Studying abroad can be one of the easiest ways to live in another country long-term. Your home university takes care of your visa application, they book the plane ticket and have an advisor meet you at the airport, your housing is ready on arrival, and the trips are planned out, prepaid, and parent approved. Sounds perfect. Right?
This may seem wonderful to many, but for a small portion of the record high 262, 416 Americans who went abroad to study last year, another option is more appealing: direct exchange.
With a direct exchange program, you are enrolled in a local university in the country of your choice. Often, a student from that university will study at your home school. Depending on the location, you can live in a home stay, campus dorm, or your own apartment. While your home school may give you advice or contacts to get in touch with abroad, one thing is guaranteed: you will be completely independent.
I have to admit, when I chose go for a year abroad as an exchange student in Montpellier, France, I had no idea just how independent I would be. My study abroad advisor assured me that we would keep in touch via email and that “maybe he would stop by” – as though taking a plane across the Atlantic was as easy as walking across the quad.
While my friends, who had chosen university-sponsored programs, were attending preparatory meetings before we all went away our junior year, I was lucky to get an email response from my advisor. As I was waiting in line at the French Consulate in New York City hoping my third attempt would finally secure my visa, they were receiving their newly certified passports in the mail courtesy of our university. When I finally got an answer from my advisor, it was to tell me that he’d accidentally given me the wrong date for the start of classes, so my plane tickets (which I’d booked myself) were now a week too early.
So, when my friends were all ready for their professors to escort them on their pre-booked flights to their destinations, I was landing in France – a student without a school – and hoping for the best.
As an exchange student, you can often feel disconnected. You become less of a priority to your home university. You start your travels with a handful of other students from your country at most; you have to arrange your own housing; you might be living in a place where no one speaks your language. It’s easy to feel that you have no safety net, which can make a sponsored program seem all the more appealing.
But, if you are willing to stick it out – to deal with the angry consulate workers, to contact your own host family, to book your own flight, to figure out how to navigate in a language that never before existed for you outside of a textbook – studying abroad as an independent exchange student will have more than enough rewards.
There’s no way getting around it: travel is expensive. When it comes to studying abroad, however, choosing an exchange can lower the price tag. For the majority of schools, you continue to pay tuition to your home university; this is unfortunate due to the high cost of an American education, but considered necessary in order to save a place in your graduating class. Although both options require home tuition prices, university programs require room and board payment as well. With an exchange program, these are arranged by the student, and therefore room and board can end up costing much less.
For example, at a public college, the cost of on campus housing averages around $7,500. At private schools, it is closer to $8,500. That’s not taking into account meal plans and grocery shopping. Exchange students have the option to budget this money as they see fit. Dorms in the United States cost nearly $1,000 a month; dorms at Université Paul-Valéry in Montpellier cost €250. Even with the exchange rate against the dollar, that’s still a savings. If you study in a country outside of Western Europe, the savings have the potential to be even greater.
Home stays will likely be more expensive than international dorm living, but in many cases board is included in the price. The experience of living with a local family and having home-cooked meals will be worth the extra money if cultural immersion is important to you. The cost of an apartment ranges widely depending on the location, but if you’re willing to find roommates this option can be just as cheap as rooming in a dorm.
That’s not to say that studying abroad won’t make a serious dent in your bank account. But the money saved by doing a direct exchange can be left to budget towards your own interests, whether it be food, nights out, travel, souvenirs…it’s up to you.
If the best way to learn a new language is by practicing it. Why couldn’t I say much beyond “bonjour” after seven years of classroom French? Blame it on the teachers, the textbooks, or my lackluster work ethic when it comes to languages – when it came down to it, I was horrible at French.
That all changed during my year in Montpellier. I was no longer sitting in class with thirty other Americans, struggling to repeat verb endings and vocabulary. I was living with a French family, in a French city, and going to a French university. Suddenly, the language began to make sense; words are much easier to remember when you use them to buy groceries or mail a postcard instead of memorizing them for a test. Speaking, listening, reading, and writing in French were constantly necessary in almost every facet of my life abroad. It was…utterly exhausting.
Even the simplest of tasks can become time-consuming when you throw in a language barrier. Everything was such a long process of miscommunication and misdirection; classes were so tiring that I felt like I’d gotten the wind knocked out of me. The French students were speaking a mile a minute and in slang I thought I’d never understand. Even the beauty of the country I was beginning to explore was tainted by my irritation at how I felt left out to dry and alone without a moment of respite from this culture.
But then, it started to click. Little by little, I could understand words without having to translate them in my head. I became a regular at a boulangerie and got on first-name basis with the woman who owned it. I found a great spot for reading and people watching at a nearby park. I became good friends with other exchange students and had apéritifs with my host parents. By the time the second semester rolled around, I was starting to feel like I truly lived in France. After weeks of struggling, I could finally order a crèpe without having my accent scoffed at. It felt like a victory.
As difficult as it can be, the total immersion that you get in a direct exchange is worth all of the effort and headaches. When you go on a study abroad program with your university, you find yourself surrounded by the same students you came with. In many programs, you even take all of your classes with them. Finding ways to be truly engrossed in the country you are living in is much more difficult when, in many ways, your home campus is transported abroad. Being an exchange student is a risk, and it’s much more difficult. But at the end of the year, when you feel comfortable in another country, you know that you got there on your own. You’ve become self-sufficient in a way that didn’t seem possible upon arrival.
The fact that you can live with your friends and have trips planned out by your home university is a bonus for many students, but you miss the chance to figure things out for yourself and see what you want to see. With exchange programs, the fact that there is no hand-holding can be scary – but liberating.
Part of the “package” that a university program offers to offset the fact that you are still paying the high home tuition prices while away from school is planned trips. These trips include tour guides and, usually, a professor accompanying the group. Transportation, activities, lodging, and food are taken care of by your university. That isn’t to say that every trip you go on during a university-sponsored program will be pre-planned; there will be opportunities to plan your own trips as well. However, since you spend most of your time with the Americans you came with, those will most likely be the people you end up traveling with. It becomes very difficult to separate yourself from the group; and, of course, it’s fun traveling with your friends – why would you want to go off on your own?
The thing about traveling solo is that, in reality, you are very rarely alone. My friends and I all made different plans for a week off in February, and it was with some trepidation that I set off on my own for Italy. I had traveled by myself in short spurts, but my longer trips had always been with one or two other people. Sure, there’s a ton to see in Italy. But did I really want to spend ten days staring at statues by myself?
Turns out, I had nothing to be worried about. Within an hour of arriving in Cinque Terre, I was making dinner with a group of fellow solo travelers from the hostel and hanging out in a harbor overlooking the Mediterranean. It was just as easy to meet temporary companions from all over the world in Bologna, Florence, and Rome, too. I was amazed at how friendly, outgoing, and helpful people were when they saw that I was traveling by myself, and my confidence grew with each city I visited. By traveling alone, I found that I could meet new people with much more ease. Not only that, but every choice I made was my own: if I wanted to stop for gelato, I could. If I wanted to wander around the side streets all afternoon, I could. When I wanted company, there was always someone at the hostel willing to go sightseeing, and when I wanted to do my own thing, I could. It was a freedom I had never experienced before, and one that would be hard to come by when being ushered around by a tour guide.
That kind of independence can be found on the road as well the city you’re studying in. Whether you are learning how to take the tram to class or taking a cross-country flight, with an exchange program you always have the power to choose. If you’re willing to take the leap, the freedom found as an exchange student is more than worth it.