7 Reasons Why You Must Go on a Student Exchange Trip: My Key Takeaways
I spent the first half of 2017 travelling through 4 continents on a study abroad program during my undergrad at the Schulich School of Business, York University in Toronto.
My 4-year undergraduate business degree consisted of a 2 year segment of foundational business knowledge, 1.5 years of specialized study in Finance and Entrepreneurship and a final semester where I had the opportunity to travel and study anywhere in the world. I ended up choosing the University of Bath, known for its league table rankings within the UK and its popular Georgian architectural cityscape. During my time abroad, I travelled to more than a dozen countries around Europe, Asia and Africa.
Here’s why I think everyone should embark on at least one long-term study abroad journey:
1. Perspective. It’s the one word that completely changes everything, literally.
Perspective gives you a new lens to view the world with, in the way a marketer might take the Porter’s framework to break down a macro economic environment or an architect might view a blueprint, learning perspective and studying the world, creates a framework to view and understand the world and its different people with. A lot of individuals don’t consider how someone who has grown up in a different area, with distinctive influences, education and experiences, will interpret situations differently, and having an awareness of this fact is what makes good leaders and team players.
Travelling exposes you to real world issues like wealth inequality, hunger, lack of medicine, education and corruption. Almost half of the world’s population, over 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day. That’s less than a coffee from Starbucks. This can be a humbling experience that gives you a refreshing new perspective on how you view your life.
Simply having the opportunity to grow up in Canada, a country with clean water, a free health care system, good education, strong economy, and a functional and non-corrupt legal system, already puts one in a better boat than most the world’s population. It really hit me when I ventured out into more of the impoverished regions about how big of a disparity really exists. I mean, we see it in books and in the media all the time, but it’s hard to conceptualize until you have seen and experienced it firsthand.
Perspective is not just about differences in living standards, it’s about understanding how one’s upbringing, culture, personal interations, and life experiences give them a varying view point on life than perhaps your own. This unique lens, compounded from years of living, presents life events with a different “filter” to each of the viewers (us). Even taking the most miniscule of miniscule events like a snowfall in December could mean so many different things to so many different people; each sees it with their own lens and understands it from their own perspective. For one, it could be their first snowfall and a moment of joy, for another it could serve as an agonizing reminder for the traffic they must face on their way to work, and yet for another it could provide an opportunity of capitalism to start a business.
In business and leadership, perspective is crucial to controlling and understanding resources and relationships. The difference between a good leader and one that wouldn’t be considered good, is sometimes just this mere understanding of perspective; of understanding the point of view of employees, customers and suppliers, and of training them to adopt a similar lens/mindset of the leadership team.
2. Communicating without language
During one of my weekend trips, my friends and I travelled to Italy without knowing a single word in Italian, but we were surprised to find that we were able to understand the street signs, subway directions, and could operate the automated checkout tellers at retail stores without any actual translation. This was not just a special instance in Italy, in fact I found I had just as much ease in other countries like Morocco and Greece. And this didn’t just apply to static signs or message boards, this understanding without actually knowing extended to conversational situations too. I found myself interacting with locals where we were able to effectively communicate and understand one another despite speaking in completely different languages. (Take note on how I specifically used the words “communicate” and “understand”, rather than “talk” or “converse”).
Travelling made me quickly discover that just as numbers are a “tool” to use as inputs in math, languages are just a “tool” to use in communication. It is entirely possible to communicate without language, in fact languages only make up 10–15% of the communication experience, the other 85–90% is from body action, emotion, tone and facial expression. By travelling to different countries halfway across the world, I was able to put this to the test and witness how this fact is indeed true.
3. Experiencing new food and culture
Every single place I visited, whether it was a new country or a new city in any one country, there was a unique element to each, which couldn’t be experienced elsewhere. In Morocco I walked through the busy local bazaars of a developing country while paying visit to local tanneries and carpet making shops. In Greece I tried authentic Souvlaki, in Switzerland it was street Bratwurst, and in Italy it was all the pizzas and pastas made of fresh tomato sauce and rare cheese. In Barcelona, we travelled to the still incomplete Sagrada Familia, saw the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and visited the 2500-year-old Acropolis of Athens. The ability to experience aspects of culture that are completely different in places that are just an hour or two away by flight from one another is remarkable. As a business student seeing how things are done differently in other countries serves as a landmine of new ideas.
4. Doing new things and meeting tons of amazing people along the way
Some of the things that I had the opportunity to do on exchange, I would have never previously planned to do until later in life. Every day was a spontaneous adventure; I woke up not knowing what the day had in store for me and went to sleep full of new experiences and memories. Occasions like riding camelback in the Sahara and camping in the desert overnight with the locals, driving a manual car on the wrong side of the road in England without any prior experience, or exploring the coasts of Santorini on an ATV taught me a lot about both myself and the way of things. Until you push yourself to continuously do new things to the point where you reach failure, you will not know what your limits are and what you are capable of doing. And after you reach this point, you will understand where you need to improve and develop for next time and what else there is to see and learn.
5. Learning about history and how our world came to be
It is one thing to go to a museum and see mementos from the old world, but quite another to travel out to a different country and see firsthand the remnants of those treasures. The city in which I went to university, Bath, is a UNESCO world heritage site originally founded in the 1st century AD by the Romans as a thermal spa. Even today you can see traces of its 2000-year history with leftovers of Middle Ages, Georgian, Victorian, Roman and Neo-classical style of architecture. Speaking of the Romans, it was incredible to see the Colosseum (80 AD), the Pantheon (126 AD), and the site of the Roman Forums (dating as far back as 500–700 BC) to still be standing today. As they say history often repeats itself, so learning from it and seeing the ways of the world is a beneficial experience.
6. Studying in a different education system
It would only make sense if studying in a different education system is on the list as one of the upsides for studying abroad. I enjoyed the subtle differences in British teaching styles and course content variation, compared to the methodology I have been accustomed to in Canada. The British place a greater emphasis on scholarly research and citing published work, as well as have a stronger preference towards essay written content, which makes sense as the UK is home to some of the oldest universities in the world. On the other hand, at my home university there was more of an emphasis on modern learning from recent business case studies and a focus on collaboration through group projects and presentations. The difference in classroom culture and teaching environment was its own experience, which taught me to be more cognizant.
7. Creating lifelong memories for stories when you are older
Who doesn’t want epic stories to tell when you are older? From driving along the coast in Italy, to travelling to the highest mountain by train in Switzerland, to seeing thousand year old historic relics, to meeting people of all ages, trying the food of many cultures, visiting friends and family, laying by the beaches in Santorini, partying in century old thermal hot springs in Budapest, camel riding in the Sahara, watching the sunrise on London Bridge and seeing the Eiffel tower sparkle in the evening, there has definitely been a lot of great memories that I have gathered whilst travelling on my study abroad journey. The list can go on and on, but I am sure you get the idea. Studying abroad is the perfect excuse to take 4–5 consecutive months to travel, explore, learn and create these lifelong memories. It’s an opportunity that is hard pressed to repeat and free time becomes a luxury after graduating. Further, for a lot of you, exchange will be your first experience living on your own. That in itself is a learning experience, as even though it entitles complete freedom, it also comes coupled with full responsibility. Travelling and living on your own will push you to learn a lot more about yourself and become comfortable with the unfamiliar.
So, there you have it, 7 strong reasons for why you should go on exchange. Just ask yourself, when else in your life are you going to have the time and opportunity to travel for half a year while studying in another country? For most people, exchange presents a one-off opportunity that serves as a great awakening journey between the transitioning period of university and the work life. Over this journey, you will experience new things, meet new people, create a ton of memories, gain the independence to live on your own and learn perspective. Take a lot of cool Instagram photos, Snapchat often and maybe even pick up a new hobby. Hope you have the opportunity to embark on a travel journey of your own!
If you enjoyed reading this, let me know by hitting the applause button. This was my first blog piece and all the photos used were taken by me. Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.