Tentative Exchanges

30 April 2013

The Student Exchange Program is an opportunity for hundreds of students to visit the University of Melbourne for one semester. The aim is for foreign students to experience cultural life in Melbourne while contributing to their academic education, but in many cases the academic side is of secondary importance. Grades usually don’t count towards their home country’s degrees. The biggest attraction is having an adventure on the other side of the planet, seeing a different city, and experiencing what it has to offer.

Due to past problems such as homestays where students have been mistreated or where communication problems have left students stranded, the University now has a fully comprehensive system whereby exchange students are looked after every step of the way. Although well intentioned, this poses a problem in itself. With all the help that they receive, are we doing too much and taking away the much-needed sense of adventure that comes with overseas travel? Surely this is the whole point of going on exchange in the first place.

From the start of the exchange journey onwards, students are truly bubble wrapped. Through the use of well-organised agents such as American Field Service (AFS) Intercultural Programs, and with help from their home universities and University of Melbourne, they obtain visas, transport, accommodation and even airport collection. Upon arrival, they are immediately contacted by groups such as Melbourne University Student Exchange (MUSEX), who do a sterling job of arranging day trips, activities and social events.

As a result, convenient friendships are formed with others in the same boat. Students are put in contact with affiliated accommodation—again surrounded by international and exchange students. This is great for those who might have trouble settling in or who are fearful of being alone in a foreign land, but it doesn’t suit the nature of the ones choosing to go abroad for an adventure. Some find the whole system slightly overbearing. They meet almost no one immediately disassociated with the University or their program, and their exposure to genuine Australia is minimal. Not quite what they had in mind when they decided upon an adventure down under.

Speaking to some MUSEX students while they were queuing up on South Lawn to buy tickets for a surf trip, their experiences had been mostly positive when dealing with the university. Around a hundred of them were waiting patiently and talking amongst themselves. Half were from the US and the rest a huge global variety—Costa Rica, Chile, Sweden, the Philippines, Japan and China to name a few. They completed most of the paperwork online and only had to go to the Sydney Myer Asia Centre to pick up their ID. They had been on a tour around the city, got their Myki cards, seen campus and taken part in various drinking games. They liked their accommodation, usually at on the Colleges, Uni Lodge or College Square. Everyone seemed to have had a great time so far. But when I asked them about the people they had met and what they had learnt about Melbourne I hit a brick wall.

“I haven’t met any Australians yet,” said Jessica, on exchange from Connecticut.

“I wish homestays were more readily available because then I might get more of a Melbourne experience. The most positive experience I have had so far was when my friend’s Australian cousin took us around Brunswick Street. There I got to see some of real Melbourne. It’s basically been like I’m in the US, only the people here have different accents.”

The problem is that exchange students are shepherded from one university-organized event to another, caught in a convenient routine like backpackers on an STA tour. They may have a great time, but do they return home having fulfilled their original goal of getting to know the locals, the language and the culture?
Euan, who hails from England’s Manchester University, felt frustrated about being wrapped in cottonwool and decided to break away and experience a bit of Melbourne for himself.

“[Exchange students] are prepared for a foreign country to such an extent that they can’t really experience it,” he said.

“We are bombarded with so much information that we didn’t have any surprises left.”

Euan decided to go it alone after discovering the cost of College Square and Uni Lodge. He rented a share house on Gumtree with Melbournians to get a taste of Aussie life and feels his experience is much more genuine.

Breaking away from the group is not the norm. Mika, from the Philippines, was studying in Japan but went on exchange to Melbourne after hearing great things about the music scene and laidback life style. When she landed at Tullamarine, she was picked up by a school service and taken to Queen’s College, where she stayed for her first four days in Australia. Meals were included so there wasn’t much reason to leave. Mika had a great time but felt she was completely missing out on experiencing Melbourne for herself. She made the decision to find a house online in order to stay with a family and meet some actual Australians. “Except for the family I live with I haven’t really met any Australians except to exchange pleasantries,” Mika revealed.

“I’ve been stuck in a uni exchange program, which has been great and was my choice, but I’d have definitely been pushed out of my comfort zone if it wasn’t there.”

It can’t be said that exchange students don’t have a great time. Who wouldn’t enjoy a road trip down the Great Ocean Road, drinking games and the occasional free barbecue? But in twenty years when they look back on their time in Melbourne, there is a real danger of it being little more than a long flight and time wasted in a pub surrounded by people they could have met at home.

At least it’s good news for Australian tourism. They will surely have to come back one day to experience it all properly.

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