Long read ahead about a long road ahead, but trust me, it’s worth it.
If I could give someone one single piece of advice for college it’s this: apply for an exchange study. Making this decision in my Junior year turned out to be the single best one of my college career, and one one of the best ones in my life. It was a pain in the ass to make it happen (application, visa, money, etc), but man, was it ever worth it. The experience also gave me the travel-bug, as it really opened my eyes to how fun and exciting life can be.
After a horribly dull internship during one of the nastiest winters in Dutch history, the time had finally arrived to leave. And man, I couldn’t wait.
I will never forget walking into a snow and ice-covered Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, anxious and excited from head to toe. There was enough reason for that, as I was going to go to Florida, after all. After saying goodbye to my parents, I checked in and strolled around the airport until it was time to go. I still remember buying the 2011 December issue of Rolling Stone Magazine with a young John Lennon on the cover and reading it while having a coffee. It’s funny how you remember random stuff like that.
When I landed in Pensacola, FL after a 15-hour journey, I waited at the belt for my suitcase. It was in the middle of the night in an almost empty airport, and it dawned on me once again that I was all alone and knew no one here. My friends and family were over 6000 kilometers (3800 miles) away, with the Atlantic Ocean separating us. I was also completely out of place, as I was still dressed for winter while everyone around me was walking around in shorts and flip-flops. Realizing that while standing there in silence was a little bit eerie, but it was very exciting at the same time. This was an adventure already!
After collecting my luggage, I picked up the keys for the rental car I had for the first two weeks (life without a car is pretty much impossible over there), and dug out the print-out of the route from the airport to the campus. Still completely ragged from the trip and overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of everything, I didn’t pay enough attention to road signs and took a couple of wrong turns. I really had it coming getting lost.
So there I was, alone and having absolutely no idea where I was and where I should go in an enormous country I knew very little of. At this point, I wasn’t sure anymore if it was such a good idea. However, this brings me to reason number one why it was.
Reason #1. Doing this will force you out of your comfort zone
When I ended up driving down a dark road that was pretty much deserted, only to pass random badly-maintained and boarded up stores and houses with bars in front of the windows, I was getting nervous. This looked like a bad area, (and in hindsight, it turned out to be one of the the worst parts of town), and I was driving a brand new, bright red rental car that stuck out like a sore thumb.
There was only one real option: stay cool and find a solution to the problem, because the only person who could fix his problem was me. There was nowhere familiar to go, no one to call, and I didn’t have GPS or a map in the car.
I pulled into the parking lot of a liquor store that was still open, and asked the guy in there how to get to the university. Very simple and obvious, sure. If I encountered a similar situation today, it wouldn’t even phase me. At the time, though, I didn’t really know what to do, because it was the first time I got into a situation like this. Getting lost in a strange country while being by yourself will throw you off the first time it happens to you. The guy with a big tattoo in his neck who ran the graveyard shift in the liquor store turned out to be friendly and helpful, and he went the extra mile because he thought it was cool that I came all the way from The Netherlands to visit his town.
This is just one small example of many, and I mostly remember it because it was one of my first experiences there.
Some were big things, some were small things. It differs from person to person which things are considered real problems and which aren’t, but there’s simply no way that anyone embarking on a journey like this runs into nothing that’s new to them, especially if you’re in your early twenties. In the beginning, every class you will walk into will be a completely new experience with new people, and the same goes for getting groceries, going to the library, going to the gym, and going to the bar.
Remember trying something new and scary for the first time and how good it felt when you did it, anyway? Think about the first time you jumped off the high dive, the first time you drove a car, or the first time you asked someone out whom you were attracted to. You will encounter many new experiences here, and you will learn a great deal from them.
Even if the new experience didn’t go too well,
- You gained some new first-hand knowledge
- You learned that trying and failing this won’t kill you, which means it’s safe try it again
- And shit, just trying feels really satisfying, doesn’t it?
Reason #2: An exchange study is a bombardment of new experiences
Going on an exchange study will put you in a position where you are constantly confronted with radically new experiences.
New experiences are great because:
- They teach you something
- They create unforgettable memories
- They make you feel alive
I lived in The Netherlands for over twenty years when I went. Most of the things I knew about the United States were from books, movies and television. Actually becoming a part of it was an unforgettable experience that’s incomparable to anything. The Netherlands and the United States are both Western countries, but the difference in culture, landscape and people is huge.
Another interesting part of it, is that you get to experience how a completely new group of people reacts to your personality. No one knows you, and no one has even ever heard about you from others. Sure, you deal with people you don’t know on a daily basis in everyday life, but there’s a relatively small and solid group of people (friends and family) that you keep going back to for close interaction. Such is not the case here. Again, you’re forced to go out of your comfortable, familiar pattern to find some new friends. This process will sharpen your social skills tremendously.
You might think that you’re not living in patterns and that you’re above protecting your ego and all that, but these things are human nature. All of us can’t help but do it on multiple levels without being aware of it. There’s a good reason why our brains evolved like this; it’s what makes life practical and efficient for us, and it’s what helps us survive and conserve energy. Going into a new environment like this and leaving everything you know behind for a long time, forces you to throw everything out the window. You will be blown away by what kind of effect this will have on you. Everyone has blind spots, especially when it comes to ourselves. Some people have bigger ones than others, but everyone has them, including me and you you. I’ve always been a pretty chill guy, but this experience radically changed my outlook on a lot of things. It changed me for the better.
Leaving everything and everyone you know behind basically gives you a “clean sheet”; your life is a blank canvas here and you’re free to re-invent it. It’s one of the most liberating, powerful feelings in the world once you realize this.
It gets even better when you realize you’re in an environment that’s geared toward gaining knowledge and free thinking, all while being surrounded with bright, young, hot people.
Think about it, it really can’t get better than this.
Reason #3: You will sharpen your social skills tremendously, and gain a ton of life-experience
When I arrived on another continent, I knew no one and no one knew me. No friends, no acquaintances, no-one. All I had was basically a suitcase full of clothes and a toothbrush. Now what?
I realized that the only way I was going to have some friends over there, was to go out and make them. I’d be lying if I said I was the coolest cat in town when I arrived. I wasn’t socially awkward, but dealing with nothing but complete strangers took some effort at first. I rarely had to do that before I got there, because I simply didn’t need to; I have a pretty big group of friends that I’ve known almost all my life.
But how do you make new friends? Do you still remember how to do it? Kids are really good at it. They just go sit next to someone and ask them straight-up. When I was five, things were a lot simpler. Like everyone my age back then, I’d just go up to other kids and asked: “Hi, my name’s Dick. Do you want to be my friend?”
But you can’t do that when you’re an adult, right? Because that’s weird. No one does that. Well, it turns out you actually can. Things are only weird and awkward if you allow them to be. Sitting next to a complete stranger in class, in the lunchroom, in a bar or on the on-campus trolley and striking up a random conversation with them did feel a little strange at first. It was not something I was used to doing, after all. It was out of my comfort zone.
I figured out pretty quickly that there’s not much to worry about. Sure, sometimes people would react negatively or awkwardly to it, because it was outside their comfort zone as well, but most people would strike up a friendly conversation after they figured out I was just a random friendly guy. This also taught me that the closed/stand-offish look most people have in public is just a thin shell. Most people instantly warm up when you go over to talk to them and they figure out you have good intentions.
On a side-note: the fact that my name is funny in the English language actually benefitted me. The only reason for that is that when people laughed about it, I found it funny too. Call me juvenile, I don’t care. The word dick is funny. Almost as funny as fart. People who take themselves too seriously miss out on the good things in life, anyway. When you’re able to laugh at yourself, no one can get to you.
When you’re on your own, you have no choice but to make contact with your environment, or else you’ll stay on your own, and life isn’t much fun without other people to interact with. Most people don’t realize that being socially adept is nothing but a skill, just like riding a bicycle; anyone can learn it by doing it. By doing it a lot, you will get better at it.
If you’re already good, you’ll only get better. If you suck, this is the prime opportunity to learn. It is a great chance to punch through self-created bullshit that has been holding you back, in some cases your entire life (“I’m shy”, “I’m an introvert”, “I don’t know how to talk to people” etc). You now have the choice: keep holding on to them resulting in being alone the entire time and learning nothing, or grabbing life by the balls and doing what you know is the right thing. Because why not? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The good Doctor said it better than I ever could:
Never turn your back on fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed.
-Hunter S. Thompson
I found that meeting new people and interacting with strangers are some the most interesting things you can do with your time. Almost everyone has something interesting to tell in their own way. People can inspire you in many different kind of ways, even in finding out what you don’t want to do or be. Every now and then you’ll learn something that you otherwise never would, because you didn’t know where to look. Being social has taken me to places could never imagine, and lead to me having friends in places I never thought. I also can’t even begin to list all the interesting stories I’ve heard and all the things I’ve learned from strangers I met along the way.
This is one of the many reasons I love to travel in general.
When approaching someone, the first step is by far the hardest one, as everyone has their shield up to protect themselves from all the assholes in the world. The best way to get past that is by simply being genuine. People appreciate people who are not putting on any kind of act and talk to them directly through their own personality. Once the ice is broken and they realize you’re a good person, a conversation usually comes natural. A friendly smile goes a very long way, and you’ll see that most people will be more than happy to talk to you.
Reason #4: You will broaden your view on the world
You get references from many different places: your upbringing, your environment, and a lot from TV, movies and the internet nowadays. Our brains are wired to assume simple truths when we don’t have much information. It helps us make sense of the world, even though these assumptions are not always accurate or complete. These are stereotypes. Stereotypes are a widely held but fixed and oversimplified images or ideas of a particular type of person or thing.
There’s always at least some truth to every stereotype, but when things are right in front of you, there’s good chance that things will be different, or that you will see a new context around them. Experiencing this first-hand will make you understand better why people do the things they do. The more places you go, the more you will see things with your own eyes, and the less you’ll rely on stereotypes.
Looking at the world through first-hand experience versus common assumptions. Which one would you prefer?
In my personal experience, people who are well-traveled are usually more open-minded and laid-back than people who aren’t. After all, it’s easy to jump to simple, hard conclusions on things you don’t know much about. It may be a surprise to some, but not all Americans are fat, not all Dutch people get high all day and pay a daily visit to the whores, not all French people are arrogant, and some British people are actually fantastic cooks.
People have different ways of doing things everywhere. Some differences are big, but most of them are subtle. The big things are obvious, and they’re hard to miss. You will start noticing the little things only after spending some time in one place. During an exchange study, you become a part of a place. The little things are like puzzle pieces that eventually start making up a complete picture.
I feel it’s a very worthwhile endeavor to collect as many of these puzzle pieces in as many places as possible, and going on an exchange study is probably the best way to start your quest.
Jumping into the deep end will also teach you a thing or two about yourself.
Reason #5: You will become a more complete human being
Getting out of your comfort zone, gaining new first-hand experiences, giving your social skills a workout, and seeing a different side of things will make you a more complete human being. Being in a different kind of social environment and dealing with nothing but strangers, reveals your character-strengths and flaws to yourself. This gives you the opportunity to work on them, and thus improve yourself and your life. I don’t care how cool you think you are. This is the same for everyone. If you’re not deeply affected this kind of experience, you’re doing it wrong.
You will likely make new friends for life in the process, which is a nice bonus. Every time I embark on a trip, I return with a handful of new connections. I like having friends, and it’s nice to have them spread all over the world.
Studying abroad isn’t that common, because it’s not the path of least resistance. Most people don’t have the balls and/or don’t want to spend the money. Besides it being a life-changing experience and all the merits that come with that, it helps making your résumé stand out, as it shows your potential future employer that you’re not afraid to undertake big things.
Reason #6: You will have a ton of fun
Work hard, get good grades, you know the drill.
Besides that, it’s a party if you allow it to be. ’nuff said.
I can recommend doing this to anyone. If you’re currently in college, you have an incredible opportunity for a life-changing adventure right in front of you. It easier not to do it, but if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it. It’s a good idea to be realistic about it and realize that not everything will be fun. You’ll still have to study, and like life in general, good and bad things will happen.
Also, make sure you’re not tied up with a boyfriend or girlfriend when you’re going to do this. You’ll slap yourself in the face later for all the “could haves/should haves” (taken from retrospective comments from several other exchange students I’m still in touch with).
Save money, take out a student loan, or like me, do both. Realize this is one of those once in a lifetime-kinda things.
As for me personally, I will always remember it as one of the best times of my life, and I’m still enjoying the memories and friendships years later.
Just do it.
All photos: © Dick Hoebée All rights reserved