do a great deal of new and fun things along the way, but there’s a lot more to the year. Being a foreign exchange student isn’t all fun and games.

  First of all, we have a lot of rules. One of the first things they hand out to us is almost ten pages of rules. Now, of course, it probably doesn’t surprise anyone that we have rules, that is normal after all, but some of them don’t make any sense. After being accepted to the program, a person is most likely not going to a different country to get married or date one of their host-siblings. Exchange organizations are like spies; they have eyes and ears everywhere, and the fear of one mistake or even a misunderstanding costing a person their whole year is really scary. The cherry on top of the cake is that if a person does get sent home, $15,000 have just been thrown down the drain.

  Many people think that an exchange year starts by packing the bags and ends when one flies home. There are a lot of tasks to get done before that. One of the first things to prove a person should be allowed to go on the trip is to get excellent grades. In order to have a chance of becoming an exchange student, the application must go in at least a year early.  Once the application is turned in, the applicant must go through a series of tests and interviews.  If nothing else, a person learns patience throughout the process. Until actually flying to the new country, one lives in a state of not knowing what is going on or where the final destination is located in. The information can come months in advance, or like in my case, five days before the departure.

  If anyone has ever had an exchange student as a friend, they probably are familiar with the long pauses we make during conversations. That is us thinking “Oh my god what am I supposed to say? Did I pronounce that right? Does that mean something else here? Would that person notice if I just ran away now?” I don’t even think I have enough fingers to count the times I have spaced out of a conversation to panic inside my head and start thinking about the fastest way out of the situation. One of these moments happened to me even before I got to Holland. When I first arrived at the states, my next flight got canceled and I was stuck in Chicago for the most part of the day. Then came the worst fear of an exchange student, and I had to have a real conversation with the staff considering my luggage. Being the typical unsocial Finn that I am, the conversation went badly. I froze almost after every single word I spoke, and the person I was talking to looked at me like I was crazy. At that moment every single piece of me wanted to sink to the ground. I think everyone owns a fear of failure, but when a language barrier, culture shock and being alone in a completely new environment is added to that mix, a person’s brain will start to do the Macarena at some point.  

  As an exchange student, one also gets to experience not having money a lot of times. Not only does the year cost a fortune, but one could also call the experience a year-long period of buying stuff one is not going to use or need, but they looked nice on the store’s shelf. The temptation of buying everything is too big, and to be honest, the feeling does not fade away along the year. This is also a source of anxiety, so one could say that the whole exchange year can be described as two feelings; being high on the excitement of everything new, and feeling anxious about the tiniest complications that come along the way.

    Although I’ve been focusing on the more negative aspects of being an exchange student, the year will be one of the best experiences one will ever get to do, even though living far away from the past life will bring massive amounts of stress, anxiety, and an empty bank account. The chance to experience a whole new culture and live a completely unexpected life will affect a person in so many ways. If you’ve ever thought about studying abroad, just go for it.