Study Abroad – Educational Exchange Program

I had always wanted to take part in an educational exchange program,  and I finally had an opportunity when I went to university.  For my third year of university I applied to take part in an educational exchange program with the University of Braunschweig in Germany.  When I told people what I wanted to do I can’t say I was supported in my decision. Yes it was at times difficult, but all things considered it was one of the best decisions in my life and I would do it again if given the chance.

Why You Shouldn’t Pursue an Education Exchange Program

Before I start to discuss why an exchange is a good idea,  there is one reason that I have seen recently that I believe is being overstated.  I went to a foreign exchange fair and almost every where I looked it was being advertised that employers are looking for people with international experience. They marketing would have you believe that if you wanted to compete in today’s job market you better have some international experience.  Unless you are interested in becoming a diplomat or specializing in international business I don’t see how an international education will help you.  I certainly have not seen it listed as a requirement for the average job that is out there,  and you don’t have to go abroad to fulfill a language requirement.  My international experience has certainly not helped me land a job,  at least not directly.  I still have it on my resume as a one liner, but on my most recent job interview it wasn’t even noticed,  and I didn’t have the need to bring it up.  So unless you know for certain that your future career requires international experience, I don’t think it will help you out that much except make you look a little different. Above all else, you should only pursue this if you want to, not because you feel you have to.

There Are Many Types of Education Exchange Programs

Some programs will have you go for a whole year,  some for only a term.  Some exchange programs will place you in a foreign business for a short work term.  While I was on my program I met some students who were doing an international business program.  In order to fulfill the international portion of their degree,  they had to take a language course at a foreign university plus a course in one other subject.  The language course at the university we were attending was an accelerated program that was over in one month.  They then spent the next 5 months taking a single course.  My program required that I went through the same language course and proceeded to take 12 courses over the next two semesters. I learned the hard way that not all programs are the same.

Ask around what programs are available to you. One thing to watch out for is the different times of the year that other countries may go to school. As an example the Germans had two semesters a year. However their semesters run from October-April and May to October. They don’t officially have time off, but their exam season is 2 months long for each semester, leaving plenty of time to go on small trips. Make sure you know the semester schedule and that it aligns with your plans.

The Nay Sayers

When I started telling people that I was going to go study abroad, they gave me lots of reasons of why I shouldn’t go. You will probably hear the same objections so below I will try to answer those that I remember.

1) You won’t be able to pass the courses (they will be too hard or you won’t understand them).

You will be able to find courses taught in English if that is a concern (most of Sweden teaches in English), or if you are really worried, go to an English speaking school. On the content side I didn’t find it to be any more difficult than what I would have taken at my home university, and I took courses like Fluid Mechanics 1 and 2.

2) You will be lonely and want to come home.

If you go home every weekend, then yes this will be a problem. I only went home twice a year when I was in Canada, so going an entire year without seeing my family wasn’t going to be a problem. I also went with a lot of friends on the exchange so that helped. If you are not going with friends you will meet new ones fast.

I did have a girlfriend at the time, and that was hard to deal with. On the plus side she came and visited me and we had a great time together in Europe. Make sure you consider who will be staying behind if you intend to go abroad and how long you will be apart. If you don’t spend time apart regularly it will make it too difficult.

3) It will be too expensive to live in abroad for a year.

German tuition was cheaper than in Canada. It worked out to be $700 a semester for me. Living expenses were about the same (housing and groceries). Not every country is like this, and some are more expensive so do your homework.

For me it worked out to be a little cheaper than if I stayed in Canada. However if I consider the money that I didn’t earn during the 4 months I could have worked, then it was more expensive. I rationalize it by knowing I spent an entire year abroad for a little bit more that what it would have cost me if I stayed in Canada. It was a worthwhile investment for me.

4) What will you do if you fail too many courses? You won’t graduate on time.

Yes this can happen, but is not the end of the world. Some of my friends who went with me didn’t graduate on time. It was probably a little hard for them when we graduated but they came out and celebrated all the same. Lots of people take the casual route through university and graduate in 5 years. I don’t think this to be an excuse to not go. So what if you fail a few courses? Four months goes by really quickly.

Advantages of a Educational Exchange

You will push yourself academically. Learning a new subject is one thing, learning a new subject in another language is quite another. I left not really having a firm grasp on the local language and had to study hard once I got there, much harder than I have ever studied before. By the end I was so good at learning new material that I was actually bored during my courses during my final year in Canada, because they were going too slowly.

New friends and learning a language are two given benefits and need not be mentioned anymore here.

If you decide on Europe, travel is much cheaper. You can’t buy a Euro-rail pass while in Europe so be sure to buy one before you leave. If not by rail, flights between countries are very cheap, and traveling by bus the cheapest yet.

Being immersed in another culture was fun and there were a lot of quirky things that I will remember for life. Deodorant didn’t come in a stick, it was a roll on or spray. Couldn’t find our regular toothpaste. Banana’s were ridiculously expensive and I couldn’t buy strawberries unless they were in season. No shopping on Sunday’s (actually just before we arrived Germany was just experiencing year-round sales. Previously there were only two times in a year when clothing went on sale, in the fall and in the spring). It was just nice to experience something completely different.

Disadvantages of a Educational Exchange

Coming home on holidays or seeing a loved one is cost prohibitive. None of us went home for Christmas (we went on a ski trip instead), and I only saw my girlfriend once in the year that I was gone. You are in for the long haul.

Being in a different culture is great and all, but you will start to miss your own after such a long time.  I was happy to come home to Canada just for the people by the end of the trip. What I missed the most was talking about the weather with a complete stranger. (There is no such thing as small talk in German; get to the point or move along).

Budgeting is a bit of a challenge.  I had a fixed amount that I had to stretch for an entire year which was a little tough.  I just made it,  or came in right on budget depending on how you look at it.  Either way I was broke and landed in Canada with only a few Euro in my pocket.

Language and culture barriers.  I would advocate having a better understanding of the language than I did.  I didn’t know much German going to Germany. I made it so it goes to show that you don’t need to know the language.  I did spend a lot of time studying German and translating my courses that I probably wouldn’t have had to do if I knew the language better.  This time could have been used to travel a little more.  The culture barrier wasn’t too bad, but you definitely have to learn to take everything in stride.  I do all of my shopping on plastic, but Germany is a cash society.  We all had to quickly switch to carrying cash, and you better know how much cash you have to pay the cashier before she totals your groceries, Germans don’t like to wait for you digging through your pockets for change. Oh and no such thing as bag boys either. You have to bag your own groceries and you have to do it quickly. Germans don’t like to wait.

You won’t have any of your favorites or recognize any familiar products.  Most people can find this exciting, but traveling to a different place and living in a different place are two completely different experiences. When you are in an unfamiliar place you will desperately try to find something that is familiar.  Not having brown sugar or decent maple syrup was a rude awakening. Stereotypes aside, I appreciate good maple syrup.

Where can you go?

You can probably go pretty much anywhere.  If you don’t want to go abroad you don’t have to.  There are many opportunities to go to a different university in North America.  Going to a Canadian or American university for a term or two would be an equally great experience and much easier to coordinate because it will all be in English.  Many people don’t realize how different the cultures are between Canada and the United States, or even from the east coast to the west coast of the same country.

Closing Remarks

At the end of the day you have to make your own decision if a exchange program is right for you.  My biggest frustration about the whole experience was that I heard a lot of people tell me that I couldn’t do it or it would be too hard. I never realized it at the time but I really should have challenged them directly. Not one of the people that told me not to go actually went on an exchange program, so really they have no idea what they are talking about.  This is a great opportunity if you are considering it. If you are thinking of going on exchange and have some questions, please post them below and I will do my best to answer them.

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