Lessons from both sides of exchange student life

Xuehui Sun and me at the dinner for Chinese New Year that she prepared.

One of the only sad things about being a college senior is that you don’t meet many new people in classes or on campus. After several semesters in the J-School and Spanish department, I repeatedly run in the same circles with the same people. But this semester, I’ve had the pleasure to become friends with three Chinese students in here for the semester from Nanjing University.We met in our Changing Media Business Models class (the class with the Seattle Trip I wrote about last week).

Last weekend, they invited me to join them for a dinner they were preparing to celebrate the Chinese New Year, a celebration in China that is on the scale of Christmas in the United States. They prepared a wonderful dinner of several traditional Chinese dishes that were quite tasty and outdid the “Chinese food” you get most places in Missouri. As someone who has been an exchange student, I know what it’s like to be away from the normalcy of your home country, especially during holidays, and I was glad they shared this experience with me.

Chinese food

My friends prepared several super tasty. traditional Chinese dishes.

It was exciting to have dinner with them and learn more about their interests, families and university. We spent more than two hours swapping stories and answering each others questions about cultural differences. It was interesting to see how similar the questions they had about Mizzou were so similar to the questions I had when I was first abroad.

I also realized I’m now a much more compassionate and culturally-aware person for having gone through the experience of acclimating to a new environment. I know what it’s like to take classes in a language you’re not 100 percent comfortable with. I know what it’s like to get thrown into a new town and different university system. I know what it’s like to spend much of the time confused about what I’m supposed to be doing.

Being an exchange student is hard. I relied on so many people to help me understand the system. When I was abroad, I consistently was clarifying things with my classmates or asking other students questions about how things worked. It’s a really humbling experience to go from an environment where you understand how things work to a place where you’re uncertain about everything and other people have varying levels of patience with your non-native communication abilities.

This Facebook post is from a friend currently studying at the University of Navarra (where I did my exchange semester). This post and the subsequent comments really sums up what it’s like to be an exchange student in an unfamiliar university.
Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 9.01.20 AM

But on a lighter note, one of the perks of being an exchange student is being able to act like a freshman again. You have an excuse when you don’t know something you should, make a mistake or say something stupid. You can travel around aimlessly with huge groups and not feel self-conscious about it.

Being an exchange students look like this. You travel around in big groups taking pictures of everything and looking confused about what to do next.

Being an exchange students look like this. You travel around in big groups taking pictures of everything and looking confused about what to do next.

Despite the awkward moments and embarrassing situations, if I had to do my exchange semester over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I hope my new friends feel the same after their time at Mizzou.


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