International exchange programs – definitely worth going!

This week Facebook reminded me that exactly 8 years ago I started my Erasmus student exchange program in Paris. While it’s shocking it’s been so long, I also don’t look 21 anymore 😉
Having spent several months abroad was a turning point in my professional life. Now, in retrospect I see it even more clearly – as I’m able to connect the dots and the events that followed. Why was it so important? Studying abroad on my own made me fully independent for the first time, forced to learn French (way easier to communicate with its basic level than fluent English), prepared me for my adult life and also helped me – years later – to get a job I really dreamed of in London.
As I decided to move abroad I remember heated debates with some of my friends who had counterarguments – such as the financial ones (how do you finance your life abroad?), romantic (should I leave if I’m in a relationship) or simply a dilemma: will I be okay on my own? I know these are all valid points but today I wanted to focus on the opposite: why it’s definitely worth taking a risk and how you can benefit from it later on in your life.

Improving your CV and gaining international experience

Many of us have a tough nut to crack when it comes to finding our first real job – firms often prefer candidates with some experience, or pay you peanuts. Having an international experience early on is definitely your asset. It shows you chose to invest in yourself, are entrepreneurial and aren’t afraid of new challenges. It’s often the first brave step you take before many others follow – for me the exchange program was a starting point and then every year I’d apply for an internship abroad and wasn’t afraid of being away from my family and friends. I knew I’ll be fine and have fun wherever I go.

Getting an access to the best universities worldwide – for free

International exchange programs give you an access to the best universities worldwide – sometimes it’s easier to get in as a part of an exchange program than being a domestic student. You are also privileged as you also don’t pay the tuition which can be extremely high. Getting to know a different education system can also be priceless and help you work on some of the skills that weren’t in use before – for me it was public speaking. I challenged myself and stopped fearing so much speaking up in front of a larger audience.
At the same time it’s true that organizing a semester or two abroad may be close to impossible without the support of your family (or getting a job in addition to studying). You may not be able to fully enjoy the student life without worrying about your finances. What helps is the scholarship system that everyone in the European Union gets, as well as the abundance of student initiatives that are absolutely free. You will also see how creative that makes you – from preparing cheap meals to choosing best deals for shopping. You will have the rest of your life to enjoy more comfortable and luxurious life but I bet it won’t be as thrilling!

Honing your language skills

You will without a double improve your language skills – if you choose to go to a country with a different language. When I moved to France my French was still very basic. Even though I spent a couple of years studying, I didn’t have the confidence to use it. Suddenly I realized that I had no choice – as it was much easier to communicate in my poor French that try to explain the same with fluent English.
If your language skills are stopping you, you will be amazed by how much they would have improved by the end of your stay. You’ll also see no one is there to judge and others have the same struggles.

Becoming independent and learning more about yourself

When you are home there is always someone who can help us and this alone gives us a feeling of comfort. We realize how important that was as soon as we are on our own. Simultaneously that makes us stay dependent on others for way longer. At the end of your exchange program you will see that you can deal with whatever life brings and become confident that you can go for more.
This is also a great opportunity to redefine yourself. No one knows you so you can be free from previous experiences and choose how you want to present yourself and in a way start a new life. At home we may be perceived through a veil of past experiences and choices, while now we are free from any tags.
Scientists prove that we continuously evolve until we are 27 or so. Who we were at 18 has little to do with our personality 10 years later. The change will be less visible when you compare 28 to 38 – as you had formed your belief system and outlook on life.

Building an international network of friends and contacts

Being an exchange student you become a part of an international family of students in a similar situation – far from people they know and happy to form new friendships. Some of them will stay with you for many years, others will be more casual. What is priceless is that you create your own network so early in life and can benefit from it in ways you can’t even imagine – from working abroad, to travelling with free accommodation.

Getting a perspective on the life you left behind

After a couple of weeks in a new country we start seeing what we left behind  more clearly. We spend less time worrying about mundane things and know where our priorities lie. We can also appreciate our life back home more. Some of your friendships or relationships may not make it, but the distance helps you verify who was really important in your life to start with.

Learning about a different culture

Cuisine, habits and beliefs – there is no better way to understand a different culture than to become a part of it. While travelling also broadens your horizons it’s also a different dimension that you don’t experience when sleeping in hotels and not interacting with locals every day. When we have to open a bank account, rent an apartment, use the public transportation, celebrate local holidays and traditions – we open ourselves fully. Up until today I absolutely love intense French cheeses and some of their pâtisseries – make me feel like a student again!

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