No Returns, No Refunds, No Exchange

24 April 2017

I have always wanted to travel. When I was younger, my “when I grow up I want to be” answer went from astronaut to explorer to a foreign correspondent. Just your average six-year-old stuff. I had heard lots of stories about friends that went on exchange. They came back with wild eyes and insane stories. The idea of travelling without having to extend my degree was so enticing, I immediately signed up. My country of choice? Italy. Specifically, Rome. Not only because the majority of my family resides there, but I loved the thought of living next to the Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain.

As any exchange student would know, the process of being accepted is not easy. It’s months of planning, waiting, emailing, waiting, scheduling, and you guessed it, waiting again. It’s getting through the preliminary stage, then the approval stage, and countless stages after that.

Eventually, I received my acceptance, bought my ticket and paid a deposit on an apartment. I tearfully kissed my family goodbye and  left.

This is where everything fell apart. Upon my arrival, I sought out the person in charge to start the exchange process. The reality of my study adventure started to take shape – and it wasn’t at all recognisable.

I was informed that the subjects approved by Melbourne Uni existed only at a Master’s level, and therefore would not count for my degree. To make things worse, they were only taught in Italian and my limited vocabulary revolving around ice-cream flavours wouldn’t be enough.

Everything felt like it was happening quickly in slow motion, like when the remote gets stuck on fast-forward and the screen freezes. I could see everything unfolding in front of me, but I couldn’t engage or process it. I couldn’t figure anything out and it was alarming. I buried myself for a good week in Suits repeats and Desi Valentine on full blast. Thankfully, Italy is home to the best comfort food in the world.

A few international calls later and that was that. No exchange and no options I was happy with.

Clearly, I was the exception to the rule that generally worked out. I was simply given incorrect information. That was all it was. That was all it took. All that planning amounted to nothing and I was left with an extra semester to make up for.

So what could I do? Go home, I guess. Everything was overwhelming and nothing was familiar. I couldn’t go back to university because the semester was almost done. And after working four jobs simultaneously to save enough money, returning to work full-time sounded like a death sentence. So, to my own surprise, I bit the bullet and confronted my fears. I decided to travel.

Over the next five months, I journeyed to sixteen countries over two continents. I spent the first six weeks travelling around Italy, staying with cousins and improving my language skills. I got drunk on sangria in Barcelona, saw a dozen plays in London, and spent all my money on pastries in Paris. I did a couple of tours, either with new or old friends, with family, or completely solo.

If I had gone on exchange, my story would be so different.

The hardest thing, as I look back, wasn’t the fact that I missed out on exchange or lost a fair amount of money, it was so much bigger than that.

It was the missed opportunities of living independently, formally learning Italian, and meeting students from across the world. It was the annoyingly joyous photos of others on their perfectly executed exchanges. It was other people’s pity, and even ridicule. It was the upset my family had for me. It was the fact that after months of following procedures, nothing worked out and I felt stuck.

That’s not to say that the adventure I had was a mistake – it wasn’t. It was life changing and entirely shaped me as a person. I’m more spontaneous, confident, and positive. Every moment was challenging and liberating all at once. Sorry, that was cheesy.

If I could recommend anything, aside from botching your exchange, it would be to travel. Travel as far and wide as possible. Find the best beer halls in Germany, stuff your face with cheese fondue in Switzerland, and absent-mindedly stare at priceless art in France. Eat gelato twice a day in Italy, party hard in Prague, and sleep under Saharan stars in Morocco.

You’ll find freedom in countries where no one knows you, where you can’t speak the language, where you’ve run out of money. You’ll find the beauty in getting lost. You’ll feel brave, relaxed, miserable, scared, and hopeful. At times, you’ll want to pull your hair out, sleep through the whole day, and frankly, just go home. But you’ll know that never again will you ever be in this place, with these people, the way that you are.

You’ll understand that life can’t be planned, and that this unpredictability is, in fact, the most predictable thing of all.

I think my six-year-old self would be proud – I grew up to be a traveller.

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