What international exchange really means for students and the future work force and why everyone should do it.
It took me 2.5 months to really fall in love with Concepcion, Chile. A city of 200,000 people, mostly students, and an average yearly rainfall of over 1,000mm. 3 months in, I started to find things that made me smile every day, like the fairy lights perched on the blackboard of the bakery across the street, or the beautiful colours of painted buildings when I happened to take a wrong turn on my way to the bus, or even the beautiful green parks that speckled the city. I found myself smiling all the time, just for knowing I had a 'home' on the other side of the world, that I had a family here to call my own, that I had friends here and that my Spanish was finally in a place that I could begin to discuss things other than what I was studying or where the library was
I won't lie... the first 2 months were hard. I missed my family, I missed my friends, and I missed not feeling like an idiot when I couldn't order a meal. I found myself wishing I could be somewhere warmer, somewhere more... English speaking... somewhere more like home. For me, an Australian Athlete, I found it difficult to get into the right rhythm here. I couldn't eat the food I was used to, train the way I wanted to, or have access to the coaches I needed and that took a strain on both my mental and physical health.
... After 3 months, I found those thoughts never even entered my mind and I felt pride when discussing world politics or sport with my teammates and classmates and lifting weights I had never lifted before in the gym... I play rugby and absolutely adore my team (they are more like family to be honest), have some awesome housemates that treat me like the little sister of the family and even did well in my semester at uni... in Spanish!
Now, 5 months in, I have learnt a lot about the world and myself - I guess that's what exchange is really there to do - but I feel like its so important to put it into words, both for myself and anyone else struggling with feelings like this in a new country. Sometimes the grandeur of what you're doing can be lost and you lose sight of why this experience is important and how it can help you in the future... Please allow me to explain to you why what you're doing is incredible!
1. I am a lot stronger than I thought I was.
When you are forced into a new country with new people, new language and new culture, you have to find your footing. Once I pushed through the initial hardships, I realised that if I could conquer this obstacle, I could conquer any obstacle that came at me in the future in my personal OR work life. It was about work-life balance, it was about learning a new language, it was about time organisation, it was about being independent (we had to find our own place to live within the first week of arriving), it was about getting along with people I didn't know or truly understand, and, it was about making the best of a difficult situation. After I started to grasp that I could do this, I felt a sense of calm and relief wash over me that I could tackle (hah... get it... because I'm a rugby player) any situation that was to come at me in the future.
2. I can communicate with 500 million more people.
This was a point my fellow exchange student pointed out within our first month - and it didn't really strike me until we were traveling through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile; 2 Spanish girls that spoke very little English, and 2 Australians that spoke pretty average Spanish. We traveled for 5 days together, discussing, travel, the world, life, studies and the future, and I found myself in awe at the fact that I could actually communicate with these fantastic human beings when, 3 months earlier, I didn't even know their names. Not only that, but there was a group of Colombians that I had adored when we first arrived, but was too scared to really try and talk to - now, we send voice messages to each other every day and I make fun of their Colombian accents, while they detest my 'Chileno' (like in any other language, regional dialects are very noticeable and different, however Chileno is akin to Australian English or Scottish English which practically separates them as another language to Spanish).
In these moments, it dawns on me that there are now 500 million more people in this world I can connect with... which can only be a positive for both my life in the future, and any employer's.
3. It taught me to appreciate the small wins and to be proud of how far I had come, even when I didn't feel like I had come far at all - it also taught me to laugh at myself.
It is no surprise that not every day is a good day on exchange. Within my first month, I was in a philosophy class and, while trying to say 'reverie' accidentally used the word for 'constipation' (it is literally the difference between an 'n' and an 'ñ'). People laughed, I laughed, then I felt stupid, then I laughed at myself for feeling stupid because... you know... I WAS DISCUSSING PHILOSOPHY IN MY SECOND LANGUAGE AFTER ONLY HAVING BEEN IN THE COUNTRY FOR 3 WEEKS. I wish I could say that this was a unique event... but no. There were days when I felt like I could not speak a word of Spanish, and then there were days when I couldn't think of the words I needed in English. I think the first time I felt proud was when I messaged my parents in Spanish on WhatsApp - I was just used to messaging people in Spanish! On the days when I just felt I couldn't say more than 'hola', I would just take a deep breath, and remember that what I was doing wasn't easy and to cut myself some slack. I definitely believe that that understanding this about ourselves is incredibly useful in any work environment. Especially since I studied Business and International studies and hope that one day, I can lead a team, this skill will be especially useful in the management of people
In the end, I ended up doing really well in my semester! Normally, foreigners would take a semester of 'introduction to Spanish (Chileno)', but I had surpassed certain levels back home in Australia (that I now know are meaningless...) and was put straight into 'normal' classes. I took a philosophy class, a human resource class, a Latin American history class and a class on written and oral expressions for engineering students (?) class... and I actually got high marks! I was so proud of myself... it was funny to think back to my first day when I told my teacher I got nervous speaking in front of students and compare that to giving a presentation on the sewage system within the city (don't ask).
4. It taught me the value of learning and whet my appetite for more.
I got such a rush every time I met someone new and had a lengthy discussion (I basically used my Uber drivers for this) or got a good grade on a test. I loved being able to casually join a conversation in Spanish or when I had to speak to someone here whilst on the phone to a friend of family member from back home (I think people never really believed I could speak Spanish til that happened). I just loved the satisfaction I got and I wanted to know more and do better. It definitely whet my appetite (more so) for learning... I mean, I was already a nerd before, but now... wow...
5. It gave me a global perspective
Before coming to Chile, I definitely thought I was open-minded and knowledgeable about the world. I have been fortunate enough to have travelled quite extensively in my 24 years and figured this would be pretty easy. I soon realised that traveling somewhere and living somewhere are two totally different things. Living in a country requires a deeper knowledge of the culture - sounds easy... it is not, especially when the culture is so incredibly different to your own. Chilean culture (according to the Gert-Hofstede's country analysis [https://geert-hofstede.com/australia.html]) is almost the complete opposite of Australian culture. It took me some time to stop trying to make Chilean culture fit into my Australian context and start understanding that I was in another country and needed to respect the beauty that was theirs. It turns out, I actually appreciated a lot of the nuances that made up Chilean culture and gained a greater understanding of my own.
Along with this, I met students from countries all over the world and with that, learnt about their countries, their homes and their lives; this also added to my global perspective. The world today is so globally connected - it is naive to think that you will never work with, or need to know about, another country's language, culture or history. This experience has allowed me to get a head start on this and allowed me to gain a deeper insight into the world I will be working in.
6. It gave me a global family.
Along with global knowledge, I gained a global family. The people I met here became my lifelines, my best friends, my family, my classmates, my teammates, my seamstresses, my psychologists, and my confidants, to name a few. I now have friends all over the world that I can visit and talk to, which will help to continue broadening my mind and shaping my future. Their cultures and experiences have changed my life and my goals, and in turn, allow me to continue my learning. It allowed me to turn complete strangers into 'mi familia' and I could not imagine not having them in my life.
7. It taught me to appreciate what I have and make the most of it.
Its definitely the small things you miss when on exchange... for instance, I miss brunch. Never thought I would say those words, but its true. I miss dark chocolate (yes, that is so Sydney of me) and pungent cheese... and I miss not having to turn on the water heater every time I shower. Actually, to be honest, thats not the worst thing ever, but I do miss not having to turn the gas OFF every time I cook - this is definitely a weakness of mine. It also taught me that, although I may not always have everything I am used to, I need to do the best with what I have, because excuses just won't do if I have a goal to work towards. A pretty good example of this was a problem I encountered during training. I wanted to train for bobsleigh... I didn't have a sled to push... So I used a hurdle instead and got someone to stand on it for extra weight!
8. It taught me how to self-motivate
When you are taking a course load in another language and also, at the same time, having to write monstrous, investigatory essays for your home university... I'm going to be the first to tell you that it can be tough. And some days, you feel so far away from home and reality that you're like "yeah... I'm going to eat pizza and watch Netflix even though I have a 3,000 word report due in 2 days" (I may or may not have done this once...). Being on exchange definitely taught me that I'm going to have to do this s*** myself and make sure that I do well even thought at times I really didn't want to. I think self-motivation is one of the most important skills you need, so mastering it during your university time can give you a leg up when entering the work-force.
9. It taught me how to prioritise.
As I have previously mentioned, I am an athlete. I am currently in the Australian Bobsleigh Team (yes, we have one, no, we don't train in Australia, yes, I have seen Cool Runnings, and yes, it is one of muy favourite movies), preparing to try and qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea (my ultimate dream), and at the same time, in Chile, playing National League Rugby 7s. I currently have 8 training sessions a week, a mix of gym, sprints and field sessions that cover both sports. My body had been feeling a little worn and battered, so I decided to take 5 days off and head north to the desert for a small vacation (I say that now, but we cycled about 1,000,000 km in the first two days so it wasn't all really 'time off'). Everyone I was traveling with, and all the friends I made at the hostel, were then heading north to Bolivia and all I wanted to do was go with them and travel. The whole point of learning Spanish in the first place was so that I could safely travel Latin America - that was what I wanted to do. After days of deliberation, I decided to head back to Concepcion to continue with my training and play an upcoming rugby tournament with my team.
For me, although it may not sound groundbreaking, or sane, to most people, it was a huge breakthrough in my life. For a while now, I had been torn between wanting a 'normal life' (where I could travel, eat what I wanted and do what I wanted) and living my dream and trying to get to the Olympics. Once I returned back to Conce (affectionate name for 'Concepcion') and hit the gym, I felt at peace and realised that my dream and my passion for my sporting pursuits way outweighed my desire to travel. It was a little bit sad as, 18 year old me would have kicked me pretty hard in the backside, but I realised that for now, the Olympics was my dream and to get there, I would have to do absolutely anything I could to give myself the best opportunity to be there. Latin America will be there after. Prioritising is an invaluable skill both during university and after.
10. It taught me how to relax
Life in Sydney can be pretty crazy - a big city with big city life. Back home, my day starts at 5 am and finishes at 10:30pm with 4 hours of training, hours spent at university and every second spent being alert. Back home, I train full time, am a full time student, work 2 jobs and engage in volunteer work... so being on exchange with 9 hours of uni a week and mornings and afternoons to frolic in the gym and on the track was a bit strange at first. It took me about 3 months to tell myself that I didn't have to fill every minute of my day with something to do and that I deserved a weekend off. Yes... I did just say that sometimes its okay to stay in your pyjamas and watch movies. I realised that my mental health was so much better for it, along with the functioning of my body during training AND, low and behold, my Spanish was actually better when I let myself mentally destress. Win win for me!
A lot of students think that exchange just means a semester off to party in another country... and that can be true. However, I strongly encourage students to, firstly, take the opportunity to study abroad, and secondly, to really make the most of the opportunities it can provide. The past five months have been a rollercoaster of emotions, but I have learnt so much about myself and the world. I absolutely love this place and the people here and need to thank them all for being so helpful and understanding (especially when my Spanish failed me and I was left to pretty poor hand gestures to communicate).
Although my time here is almost up, I know the skills and life lessons I have learnt here will continue to make me a better person and I will be taking all of them into my future career.
Plus... on exchange, you get to see some pretty kick arse places and meet some truly amazing people on the way.
Ashleigh Werner is a former WUJS board member (2016) and a student at the University of Technology, Sydney. She has recently spent a semester studying abroad in Concepcion, Chile. A city of 200,000 people, mostly students, and an average yearly rainfall of over 1,000mm. Ashleigh is keen athlete playing rugby at a national level in Australia and is currently on the Australian Olympic Bobsleigh team.
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