Why every student should go for an exchange program
As I believe that travelling will be disrupted for at least 6 more months due to COVID-19, I took a look back on my exchange program that happened 6 years ago.
It was definitely one of my fondest memory in university and I urge every undergrad student out there who has the chance to go for exchange program to do so.
You will get to meet different people of all walks of life, learn new culture and language, and experience what it is like living like a local.
For my exchange program, I went to Spain, Barcelona, and studied at ESADE Business School (Escuela Superior de Administración y Dirección de Empresas).
Here are some of the things that I have learnt throughout my 6 months in Spain.
1. Learnt a new language
It was mandatory for us to take a Level 1 Spanish introductory course at ESADE Business School and I totally love it! This is to help us communicate with locals in our day-to-day life as not many of them are fluent in English.
I recall my teacher was super passionate in teaching us the basics of conjugation and how to form sentences. You could see everyone trying their best and mispronouncing but that is okay 🙂
As Barcelona is a city where people love to party, I remembered I spoke the best Spanish when I was tipsy/drunk (LOL).
Learning a new language definitely made me feel like there are so much to learn in this world.
2. Experienced a new culture
Each country has a unique culture and Spain is no different. Did you know that people in Barcelona speak Catalan rather than Spanish? There are slight differences in linguistics between the two.
Catalonia, which comprise of four provinces Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona, has been fighting for independence from Spain since more than a century ago. I remember back in my apartment those days seeing protesters having a friendly protest, unlike what is happening in Hong Kong lately.
Something which I enjoy seeing during my time in Barcelona was called the Los Castells, which is the Catalan tradition of building human towers or castells. It looked extremely dangerous but at the same time, it displayed a lot of character, hard work and teamwork from each individual. Definitely a must experience when you are there.
Source: National Geographic
3. Made new friends
I made many friends not just Singaporeans from my university and other universities, but also people from across the globe. Each of them gave me very different perspective on their thinking and their view of the world. This allowed me to exchange ideas with them and also understand their thought process.
Even until now, I still keep in touch with them and some of them even did an exchange program back in my home university, National University of Singapore!
I would say that mixing around with people around the world has definitely shaped my thinking which ultimately helped me in the workforce.
Source: Finance and Toast. Friends I made back then on my exchange program.
4. Visited new cities
People always say, exchange program is the time for you to travel. That is true! Take this time to explore other parts of the world rather than just “focusing on studying”. I went to places like Greece, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, United Kingdom, France and Italy while in Europe.
One of my favourite memory was in Greece, Santorini, where I went with a good friend of mine. It was super touristy but thought that it was a MUST visit place at least once in my life. Food there was cheap, scenery was beautiful, but the company was even better. At night, you could also see millions of stars in the clear sky.
Source: Finance and Toast. When will we get to travel again?
Source: Finance and Toast. “Must take” pretentious shots when you are young!
5. Learned important life skills: planning itineraries, budgeting, and navigating
One important life skill that you will learn on exchange program is planning itineraries. You will learn how to search for the best travel deals, accommodations, flights etc to fit into your itinerary. This skill will come in handy in future when you need to plan trips with family and friends.
I remember Skyscanner was one of my best friends then, searching for the cheapest and most convenient flights to neighbouring countries. I learned how to plan my budget wisely, and was careful not to overspend since I was not earning any income yet.
I also managed to hone my navigation skills by using Google maps and I believe it can save you precious time while travelling.
Do also read up in advance on the types of travel scams in different cities so as to avoid falling trap to some of the common tourists mistakes! You can check out this comprehensive website called Travelscams.org for a compilation of travel scams and stories worldwide.
6. Challenged myself by joining an overseas case competition: ESADE Innovation Quest
I have always wanted to join a case competition just to see where I stand amongst my competition and I made the bold move to join one in my exchange university called the ESADE Innovation Quest.
The ESADE Innovation Quest is a 4-day event with workshops and team bonding, which ultimately leads to a final presentation of a real case as proposed by leading companies.
We were grouped randomly with local students and also exchange students which meant that everyone’s skills and background could be very different. I recall vividly that we had to present on a transformation plan for one of the Spanish bank, BBVA. It was an intense competition where you had to do market research, come up with a proposal and finally pitch it to senior leaders and judges.
This competition tested our time management skills, research skills, and presentation skills just to name a few. Teamwork is of utmost importance here as we have to divide and conquer the work. Ultimately, my team and I won 2nd place for our pitch on the digital transformation plan for BBVA. Big achievement for a Singaporean guy competing in an overseas case competition which I had no prior experience!
The night ended off with a networking event which was definitely a good experience for me.
Source: Finance and Toast. Some of the people that I met during the case competition.
7. Tried new things
Exchange program was also a time for me to get out of my comfort zone and try new things. As someone who is afraid of heights, but yet at the same time adventurous, I decided to try skydiving before I get too old.
My friend and I did it in Prague for EUROS 220 and we never regretted it. I recall we were so scared while on the van to the skydiving area LOL.
Everyone should try it once at least in their lifetime as you get to see the view from an aerial perspective!
I did a video below on my skydiving experience. Do check it out.
Source: Finance and Toast. One of the most liberating experiences in my life.
8. Learned to be independent
Exchange program who gave me the opportunity to be independent. For the first time in my life, I solo travelled to Amsterdam and Brussels. It was a daunting experience. You learn how to be comfortable sitting on a plane alone, checking into a hotel alone, eating alone, and doing things alone. This is how I learned it is okay to not fit into groups.
Travelling alone made me happy and it taught me survival skills. For example, when I was in Brussels, I rented an affordable Airbnb for two nights by a Japanese guy (he’s a scientist by the way). When I was about to check in, I noticed that his apartment door was not locked. No one was around then and all I saw in the house was lab apparatus, test tubes, conical flasks etc.
I was frightened. I thought this was some sort of scary place where they did experiments on people. Furthermore, he was not contactable at that time and I thought some bad was going to happen.
Fortunately, he was a normal person and he had went to get groceries at that time while forgetting to lock the door. All good as nothing happened to me back then. 😀
Travelling alone also allowed me to experience new things at my own pace. I no longer need to conform the needs and wants of a group and was able to see more as well. It also taught me to be observant and street smart. This itself helped me in my current job which requires frequent travelling alone for business trips.
Source: Finance and Toast. Brussels. It did not help that the weather is gloomy and streets were empty.
9. Learned to stand up for myself.
While you are alone in another country, you will learn how to stand up for myself. I have read about people (taxi drivers, store owners) giving tourists fake notes on the premise that they are not able to recognize the difference between a real and a counterfeit note.
This actually happened to me once when I was in Italy at a pizza shop. The cashier gave me a note that felt very thin and lacklustre. I immediately knew it was a counterfeit note as a German friend of mine had showed me a counterfeit note that was given to him by a taxi driver before. I then told the cashier that the note she gave me was fake but she insisted that it was real and that I knew nothing. I got angry and started demanding that I wanted coins instead (it was just 5 euros only so asking for coins is not unreasonable) as it is difficult to produce counterfeit coins. She refused to accede to my request and the argument got more and more heated. But ultimately, she didn’t want me to make a scene and gave me the coins instead.
Moral of a story: stand up for yourself and don’t suffer in silence. If you don’t feel comfortable about something, speak up. You will learn not to let people step on you.
10. Fought for what I wanted.
Just before the final exams in ESADE Business School, I got an email from JP Morgan to interview for an asset management summer analyst program in Singapore. Back in those days, banks like JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Credit Suisse etc (bulge bracket banks) were highly sort after.
I had always wanted to start a career and land my dream job in JP Morgan and hence, this was a great opportunity. However, this meant that I had to fly back as the interview was a case study presentation and panellist interview style. There was no way of doing a Skype interview as they needed to assess candidates’ capabilities on the spot.
My peers and even my dad told me there was no point flying back just to take the interview because of the cost and time involved. However, I knew I had to make my own decision and I flew back. I remember crying at the airport because I was feeling emotional and not sure whether it was worth it.
Long story short, I went for the interview and didn’t get the summer analyst role. However, there was no regrets because I knew I had given my best and also my dad was extremely supportive of me despite me not getting the role. I think such setbacks definitely helped shape who I am as a person and allowed me to understand more about myself.
11. Bonus: got addicted to Spanish songs
Spanish songs are extremely catchy albeit sensual at times. But I was so in love with them! I remember during school parties, everyone was dancing to Spanish songs and having a good time. This taught me to not just work hard, but also find a balance in life.
Source: Enrique Iglesias
12. Wrapping it up
Finally, to wrap it up, my exchange program in Spain was definitely life changing. There were a lot of ups and downs, but it was all a self-discovery process. End of the day, despite what life has in store for you, you will be okay.
So, I strongly recommend everyone who has the opportunity to go for an exchange program to do so at least once. It doesn’t matter where you go, even in Asia is fine! As I believe the experience matters the most. For those who may not find it easy to go on an exchange program due to financial reasons, try and seek for ways such as applying for a bursary to offset the cost. At the end of the day, I believe with the experiences gained, it will pay off in the future.
What are some of your most memorable exchange program experiences? Share with us in the comments box below.
Disclaimer: all opinions expressed are purely from the writer’s point of view and does not represent any company or organization.