Likely, most university students would have dreamed of traveling to another country at least once. I also had that dream and traveled often as a young person. It was a valuable experience, and it made me self-reliant. However, I desired something more than a short trip and the temporary relationships that I made during those travels. I wanted to truly feel the country rather than just travel it, so I participated in an exchange student program. In order to become a successful candidate for the program, I spent a year preparing. I was finally selected and I went to Paris as an exchange student in my senior year.
Start of the exchange program
I joined the exchange program in the first semester of this year. I originally planned on visiting England as soon as my studies had finished, but I had to return to Korea due to COVID-19. Though about three months have passed since my return to Korea, I still recall my days in Paris. I studied at a business school called ISC Paris, located in Paris, France. For whatever reason, I was the only Sookmyungian who applied to the exchange program for that school, so before my departure, I was filled with tension and anxiety. Speaking honestly, I did not want to go because I feared losing precious happy moments with friends in Korea. I feared being alone and away from my family and friends. Therefore, I did a lot of pre-departure Internet research and learned a lot from online communities such as 'Fzalsa' and 'Yurang'. I was also lucky enough to meet a new friend from one of those communities. Thanks to her, I arrived in Paris without difficulties. We remain very close, so my fear of loneliness vanished. You, too, don’t have to worry about being alone when leaving for another country. I was full of anxiety prior to leaving for France, but once I arrived, I realized, there was nothing to fear. Like me, you will soon meet a lot of people, and you will make close friends quickly. Some of them will even become your best friends for life.
The difficulty of difference and discrimination
Paris suddenly experienced a traffic strike in January of this year. Due to the strike, public transportation was irregular; the arrival times were always unknown. I sometimes had to wait an hour to take a bus. Besides the bus problem, my first month in Paris was confusing. I had to learn patience. Koreans are accustomed to speed, so it was frustrating adjusting to the relaxed and slow life pace of the French. For example, various administrative procedures still required the use of a pencil and pen. I had to write a letter and mail it to the school. It sounds absurd that such things still occur in the 21st century. I also viewed such policies as Neanderthal, but now I somehow miss those tasks. I also faced a lot of racial discrimination during the exchange program. Some people even pointed directly at me for several minutes and said strange things to me. However, I think those offensive behaviors made me a much stronger person. The important thing was that I did not become discouraged just because of racism; the opinion of the few, do not represent the whole. Frankly speaking, my entire first week was spent complaining to friends in Korea. However, as time went by, I learned to overlook those tedious things and the importance of "so what?" Rude people after that did not bother me.
Broaden sights with travel
Despite the difficulties, there were many more advantages. One of the biggest advantages of participating in an exchange program is that I could travel to nations nearby France freely. Even though I returned home early due to COVID-19, I was able to travel to five nations: Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, and England. During travels, I interacted with the people there and realized that the world is wider and more diverse than I imagined. This surely helped my perspectives on things grow. Therefore, I recommend traveling during an exchange program as much as possible. For visa students, Paris offers various benefits such as free visits to the Louvre Museum. Prior to traveling, investigate the benefits of having an international student ID card. Also, being familiar with the language of the country before going on an exchange can be helpful. In my case, I had to use a lot of body language because English was not used frequently there, and I wasn't good at French. However, if I had been able to speak French, I think I would have had more confidence.
Because of COVID-19, my life as an exchange student was quite different from what I had previously imagined. While traveling in London with friends, I heard the news that France was going to lock down and close the European border. My friends immediately stopped traveling and returned to their home, but I returned home a month and a half after their departure. As such, I had to stay in quarantine in Paris for a month and a half after my friends leaving. Was staying in quarantine in Paris worth it? Honestly, it was very distressing because I didn't have any family and it wasn't my homeland. However, I endured by enjoying my time out for grocery shopping. In January, though, I couldn't go shopping, so I had to eat out daily. It was expensive, and the food was not very tasty. Therefore, I had to cook food for myself. I found that I am a great cook. The Asian markets were stocked with all kinds of ingredients, so I was able to cook Korean food. This, however, made me put on weight before returning to Korea.
Things that can only be gained from an exchange program
I learned to be independent in Paris. Sometimes, in front of the Eiffel Tower, I pondered my life. I can't say that every moment was good, and there were embarrassing situations and challenges. However, recalling my days there, I know I learned many things. At first, I was nervous about participating in the exchange program during my 7th semester at school. However, if I had not gone, I know I would have regretted it forever. In order to have the best experience, I recommend doing and seeing lots of things. Also, I would like to suggest joining an exchange program even if you do not have all the qualifications. The actual experience of being an exchange student itself is a great opportunity to improve your life. My exchange student life ended much earlier than I would have liked, but nevertheless, I learned a lot from it. Thanks to the experience, I'm now preparing to find a job at a foreign company. As I mentioned, I am sure I would have regretted not going and I would not have found my direction in life, had I not participated in the exchange program.
Try to be an exchange student!
I was a fearful, worried exchange student who started her adventure unhappily rather than full of excitement. It feels like just yesterday when I was in Paris. At times it was hard to live in the new environment, but now Paris remains in my heart as my second home. Traveling is good, but I strongly recommend you to experience an extended overseas stay as an exchange student. It will change your perspective.