The life of an exchange student: an easy semester or year abroad, a pleasant opportunity to make new friends, a year when you don’t have to study hard or pay attention to your grades because “you’re just here for the experience”. That is what most students think about the exchange experience nowadays and it seems like the greatest opportunity one can ever have. But the life of an exchange student has parts that most people are not aware of, responsibilities that others do not have, and because of this, many exchange students ask themselves the question: is being an exchange student a duty or an opportunity?
Many readers probably wonder: how can being an exchange student be a duty? Indeed, it is a hard concept to grasp, even for exchange students themselves. Whether they go to another country by paying for the experience or by winning a scholarship, most of them expect to be free to do as they please. Instead, they find out that most programs expect a certain number of volunteering hours, which may range from the tens to the hundreds; they are required to keep a certain level of academic achievement, usually of the higher category, and are not allowed to fail any classes. Some exchange students might find themselves having to join projects and events they were not previously aware of, like giving presentations about their culture and country or coordinating and implementing community service projects. Most exchange students also can’t take off periods and might find themselves strongly encouraged to join certain school clubs and activities.
Most students wouldn’t think of this as “an easy year” anymore, would they? And it isn’t. But one should think about it from a different perspective: the exchange experience isn’t only meant to teach more about different cultures, its purpose is to change the kids themselves, to help them grow and become better. As an exchange student, when I am required to keep my grades above C with at least a 3.0 GPA, I don’t think of it as a burden, but as a way to improve my skills and learn more about life. When I am required to do volunteer work, I don’t think of the hours that I would lose out of my free time, but of all the friends I can make and the help I can give. When I am presented with a project or a presentation I have to give, the first thing that comes to mind is going beyond my comfort zone and making people interested in my culture and way of life. Being an exchange student isn’t always easy, but it is definitely an opportunity to become a better version of yourself, rather than a duty that has to be done.
But is that what other exchange students think? Or is it just me rambling on? According to most exchange students asked about this, being abroad with this kind of program is definitely an opportunity. For example, Moldovan exchange student Mihaela Utica, junior at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, said: “Being an exchange student is an opportunity. I see it as a way to develop myself on a personal level and to experience a new society. It’s something I will carry on for a long time and it’s a very rare experience”.
Don’t get the wrong impression: the exchange experience has difficult challenges, but is mostly a fun experience. The amount of work one has to do is nowhere near as big as the satisfaction received from it, and the time spent abroad is definitely a time of making friends, having crazy adventures and seeing amazing things. As Roni Lindstrom, senior at Highlands Ranch High School says about it: “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime!”.
Vlaicu Motrescu, Guest Reporter