Encouragement for your first months on exchange

Most exchange students find the first and second months on exchange to be the toughest ones. This can be the period when:

  • Their homesickness is at its worst
  • They are having the most difficulties with language
  • They are suffering from culture shock
  • They most feel like giving up and going home

These feelings usually pass in time. Still, your first two months on exchange might really test your toughness and mental fortitude.


London (Herry Lawford/Flickr)

Recently, I went looking online for the Winston Churchill speech containing his famous “never give in – never, never, never” quote.

Churchill gave the speech in 1942 as an address to students at his old school. When I found it, the part which caught my eye wasn’t that famous quote. It was another part of the speech, where Churchill discussed a proposed amendment to the school’s traditional song. The amendment would have added a reference to the “darker days” of World War 2. Churchill said:

Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.

Churchill was correct. Greatness – true greatness – doesn’t occur when things are easy. Greatness always comes from people rising to a challenge and overcoming great odds to succeed.

Metallica frontman James Hetfield’s greatest hour wasn’t in 1991, when he was the already rich and famous musician who wrote the seminal riff for “Enter Sandman”. Hetfield’s greatest moment happened ten years earlier, when he was an orphaned nineteen-year-old working at a sticker factory in Los Angeles and sitting in his truck during lunch breaks writing songs.

Jon Hamm’s greatest hour didn’t occur on the set of Mad Men. It took place during the many years in which he waited tables in LA, toiling to keep his head above water while he worked on his dream of being a Hollywood actor.

LeBron James’ greatest moment didn’t happen during any of his three NBA championship seasons. It occurred when he was in high school, training hard to reach the NBA despite his upbringing as the son of a teen mother and absentee father.

Your own moment of greatness

(Alan Wu/Flickr)

Your own moment of greatness won’t come at the end of your exchange, when you’ve got everything sorted out and under control. Your moment of greatness is happening right now.

Getting out of bed every day and going to your new school is heroic.

Hitting the books hard and rote-learning vocabulary and grammar to the point of exhaustion is one of the hardest mental challenges for anyone.

Persevering despite the hardships and occasional embarrassments you encounter as a newly arrived exchange student is incredibly courageous.

Slowly, your own strength and perseverance will enable you to climb the mountain which is in front of you. There will be some days when you feel like you’re moving backwards or sideways instead of progressing. But as long as you keep working hard and maintain a good attitude, you will keep on moving forward. Things will get a little easier every day.

There may be times when you feel weak, or embarrassed, or overwhelmed. All of those feelings are totally normal for an exchange student. They are unpleasant and can be difficult to deal with. However, you can deal with these feelings, and succeed in spite of them.

Don’t forget that there are many people around you who want you to succeed. Although your success ultimately depends upon your own courage and effort, your host family and exchange organisation will help you in any way they can.

At the end of your exchange, and for many years into the future, you are going to look back on this time. You’ll marvel at the grit you showed and the strength you were able to find within yourself. When times are tough – for example, at work or in a relationship – you can remind yourself of this time. You’ll know that the strength you showed as an exchange student can also get you through virtually any other challenge in life.


(Ryan Treadwell/Flickr)

In another famous speech, President Theodore Roosevelt said:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

As an exchange student, you are well and truly “in the arena” every day. Keep on working and doing your best, and the triumph of high achievement which Roosevelt talks about will be yours.

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