[I just found this that I wrote and never published several months ago. I decided not to go through and change time references, so imagine I'm still in Madrid as you read this!]
Seriously, I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I’ve been here and I cannot think of a single reason not to do an exchange at some point.
But I can think of a tonne of reasons to take one.
6 reasons to be an exchange student and study abroad:
It’s probably not as expensive as you think
Really. You have to pay whatever fees you normally pay to your home university (which you already pay). You have to pay for somewhere to live and food to eat (which you already pay). You have to pay for going out and exploring your new country (okay, so you might need a little extra here). And you have to buy your flight there and back.
That’s really not a whole lot of extra money you have to come up with. It’s not like these things are last minute, you usually know for at least a year ahead of time that you’ll be going away. That’s a lot of time to save up the money you need.
The best part is that there’s alway scholarships available for exchange students. My uni had $1000, $2000, and even higher scholarships they just give away. A friend of mine got an $8000 scholarship. That’s free money. When is that ever going to be offered to you again?!
If you’re Australian, the government will give you a loan to put on your HECS. The amount changes every year but this year you could get up to almost $6500. And if you get any Centrelink benefits, all you have to do is fill in a form and you’ll keep getting them while you’re away.
You can improve your second language
I’ve been studying Spanish for a long time, but I think in the few months I’ve been here I’ve improved more than the past year or two at home. I don’t think you need to live in the country to learn another language, but it really does help a lot.
Instead of doing homework I’m out talking to people. Instead of sitting in class doing conjugation exercises I’m mixing them up in conversation and getting corrected by Spanish people. Every day I’m writing down multiple pages of new words I heard and don’t want to forget.
I’m surrounded by Spanish here. It’s on the tv, it’s on the radio (although there is a surprising number of English songs too), it’s on the metro, it’s what I hear on the street. You’re probably thinking ‘no shit, Sherlock’, but it makes such a difference to be in this environment and you don’t realise until you get there.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though, it’s still hard work. There’ll be a lot of frustrating language barrier moments where nothing is coming out right and you just want to order the damn meal and eat. And if you’re not fluent yet, a lot of universities also have classes in English or other languages than the local language. I’m not taking all my classes in Spanish here, because that would be crazy.
Enhance your studies with new perspectives
At home I study international relations. Here I study international relations from a Spanish perspective. It’s awesome. In Australia we often use Asia for examples as it’s so close and realistically a lot of people who graduate with my degree will end up working with the region in one or another. Here a lot of the examples are European or Latin American. It’s changing the way I’m able to connect ideas and theories to actual places.
It’s also fun to save up your elective classes and take classes you never would at home, just for the fun of it. Here I’ve got one class called ‘Spanish Art in the Museums of Madrid’. At first glance it has nothing to do with my actual degree, but it’s fun and it’s helping me understand more about the history of the country I’m living in.
Another of my classes is ‘European History of the 20th Century’. I haven’t studied a lot of history before, but it is so different learning it in the place where it happened, by people it actually effected.
Take the time to travel on the weekends and explore a new part of the world
If I was at home and said I wanted to take a trip to Portugal for the weekend, people would think I was mad. That would cost you probably $2,000 and a good 60 hours just to get there and back.
Right now it would cost me maybe €100 and three hours in travel time there and back.
That is so cool! At home you couldn’t even leave the state in that time, but here a couple of hours in almost any direction gets you to a whole new country. It can sometimes take a bit of advance planning to get the cheap prices to get there, but it’s so worth it when you can.
Along with probably three quarters of the other exchange students I know here, I chose classes here that I liked and were relevant but more importantly gave me Monday’s off uni. So I have three day weekends each and every week, ripe for getting out of the city.
Strengthen your CV by adding international experience
If your visa will let you work in the country (mine won’t), you can try to find an internship just like you would at home. You can try to find part time work somehow related to your degree or the field you want to enter after graduating.
Some universities offer additional diplomas for exchange students, too. My university here offers a diploma in International Relations from a Spanish Perspective and all I had to do was choose courses off a certain list and pay a €20 fee. No additional work, but at the end of the semester I’ll have an actual piece of paper from a Spanish university as well as the exchange experience. It’s probably not really worth much since it’s just a semester’s worth of work, but it’ll look good on a resume.
Go in depth into the culture of a new place
Okay, so you can do this without doing an exchange. There are ways that it’s easier while on exchange, though.
By studying you’re integrating into life in different way than when you’re just visiting. You’re hanging out with local students. I have my favourite shops here, my favourite bars, my favourite check out guy at the supermarket around the corner. I have Spanish friends showing me the Spanish way to text and eat and go out.
I know several people living with host families here. They have people there all the time to practice their Spanish with, they get home cooked Spanish food every day, and they get to know the daily life of normal Spanish people better than I do living in a flat with other students.
All that said, why on earth would you not study abroad at some point?
When else in your life will you be able to pick up and move without disrupting your life? Your studies will continue as normal; you won’t return and be behind everyone else. It’s such an obviously great way to leave the country I’m completely baffled that relatively few people do it.