I Went On Exchange And Regretted It

Student exchanges are often hailed as one of the hallmarks of a local university experience, with every senior praising their experiences and recommending juniors to go. But is it really all it’s made out to be? Well, I was definitely one of those who bought into the exchange experience promise. 

There are some things that the exchange experience is contingent on that nobody tells you. Sure, exploring a new place, being free and independent (much more than we’re used to in Singapore), and making new friends are pretty much the same throughout all the experiences and stories you’ll hear. 

In short, my experience on my school semester exchange was the worst overseas experience I’ve ever been on. I love travelling, just like most Singaporeans. I’ve travelled overseas with friends, by myself, or with my partner. It’s not an issue of planning or being independent. COVID-19 wasn’t even the one thing that made my experience terrible — it was actually the best part of my exchange; that I could return earlier.

The key thing to having a good experience, though, is the people you’re with. 

I had a miserable time because I thought we were friends, and we were, and I hoped we would become bosom buddies through this ‘life-changing’ experience, and we didn’t. I had expectations that weren’t reciprocated.

With friendship cliques already formed, my efforts in facilitating trips and events together were futile, resulting in me being ignored and left out from all their plans, or even my plans that I tried to initiate. I still thought it was me, and tried to find other ways for us to bond together. And when I found solace in another friend, they turned out to be just as toxic by causing more issues in my interpersonal friendships. I thought this trip could help us get closer, but it only alienated me and taught me more about people. Now I know why people say travelling with friends can ruin friendships. It exposes everything about them, and being alone really highlights how they make you feel. If I had gone on exchange by myself, or had been prepared to not cultivate those pre-existing friendships, I think I would've had way more fun and made more friends with local or other students also on exchange.

Furthermore, because I had to plan my schedule around my classes and assignments, my travelling time was really limited (I couldn’t allow myself to skip school). I didn’t know how to juggle both or where to sacrifice my time, and I legitimately enjoyed my classes and professors. If you’re planning to spend most of your time travelling or sightseeing, definitely take up an exchange in the city, where there are museums or festivals and things to do and people to meet. I was in a smaller city, and it was pretty isolated with bad transportation. Don’t get me wrong, I also loved my quiet day-to-day life of relaxing at home, but it was not what I expected or would’ve done if I was living in a lively area with more things to do.

And the last thing that people don’t discuss much is the cost. While an exchange experience is a priceless memory, we need to be sensitive that not everyone can have access to one, instead of insisting that everyone should go on exchange in university. And though the costs differ from place to place and the things you do, the minimum will probably be around eight or ten thousand (in addition to your school fees). There are way more affordable ways to get a similar experience — homestays, cultural exchanges, or even backpacking are a simple Google search away. One exchange I went on cost me around $3000 (mostly transportation) for two months because it was a homestay! 

Tips to make your exchange (if possible) a better one:

  • Be aware of cliques or pre-existing friendships — you might be better off making local friends or being prepared to do things alone.
  • Recognise and understand that no matter what you do or how hard you try, sometimes making a friendship work is just not possible.
  • Research the city you'll be living in. Some cities are more lively than others. Depending on your interests, choose a place that will suit your personality and lifestyle.
  • Research your options — a university exchange programme may not be the most suitable for your desires and requirements.

Due to COVID-19, many of us are unable to go overseas, and some of us are trying (and failing) to get a slot at OGEM-approved universities to go on our oft-promised semester exchange. With this article, I hope that we realise exchange is not always all it’s cracked up to be, and university isn’t the only time in your life that you can have such an experience!