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Making the Transition from Tourist to Exchange Student

Judi (second from right) poses with a group of fellow exchange students at Singapore's Botanical Gardens.

Although I’d already spent the better part of a university semester in Singapore, it took me a good two months for me to fully realize I was living the complete exchange student life.

Sure, from the moment I arrived in the country, I took part in all of the legally necessary exchange student proceedings like attending my school’s international student orientation and processing my student pass. I even did all of the “necessary” social proceedings such as visiting the Singapore Zoo and Botanical Gardens. However, all of those things either seemed too bureaucratic or generic to grant myself the title of “exchange student,” and I instead just felt like an extended tourist who happened to sit in on some university classes from time to time.

For me, the term “exchange student” carried a certain stigma behind it. A “real” exchange had a little bit of studying, a lot of traveling and partying—and a dash of self-discovery. Taking part in mandatory orientations and seeing standard tourist sights wasn’t going to cut for me.

I didn’t have time to dwell on this thought, though. Time soon began to fly (as it often does in foreign countries). Before I knew, there were a full two months between me and the time of my first realization. At this point, I had just made it back to campus after a trip to Thailand, and after being away from school for so long, had gotten lost between my class and the canteen I was going to for lunch. Eventually, I found my way and ordered my nasi pedang, consisting mostly of ingredients I still couldn’t identify by name, but knew that I loved to eat. When it came time to pay, I accidentally tried to give the cashier Thai baht instead of Singaporean dollars and faced the never-ending issue of trying to decide whether to eat with chopsticks or a fork. Choosing both in the end, I sat down with my friends to finalize the last minute details of our trip to Indonesia, which we would be leaving for in four days.

Halfway through my meal, I had another realization: it isn’t the “big” events that make you an exchange student; it’s all of the small day-to-day things. The getting lost, the paying with foreign currency, the hectic travel planning, these were the things that finally made me feel like I was really on exchange.

An “exchange student” wasn’t a title, and the difference between regular tourists and exchangees is like the difference between being on a diet and being healthy: one is a brief change of pace that may temporarily leave you with a tan or a slightly lower number on a scale, but in the end, those things will eventually be washed back into the normalcy of everyday life. The other is a complete lifestyle change, one that shows you the world in a whole new light, whether that be in how you can balance learning how to scuba dive and how to manage theoretical hotel revenue at the same time, or how to find a type of exercise and kale chip you actually enjoy.

After my brief, epiphany-like time-out, I snapped back into reality with, “Wow, we are such exchange students.”

My friend responded with a confused look and quick retort of, “Some of us a bit slower than others, but yes, we are exchange students. Now can you help me look up visa requirements? Oh, its also ladies’ night tomorrow, are you going downtown?”

To which I responded with what I had realized was another typical exchange student response of, “Oh sure, why not?”

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Published in Study Abroad Blogs
Judi Zienchuk

Judi Zienchuk has studied her way across Southeast Asia and boarded down volcanoes in Central America. When she's not gallivanting the globe, you can find her on a bike or consuming large amounts of caffeine. Check out her blog, Travvel Sized.

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