An exchange of heart
Victoria Zerbst explores the darker side of studying overseas
Art by Frankie Hossack
It begins the moment you share your host university’s acceptance letter on Facebook, accruing hundreds of likes and performing your call to adventure for all to see. Leading up to your departure, you naturally set yourself up with expectations. You make plans to write a wanderlust blog, post statuses asking which festivals you should attend in #Europe, and trawl through Study Abroad marketing materials, superimposing yourself in the images selected to set your imagination alight with possibilities.
In a few months time, you’ll have your turn posing next to monuments, attending costume parties dressed as an ‘Australian’, and letting everyone know you’re having the time of your life.
Unless, of course, you’re having a shit time.
In that case, you probably won’t want to post about it at all, or talk about it. You might just remain silent. Wait to come home, and hope that when you do, it can remain your own lonely secret.
Difficult experiences on university exchanges are often muted and hidden. They are also often coupled with a sense of shame, guilt or failure. Since ‘study abroads’ have become such digital performances, students who don’t have the most instagrammable times tend to feel alone and disappointed in themselves. In fact, I had no idea how many students felt isolated by their ‘negative’ experiences until I began listening to their stories.
Jump to my conversation with Emily earlier this year. She was in London, halfway through her exchange at King’s College, her time abroad made all the more difficult by its distance from her partner waiting back home.
“It was going be our period of freedom apart from each other. We were quite naive about it.”
Emily always wanted to go on exchange. It was always “part of her plan”, to take the next step towards seeing the world on her own. Even living out of home, and considering herself fairly independent, this was a chance to make new friends and experiences that would last a lifetime.
But making new friends, and throwing herself into a whirlwind of new experiences also meant saying goodbye to her partner at the airport. She cried all the way over on the plane.
The pain of being separated from a partner is understandable, and certainly not exclusive to being on exchange, but what made the experience more challenging for Emily was the total lack of support in her new environment.
Tears stained Emily’s arrival, and soon became a frequent visitor. “When I arrived it was 10pm and people were really unfriendly. The room was small and the lights didn’t work. It was dark and freezing and I didn’t have any bedding. I slept on the bed and I cried and cried, and that was pretty much the pattern for the first month and a half.”
Emily went through another difficult time when a friend passed away back in Sydney.
Once again she grieved alone, and quietly. “It was really hard being away when that happened. There weren’t any people around to talk to about it and people felt incredibly awkward whenever I brought it up.”
She noted that her exchange was physically painful for the first six months. She started missing classes and couldn’t leave her room. The time difference made it difficult to communicate with friends and family back home in what was a major time of need. She also felt she couldn’t be completely honest about her experience because she didn’t want to appear ungrateful.
“It’s this horrible feeling of having to suppress your sadness all the time because when you are over here you have to make the most of it. When you talk to friends at home you have to pretend everything is great, and that makes it so much worse.”
Emily dreaded the thought of going back and having to massage the truth about her exchange. Before she left, Emily’s perception of people having a bad time of exchange was limited to a lack of effort and enthusiasm. She was surprised to find herself, as someone who had long been dreaming about this experience, struggling. “At home I am totally able to overcome a lot of obstacles. Exchange is just a warped environment, it makes everything so much harder and people can’t understand until they’ve experienced it.”
Since ‘study abroads’ have become such digital performances, students who don’t have the most instagrammable times tend to feel alone and disappointed in themselves.
According to Sydney University management, in 2015 more than 800 USyd students participated in the outbound semester exchange program. Another 100 went on short-term exchange programs. It’s clear these opportunities provide students with a plethora of benefits, from new friends, to cultural exposure, to new-found independence.
In the 2016-2020 Sydney University Strategic Plan, increased student mobility was outlined as a key performance indicator. The university aims to reach “50 percent student mobility” by 2020. Half the students enrolled will set off on a global adventure, as student exchanges become less of a luxury and more of an expectation.
There is no doubt increased global connectivity and cultural literacy are worthy goals, or that even during the toughest times, the skills students learn from these global opportunities are a net positive.
The Sydney Abroad team run a range of student exchange information sessions throughout semester that “provide an overview of the available destinations” and springboard students into their own research.
Sydney Abroad also run pre-departure sessions on important practical and administrative preparations to “help prepare students for the cultural journey ahead by offering an insight into the cultures, practices and traditions of the region or country”. While it is encouraged that students attend these sessions, they are not compulsory. Most of the students I spoke to did not attend because they didn’t think they needed to.
When I asked Julian about his exchange to the University of Edinburgh¹, he told me his perspective was probably clouded by the anxiety he developed towards the end.
“I think a big part of it was when things got stressful, I didn’t have the support structures like I do back home. Even having friends to talk to, or understanding processes like special consideration, or even what to do if I miss an exam.”
Coming up to exams, Julian developed a bad case of insomnia. He fell asleep after the sun came up, didn’t see the sun for about a month, was grinding his teeth and getting migraines every day, and became stuck in a series of anxious thought spirals. “I had always had some trouble sleeping at home, but nothing near this level of stress before.”
Julian lived in a university hall with first years and exchange students. The guy next door to him knew he was suffering from insomnia and that he was pretty stressed out, but they didn’t have enough of a rapport that Julian could go to him for help.
“When I was feeling at my worst, like trying to get to sleep late at night, it was usually a really inconvenient time in Australia – everyone was asleep or at work. The time difference made it really hard.”
Julian also didn’t see any mental health professionals. He felt there wasn’t enough time to develop a relationship with a counsellor and didn’t know if seeing someone new would help.
He managed to see a doctor who prescribed him sleeping pills, but he said, besides that, there wasn’t any support. “Maybe there were more support services I could have taken advantage of when things got bad. It’s hard to talk about it because exchange is such a privilege. Being able to go and afford it is extremely fortunate. So there is a lot of guilt associated with that.”
Julian also dreaded coming back and talking to people about his exchange. “When people asked me how it was, I told close friends I had a shitty time but I didn’t want to say that to everyone. For ages it made me a bit awkward in social situations. I had to be a downer or feel like I was lying.”
He soon came to realise he went on exchange for the wrong reasons. It was mostly external pressure that influenced his decision to go. “It felt like a thing that felt worth doing. It wasn’t completely wasted, but I wouldn’t go again.”
Emily also didn’t know how or even if she should talk to someone “If I just had a good friend over here that’s who I’d talk to. Maybe if it had been more accessible I would have used it.” She felt King’s College made it seem like getting help was a real exception, and found their website unhelpful.
“I once thought to email the university [King’s], but I couldn’t think of what to write in the email. ‘Help, I’m an exchange student, my friend died and I am really lonely?’” I remember being sad as fuck and on the other side of the world and thinking this is the worst thing I have done in my fucking life.”
The stigma against mental illness seems to amplify under the pressure of going on exchange. Feeling unwell feels like failing.
The stigma against mental illness seems to amplify under the pressure of going on exchange. Feeling unwell feels like failing, seeking help becomes more challenging in a new environment, and students are often left to suffer in silence.
Julian’s anxiety came home with him, like a cruel souvenir. Even though he knew he needed help as soon he arrived back, it took him a year to find a psychologist that was right for him, and that was with the support of his family and friends.
He also never submitted feedback to the university about his exchange, and felt too embarrassed to attend any Study Abroad events or post-exchange workshops.
While the University provides a Careers Centre workshop “to help students articulate to future employers how this transformative experience helped developed their personal attributes”, there is less emphasis on the emotional or psychological support students might need as well.
Organising a new life overseas and maintaining a self of well being is hard enough in English, let alone in a foreign language. Jess spent a semester at the Universidad de Carlos III in Madrid and, for her, university was a genuine struggle.²
All of her subjects were in Spanish, and despite her best efforts, she couldn’t understand the majority of her 90-minute classes. “There was also a big them versus us attitude from the local students towards exchange students and this lead to me struggling to be able to talk to anyone in my classes.”
Jess failed 4/5 of her classes. “I ended up spending a lot of time on Facebook and feeling like I was missing out, watching my friends have a good time without me.”
During her time on exchange, Jess also didn’t seek any help. “I didn’t get any support from the University of Sydney, but to be absolutely fair, I never asked for it. It didn’t cross my mind to. I didn’t think that was an option I had.”
She does still think back on her experience and mentally beats herself up for “not being good enough” to have made the most of it. “I wish I was the kind of person who was carefree enough to live my life like I was supposed to.”
So many of the students I spoke to blamed themselves for their negative experiences on exchange. They carried their shame in silence.
“Do you know that tradition when they break your legs, put them in a splint, and they grow back to make your legs stronger? That’s what exchange is like for me. You grow up and mature, but it’s this really tortuous painful unnatural process.”
I spoke to Emily again when she came back from exchange a few days ago. She told me that her exchange got worse before it got better. She definitely learnt a lot about long distance relationships. “At the exchange information days they don’t say anything like, ‘if your partner is at home, it’s going to be difficult and this is how to organise it’ or ‘this is the best way to have Skype sex’. They don’t give you the practical tools that really count. But you can’t expect them to.”
After university finished, Emily went backpacking with a friend from exchange. They described this time as “a period of healing” and soon discovered they had both felt really lonely on exchange, but didn’t feel they could admit it at the time. “We were both totally isolated by our circumstance and our emotions. Now we accept exchange for what it was, a really difficult and lonely time.”
So many things contribute to this sense of loneliness and isolation on exchange. I don’t believe it’s a failure of university management, but rather the suffocating expectation of what an exchange should look and feel like. It is an expectation created by a simulated hyperreality of brochures, Facebook posts, and selective sharing. It is an expectation that makes it harder to admit when something is wrong.
These struggles outlined in this article are too common to be swept under the rug. Student exchanges are tough, challenging, and a lot less glamorous than they are made to appear. So don’t buy into the fantasy; know the real reasons why you are going, and be prepared for the struggle.
For fucks sake, please take advantage of all the services that Study Abroad offers, and give yourself room to feel and express how you feel. We too often neglect our emotional lives for our public ones.
¹ Name has been changed as requested
² Same deal as above