Today I got an email from an outbound exchange student in response to my blog “Why I am a Rotarian.” I started to write some hints for Chris, but then thought perhaps they’re best recorded as whole blog entry rather than a comment. So here is a message dedicated to Chris who is on the way to India, and any other outbound Rotary Exchange Student.
Rotary Youth Exchange will be a life changing experience, but how successful your year is completely rests upon your shoulders. You need to approach your exchange with an attitude of openness. You have to be willing to try new things, whether it’s new clothes like a burka or school uniform, new food like liver casserole or goats’ eyes, or new experiences like attending a different place of worship or participating in inexplicable festivals. This is a cultural exchange and your job as an exchange student is much more that representing your culture. It is even more important that you learn as much as you can about your host culture so that when you return home, you can reflect a new view of the world to your home community. This year will impact the rest of your life.
So here is some advice from me from my rather broad perspective as a returned exchange student, a host mom, an exchange counselor, the mother of an exchange student , a Rotarian and a high school teacher. I hope these suggestions will help you approach the most difficult year of your life with enthusiasm so that in embracing the challenges, you find yourself becoming a global citizen.
1. Adjust your attitude. Whenever you are faced with a cultural challenge, remember it’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different! We don’t all have to be the same on this planet; diversity brings beauty in the world. Embrace it all. Be open to the new. Avoid saying, “At home we do it like this…” Say, “That’s interesting. Can you tell me more about that?” Listen. Learn. Keep your better/worse thoughts in your private journal. A lot of brilliant A students struggle as exchange students. They’re used to being the best in the class. They don’t like to make mistakes. They expect excellence in themselves. Let it go. You are not in your perfect world any more. There are new rules on exchange. Relax. Let yourself make mistakes so you are free to learn. Embrace the novelty of not being the best. Just be.
2. Learn the language of your area as soon as possible. Speak it often. Take special classes if necessary. Everyone will want to speak to you in English, don’t fall into the trap. If you’re in Barcelona, the area language is Catalan, not Spanish. What is the language or dialect of your region? Make that your focus. Language is the gate to culture, and you want to open that gate. If you don’t learn the language, you will miss significant understanding of your hosts and your host culture. Even if you do it badly, the effort to learn the language is crucial to your host community seeing that you are committed to learning about them. Go beyond Hello, Good-bye, Please and Thank You. Be willing to make mistakes and be laughed at for your mistakes. Join into the laughter, learn the correct way, keep talking. Especially learn the words that have no English translations, because those words represent important cultural concepts.
3. Take every opportunity you can. Go wherever you can. You will frequently be invited somewhere, and you won’t have a clue what it is. Go anyway. Take your camera. Prepare to be amazed.
4. Get involved with your sponsor Rotary Club. Sometimes you have to work hard to do this, because overseas clubs often don’t involve their exchange students. Be sure the club knows you want to help with their service projects. Go to meetings at least once a month. Pester them to involve you if you must. Yes, the business component is boring, but use the social time to meet members. Find out what they do, express curiousity. You may get invited to join them on a ski trip or a reindeer round up. You never know. Rotarians are amazing community leaders with fascinating experiences. They have a lot to teach you. Ask questions. Learn.
5. Don’t be shy. Don’t wait for others to approach you. Make the first move. You’re going to be gone in a year and so some people won’t want to make the effort to be your friend. They might become your best friend if you make the first move. Say something like, “Excuse me, I’m an exchange student, can you explain this…?” Ask questions. Be curious. Smile. Your closest friends are quite likely going to be other exchange students or former exchange students. This is a comfortable thing, because you have the most in common with them. You can rely on them to help process the cultural challenges, but beware of pity parties and grumbling. Don’t let exchange students be your only friends; the more friends you have from your host culture, the more experiences and opportunities you will have.
6. This might be the most important point, especially in this age of instant communication around the world. Let go of home. Certainly, post a weekly log of your activities to share your experiences with your friends and family back home, that’s an important reason you went on exchange. Keeping a journal provides a record of what you learn and gives you a tool to reflect upon for the rest of your life. However, daily writing with your girl/boyfriend back home, trying to negotiate your best friend’s break up or panicking about your college entrance means your focus is back home instead of on your cultural immersion. You’ll need to contact home now and then so your mother doesn’t go crazy, but your focus must be on your new culture. You’re never going to have this exchange opportunity again. Don’t waste it! Embrace your new culture and let go of home. Your home culture will still be there at the end of your exchange year.
Have an absolutely amazing, fascinating, life changing Rotary Exchange!