Five things I wish I knew before going on exchange

June 09, 2015
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I knew I wanted to go on exchange as soon as I arrived at university. At the beginning I thought I had everything planned out, but the reality was I had no idea what I was doing. Although you might think you know what to expect, heading overseas has its inevitable roadblocks. So to make sure you don’t end up in the same sticky situations I did, here are the five things I wish I’d known before going on exchange.

In the immortal words of the Lion King: be prepared

I applied for my Canadian visa online, but I also had to fly to Sydney to get my American B1B2 visa. Although they were a pain to apply for, these two visas were totally worth it: they saved me so much trouble when travelling over the border.  Make sure you understand the visa requirements when you apply for your exchange. Know how long you can stay for, and whether you’re allowed to make trips outside the country.

It’s OK to arrive homeless

At my uni we were told we should apply to one particular residence overseas, and if not, to make sure we found accommodation before we arrived. This totally wasn’t required: the friends who got the best (and cheapest) rooms stayed at a hostel their first week of exchange and applied directly to the residence or landlord of the place they wanted to stay.

Finding friends is great, but finding love sucks

There are plenty of opportunities to make friends when you arrive, whether it’s in class or at exchange student events. Use these to your advantage! Talk to people and discuss your interests - you’ll make friends in no time. Later on in the semester, some people start to move towards relationships. While fun, it’s important to remember that unfortunately you’re only in that country for a short time. You may very well end up on the other side of the world to the person you are very attached to. Stefan Lubberding, a Dutch exchange student, saw some of his friends enter into relationships whilst on exchange. “It is sad of course when you have to leave each other … hopefully you will get over it after a while.”

Balance your study and party time

Many Australian unis don’t require your grades to be transferred back home, and therefore won’t count them towards your GPA. But I wouldn’t recommend discarding your books first week and partying for the rest of the trip - unfortunately a failed semester abroad doesn’t look good on a course transcript. In saying that, you shouldn’t give up experiences because of potential grades. At my host university the third-year coursework was quite hard, but if you can fit in study instead of watching Netflix, you’ll have more time to experience the city you’ve travelled abroad to see.

Budget for travel after you finish

When your exchange comes to a close, it won’t have felt long enough. The friendships you’ve made will feel lifelong, and it’s really hard seeing everyone leave. The only complaint many of my exchange friends had was that they couldn’t travel after the semester ended. Others travelled for months and met up with other exchange students in different parts of the world. This is going to be the most expensive part of your exchange by far, so budget for it before you head overseas, and make sure you don’t spend the money prematurely. There’s nothing worse than still having a month of travel left and realising you blew all your money on clothes you never wore.

Jacinta Bowler

Jacinta is studying a double degree in Science and Journalism at the University of Queensland.

Image: Dude Pascalou, Flickr Creative Commons license