Double Take

3 April 2019

You’ve been dreaming of Europe for a while now. The culture, the art, the history. The cobbled pavements squeezed between grand buildings from another era. The locals with their cute accents and ability to pull off funky hats. The fresh bakeries serving up almond croissants to go with a shot of espresso, with not a flat white to be found.

For many young Australians, Europe – the entire continent referred to as if it were a homogenous place – is a fantasy, an essential part of a second coming-of-age where you transform into a suave and self-confident adult. Consequently, it doesn’t come as a surprise that student exchange is a highly anticipated part of many people’s degrees.  

But perhaps from daydreaming too long, the experience of a semester abroad can get crushed under the weight of years of expectations. Student exchange is often proclaimed as the best six months of someone’s life. You are told that travelling will completely change you as a person, and you’ll return worldly, wiser and with an Instagram feed to die for.

In your mind, everything is already laid out and planned in detail. Your best moments of exchange will be exhilarating – weekend trips to Paris with your new partners in crime, ticking off items on your bucket list as if they were groceries.

And yes, it is true that the highlights of studying abroad will remain among your fondest memories for decades to come; but boy, there are some tough moments too.

Culture shock, isolation, language barriers, and homesickness are all genuine concerns. Flaws and weaknesses will not miraculously disappear once you leave Melbourne.

But that’s not to say that travel doesn’t change you as a person. As a personal example, I’ve made the very grown-up transition from being a white wine drinker to red. However, the deep, transformative growth that is promised rarely occurs. Spending a few months garnering experience points by making small talk with the cashier in French doesn’t grant you a Pokémon-style evolution.

Whether it is helpful or harmful to go into exchange with a preconceived set of expectations depends on you and how your perceptions will translate into your actions.

The genuinely fun moments can get obscured by trying to live out the perfect Roman Holiday fantasy. You get so caught up in feeling like you aren’t correctly doing the ‘best time of your life’, frustrated by the realities and bureaucracy of moving overseas. On the other hand, the same expectations can motivate you to actively explore and create your own adventure.

The whole conversation on the impact of a semester abroad is Europe-centric. Films like Amelie and Call Me By Your Name, or even watching the cast of Gossip Girl pop over to Paris whenever they feel stressed, has romanticised Europe to the extent that it can feel like the only place worth visiting.

But students are starting to opt for a diverse range of study abroad locations, which can only be a good thing. Choosing a destination based on individual preference rather than a played-out fantasy will likely lead to a more fulfilling experience.

At the very least, exposure to any new culture as young adults can expose us to the different versions of ourselves that we can become, if not automatically transforming us into them. Everyone’s exchange experiences will be different, but for me, the biggest thing gained was becoming more self-aware of who I am (wow… “finding myself”).

Having to rely on yourself to get through difficult situations forces you to confront and resolve your weaknesses, coming out better for it in the end. You must make cognitive and behavioural changes to improve as a person; simply replanting yourself in a new location, but keeping the same habits, won’t do anything.

My biggest advice for people hoping to embark on their own adventure this year? Take care of yourself. The only constant in travelling to far flung corners of the world is that you must bring yourself along for the ride.

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