Are student exchanges worth the trouble? Who benefits?

Student exchanges are at the core of our profession as international educators and benefit everyone. If we really wish to build Europe as a living entity, today’s Erasmus students will be tomorrow’s leaders. Students everywhere are our future citizens; their values, their world outlook, their way of life are influenced by experiences they’ve had during their formative years, with exchanges being one of the most eye-opening.  And the sooner they go abroad, the better – ideally having their first experience at age 19 to 20 as undergraduates. At this age they’re still completely free of family responsibilities, they’re curious and open to others, willing to try out new food and customs and accept cultural differences.

Learning in a different academic setting, working in a different business environment (if they’re on a work placement), speaking a different language (not only English but the language of the host country) will make them more culturally aware at an age when they’re still easily influenced. The older you are, the more set you become in your ways (that’s why I firmly believe waiting till postgraduate studies is too late). This experience will mark students for life, making them more tolerant and understanding of cultural differences. Not everyone can go abroad, so the presence of exchange students on campus allows the homebodies to be exposed to people from different cultures by interacting with them in the classroom.

Some students may decide to settle in their host country (mixed marriages, job offers), some will develop a taste for travel and continue their studies or professional life abroad, but most will return to their home country. Yet they’ll always have a special link with their exchange country and will be instrumental as professionals in building and maintaining relationships between the two. They’ll act as go-betweens, being familiar with the language and mindset of their special partner.

Thus taking the trouble to help exchange students is a long term investment for us all. Of course, they entail more work than home students, at times their needs and demands may exceed professional limits (who hasn’t comforted a homesick youngster or helped out in a medical crisis?), but this interaction with young people from all over the world is incredibly rewarding and keeps us young, at least in spirit!

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9 Responses to Are student exchanges worth the trouble? Who benefits?

  1. Karel Reus says:

    Are there any facts and figures that can be brought to bear on this topic? Can we measure the effectiveness of student mobility? There is a lot of anecdotal material around. We all know students who report that studying abroad has been a life-changing experience, but then going for a holiday the Thailand could also give you that feeling.

    • Nana says:

      Going to Thailand or another country is completely different. A vacation can be stressful, but normally it is ment for relaxing purposes.
      Studying abroad is a big change in life. Students have to be well pepared. Often they are taught in a different language, meet completely different students. Are they welcome at their friends’homes? Are they discriminated. Do they understand the lectures, especially when jokes are told in between?
      If they are used to listen or to say yes, it could be strange that students tell the truth in classes. Does religion or political issues brought up in the university be a handicap? Should they accept a lot, keep silent or come out for their ideas?
      On vacation you are free and can say what you want more or less if you visit a democratic country. About figures. I think OECD will have them. In terms of effectiveness more information is needed what should be measured re effectiveness.

  2. Myrna Magnan says:

    I don’t know whether we can measure the effectiveness of mobility but doing a study on what kind of jobs students get after mobility, compared to “non-mobile” peers with equivalent degrees would be extremely interesting. What is the impact of soft skills (cross-cultural communication is such a skill) on employability? Anyone looking for a masters thesis topic in international education?

  3. karel says:

    One thing that always worried me when I was in charge of exchanges at my university was our lack of ability to pick up on student experience after exchange. I noticed that students mostly came back with a feeling that their own country is a bit strange – almost literally foreign to them. This, I concluded, is a real advantage of exchange; making the familiar seem unfamiliar. The feeling did not seem to last long; a few months at most. But here was an opportunity that we invariably did not take. We missed the opportunity to work through this new and fleeting student attitude with them. We were always too busy. A great educational opportunity was lost.

    • Nana says:

      I agree and here you see that contacts with alumni is very important. The universities must stay in touch with them and ask the relevant questions just after studies and during their careers.

  4. An international student says:

    “Making the familiar unfamiliar.”
    Karel, I think you’ve touched on a key point of exchanges. Whether or not this is an advantage is something I have been trying to figure out for many years…
    I have been an international student since the age of 10. Even when I returned to Canada (my birth country) to study, I was treated as an exchange student because my secondary schooling was international. Ironic really, seeing as I went to Canada in part to explore whether I was Canadian or not. According to my university, I was, but I wasn’t.

    I am a firm believer that student exchanges stimulate a growth of character that may be lost on non-mobile students. The challenges that come with the privilege of studying abroad differ from person to person, but I personally learned immeasurable amounts from engaging with another culture and other exchange students. I would almost argue that the interpersonal skills that I acquired were more valuable to me than the credits gained.

    You raised the point that a holiday to Thailand could be equally life changing. I would have to say yes, and in the words of the Thai, “same same but different.” What better classroom is there than the world itself? Backpacking will take you to a whole new level of engaging with new cultures but the traveller often has a different goal. At least when taking part in a study-abroad programme, the structure is educational and you have a set purpose: to learn and pass your courses. Perhaps students don’t realise it at the time, but this in itself is a responsibility that they have and one that offers comfort.

    Student exchanges are certainly worth the trouble!

  5. karel says:

    One of the things that struck me when I was handling student exchanges was the reports I got from returning students telling that people really did not seem all that interested. The students had experienced something life-changing, but they seem to have been met with a general “Ho Hum”. As for getting people to look at their photos taken while away, people seemed to want to do anything but. So, excitement to be back with family and friends, was tempered by disappointment as well. I wonder if this is a fact of life, or if there is something that can be done to help students to have their experiences taken seriously.

  6. karel says:

    Another thing we come across often in the exchange field is the issue of relationships. Some students don’t want to go away because their boy or girl friend may not wait for them to return. And then there is the problem of relationships established while away. What should be done about them? I noticed something that I began to call “separation behaviour”. Some students seemed to develop conflicts with their foreign friend not long before leaving. It seemed as if an excuse was needed for breaking the relationship. Has anyone else noticed this? Is there any advice we can offer about relationships new and old?

  7. karel says:

    A colleague and I were recently discussing exchanges. It is a subject close to my heart. She pointed out that we put so much stress on the benefits for the students (which is true), but we often fail to mention the benefit for the institution and even the nation. Of course, institutions benefit from showcasing their best students. The benefit is incalculable. And nations too benefit, through enhanced understanding across borders and cultures. Each exchange student is most certainly involved in an act of diplomacy. It is a wonderful thing. We invest in our students with time, money and faith in their future. This is one way they pay us back.

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