Student exchange isn’t just “seeing the world” — there are actual life lessons too.
In university, student exchange was a huge deal. Just check any school website and brochure — you’ll find a list of perks like expanding your worldview, networking and improving cross-cultural communication. Stuff that makes your resume look good, y’know?
So in Jan 2016, I went on exchange, all prepared for my life to change. Did any ‘perks’ stick in the end? No. Did I have a good time? Hell yeah.
But that’s not to say that I learnt nothing at all. Rather, student exchange taught me unexpected, hard-hitting lessons on how to ‘adult’ abroad. Some lessons were beautiful, while others were downright ugly and/or painful. Here’s what I learnt:
1) Some people are unkind, but that doesn’t mean the whole world is
Couchsurfing in Stuttgart, Germany with a friend’s parents.
I’m sure someone from your home country would’ve warned you about the world — it’s full of evil people who’ll eat you up.
True enough, during my time abroad, I’ve been cussed out by Caucasians for being a person of colour. Some people have also attempted to give me intimate hugs and kisses — without my consent. Yuck.
Yet, for every “bad” encounter, I met far more kind and generous folks who showed kindness. In Munich, I accidentally locked myself out of my host’s apartment, and a kind German family let me stay in theirs until he returned.
A snapshot of the German family’s apartment. As they were camera-shy, I took this to remember their act of kindness. :’)
In Paris, my Couchsurfing host fiercely defended me from hecklers. And in Santorini, a Chinese couple accompanied me after they noticed a man persistently ask me out for a drink. #faithinhumanityrestored
I’m not saying everyone you meet has good intentions. So, exercise discretion when deciding who to trust. You’re never obligated to accept someone else’s help if you’re not comfortable either!
2) You WILL feel homesick, and the best solution might not be Skyping back home
Being away during the Chinese New Year period can be especially tough. Afterall, it’s when we’re used to being around family.
During the CNY period, I was overseas and alone in my dorm room. While technology is great, watching my family over skype to lohei, eat, and be merry made me feel more alone than ever.
In hindsight, a more effective way to “cure” homesickness is to make friends with fellow exchange mates. Chances are, they could be homesick too.
In the end, my flatmates and I banded together to make a hearty CNY feast, with fried noodles, chicken curry, and Vietnamese rice rolls. We walked away stuffed and happy.
3) Solo travel is scary, but it’ll teach you to trust yourself very quickly
Hiking alone in Cinque Terre, Italy, in the rain.
When I first mentioned to relatives that I was going to travel solo on exchange, many gave weird or concerned looks, “You no friends, ah?”.
When I finally did try travelling solo, I was scared sh*tless. I feared getting robbed, assaulted, natural disasters, etc. But after a couple of weeks, something amazing happened: I learnt to trust my intuition. Travelling is a powerful tool because it finetunes your innate ability to judge whether something or someone is safe.
If I didn’t get a good feeling about a place or a person, I’d avoid it completely. In time, I became more confident in myself. From being spontaneous to opening up to Couchsurfers and other travellers, solo travelling taught me how to live life a little more fearlessly. After all, you’ve got to have your own back.
4) Nobody likes a slob
The communal kitchen in our student accommodation.
It’s ghastly staying with an unhygienic person. Unless you plan on living alone for your entire student exchange, please clean up after yourself. Or I assure you, you’ll instantly win the “Roomie from Hell” award.
One of my exchange flatmates held that title, sadly. She left her unwashed pots and dishes in the communal kitchen for a month. It took five of us nagging to finally get her to clean up.
Or so we thought. A month later, we found familiar unwashed pots and dishes in an empty cabinet. 🙃 We didn’t talk to her again after that.
5) The best eateries might be worth the language barrier
Many travel sites advise against patronising restaurants with an English menu. Reason being, they cater to tourists and serve mediocre food at jacked-up prices.
I learnt this the hard way. There was a famous restaurant in Brussels that served Moules-Frites (mussels and fries) and I had to go. Turns out, everyone who dined there was clearly a tourist (selfie sticks errwhere), and the food wasn’t as epic as reviews claimed.
On the flip side, after walking around aimlessly in Krakow, I passed by a small ice cream shop that barely had any reviews (back then, at least). Ordering was a hassle — the staff didn’t understand English at all, and all I could do was point at what looked good.
It turned out to be one of the freshest, creamiest ice cream I’ve ever had.
So, take a chance and seek out local markets or eateries without an English menu. Navigating the language barrier might just land you a fantastic meal. You’ll also have a lesser-known gem to brag about to your friends!
6) There are perks of being friendly to strangers — like a free concert ticket
Meeting with a couple of Couchsurfers in London, England.
Here’s something for the introverts. While on student exchange, you might find yourself making friends with strangers easily. After all, being in a new environment can make you more excited, bold, and chatty.
While it’s something you might not normally do back home, I say: Seize the opportunity!
You never know what might come out of fast friendships. It might be a free place to stay, crashing a party at a bar, or — in extremely rare but entirely possible cases — a concert ticket.
Yes, all of the above happened to me. I got to watch Coldplay perform in the UK for free — all because I started talking to a man at a farmers’ market about Ethiopian food. (Context: He happened to have a spare ticket as his sister was sick, and he thought I was “nice enough” to hang out with.)
“Oh my gawdddd we’re gonna go see Coldplay!?!” “Yes, Neo.”
7) Leaving your belongings unattended is always a bad idea, especially out of Singapore
Photo credit: Jacob Bentzinger via Unsplash
We all know Singapore is safe (most of the time lah). You can even find valuables used to chope (Singlish for ‘reserve’) an unattended table. if your bag is unzipped, it’s likelier someone will tell you about it, than steal something.
Obviously, it isn’t always the case overseas. Pickpockets and thieves are always looking out for opportunities to swipe your stuff — and they’re crazily skilled at it.
Once, while running for a train, Jelaine‘s bag was unzipped and her wallet was stolen. Luckily, that wallet was a decoy. But imagine if it had been the real thing!
*Pro-tip: Throw off thieves like Jelaine did! To prevent your actual valuables from being stolen, plant a few decoy wallets in the most obvious places in your bag.
8) Travel fatigue is real
I look happy here, but I was anxiously rushing for my next bus to Croatia.
During my midterm break, I tried to see as much of Europe as possible. It sounded like a great idea in my head, but oh, what a terrible one it was in reality.
In 32 days, I covered 14 cities across nine countries. Midway through, I felt utterly exhausted. Half my mind was savouring the moments, while the other half was anxiously wondering if I was ready for the next city. By the fifth country, everything became a blur.
My advice: Avoid being too ambitious with your plans! There’s merit in slowing down and taking your time to experience new places. Travelling isn’t a race — and that leads me to my final point…
9) You don’t have to “discover yourself”, and that’s okay
Discovering that travelling alone means setting a 10–second timer, all the damn time.
To write this article, I asked friends and colleagues about their exchange experiences. A few proudly said they went on exchange alone to avoid other Singaporeans. Otherwise, “Why leave Singapore, right?” This often came with a sense of superiority.
Here’s the thing: There’s no “right” way to do your student exchange. Everyone travels differently, and it’s silly to assume one way is better than another.
My fellow exchange mate didn’t agree with my travel style. I aggressively pushed for Couchsurfing, city-hopping, and stepping out of my comfort zone. However, she took things slow and travelled with her mother who came to visit. All in all, she felt fulfilled at seeing the world the way she wanted to.
Exploring Rome with a friend and our Couchsurfing host (and his dog!).
In the end, student exchange is not a competition. It’s a personal journey of growth and learning about yourself in a whole new environment. You might not like the brutally honest lessons it teaches you. But hey, you’ll walk away with tons of cool stories to tell!
So just be yourself, stay safe, and above all — enjoy the process.
Have you gone on student exchange? Share your experience, or the lessons you’ve learnt, in the comments below!