Do you have the right personality to be a foreign exchange student?

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This post is directed at anyone who is interested in being a foreign exchange student, but is hesitating because he or she isn’t sure whether she has the right personality type.

He or she may be worried that she isn’t outgoing enough, or smart enough, or good enough at languages, or popular to be an exchange student.

Anyone having such thoughts is making the error of assuming that there is some essential personality trait which exchange students need in order to be successful.

No one skill

For the record, there is no single, all-important personality trait which exchange students have to have.

In fact, being an exchange student is a multi-disciplinary occupation. You need a combination of skills to do well.

An outgoing personality helps, but it is not enough

Exchange Student Personality
Matt Billings/Flickr

Many people would assume that being outgoing is the most important characteristic for an exchange student. After all, exchange students are constantly meeting new people.

I certainly worried about not being outgoing enough before I went on exchange. I was, and always have been, introverted, and worried that not being outgoing would be a big disadvantage.

That turned out not to be the case.

In fact, I met a lot of outgoing people who weren’t very successful as exchange students. One talked far too much, particularly about herself, which got tiring very quickly. Another was immature and was always doing things like cutting class to go and smoke pot.

Although these students had the advantage of being outgoing and extroverted, that advantage was cancelled out by their less positive personality traits.

I wasn’t outgoing, but I still did well. That was because I had enough positive personality traits to cancel out my inherent shyness. That was the case for a number of other exchange students I met, who were less outgoing, but made up for it by being mature, studious, having good judgement, and so on.

Essential foreign exchange student characteristics

Exchange student personality
Andy Atzert/Flickr

You don’t need to be outgoing to succeed as an exchange student. But there are a number of other personality traits that are essential for anyone going on exchange. In no particular order, these are as follows:

Openness

One of the big goals of going on exchange – if not the whole point of going on exchange – is to try new things.

You must be open to changing your lifestyle, habits, diet and pastimes to fit in with your host family and host country.

You must also be prepared to establish new and meaningful relationships – particularly with your host family – which will require you to be honest and open about your feelings.

Hard work

You must be prepared to put in the work to succeed as an exchange student.

Any former exchange student will tell you that it takes effort to make an exchange work.

The main task that most exchange students need to work at is learning a new language. As discussed elsewhere, that is a monumental task and one which takes much time and energy.

Even if you won’t be learning a new language, you’ll need to work hard at building and maintaining new relationships, attending school, being friendly and outgoing even if you don’t always feel like it, overcoming culture shock, and so on.

Persistence

US actor and film director Woody Allen said that 80% of success is simply turning up.

At the start of your exchange, you’ll be a rookie at virtually everything, and will do many things badly. Your language skills may be poor. You’ll have no idea how to get around. Even the local currency may be a struggle. You’ll embarrass yourself in front of your host family, school mates, and random strangers.

All of these things will get better over time. The key is to keep going. You need to have the kind of personality which lets you persist and keep “turning up” in spite of these minor, day-to-day setbacks.

Sense of humour

Exchange students need to have a sense of humour. They need to be able to laugh at themselves and see the funny side of their sometimes-embarrassing attempts to fit in and adapt to their new host countries.

A good sense of humour also helps students to integrate with their host families and school colleagues.

Maturity and acceptance of authority

Foreign exchange students also need to be mature enough to accept the authority of others.

Simply put, there are times when you need to be able to shut your mouth, listen up, and do whatever your host parents, exchange program coordinator, or school teachers are telling you to do.

Anyone who goes on exchange with a “you’re not the boss of me” attitude is wasting his or her time and the time of many others.

Resilience

Doing difficult things is a key part of the exchange student lifestyle.

Nearly every student reaches a point during his or her second or third month of being on exchange where everything seems too difficult. The novelty of being on exchange has worn off. He or she may be experiencing homesickness. The language barrier is still there and is proving frustratingly slow to go away.

One morning, the student wakes up and can’t face the thought of getting on the train to go to school again, and making conversation with his or her classmates again, and spending yet another day trying to understand, and converse in, a foreign language.

He or she simply has to get going and start doing those difficult things for another day, and the day after that, and each day after that for several months. Things do get easier, but there will be times when nothing seems easy and when things in fact seem to be getting harder. You need a resilient, tough personality to endure those times.

Autonomy

Although foreign exchange students have a support network in the form of their host families, exchange programs, schools and fellow exchange students, they also need to be independent.

Particularly at the start of an exchange year, students will have fewer friends and friendly school mates, and will need to be self-reliant until they find their feet.

Tact (not being offensive)

You need to be tactful when you’re spending an extended amount of time in a foreign country.

There are bound to be things about your host country and its population that you find strange, or annoying, or far inferior to the same thing in your home country.

Your host families may also have habits or ways of doing things that you find silly or odd. You need to be tactful enough to accept these things and not make a big deal out of them.

Anyone who goes to, say, New Zealand and spends a lot of time commenting negatively on the New Zealand school system or the New Zealand climate or moaning about New Zealanders themselves is not going to make friends with many people.

You need to accept your host country as it is – an imperfect place with good and bad points, and imperfect people who also have good and bad points – and get on with things, without dwelling on the negatives.

Sobriety

Don’t go on exchange if you are a heavy drinker or into any kind of drugs.

The fact is that narcotics change your personality – usually for the worse. They also can make you careless and prone to acting immaturely.

Both your reputation and your time on exchange will fare better if you are able to limit your consumption of narcotics to a drink or two with your host siblings or close school friends, where you are legally able to.

Even better, you can follow the examples of rock musicians James Hetfield (Metallica) and Ted Nugent – who follow the straight edge  philosophy – for the duration of your exchange, and abstain from cigarettes, drugs and alcohol altogether. In any case, make sure you stay sober and in control at all times.

Work-arounds

Exchange Student Personality
Kecko/Flickr

There are other characteristics and skills which either are not essential for foreign exchange students, or which you can compensate for if you don’t have them:

  • Language aptitude – When it comes to foreign languages, not everyone is blessed with talent for  retaining vocabulary, or pronouncing words. Generally speaking, you can compensate for this weakness by working harder – for example, by rote learning more vocabulary, or by getting a really good handle on grammar (which hardly anyone does well).
  • Academic talent – Foreign exchange students usually have a fair bit of latitude in the subjects they’re allowed to take at their host schools. If you aren’t the world’s best student, you can usually arrange your school timetable to incorporate more of the subjects you’re good at or interested in.
  • Homesickness – Not everyone has a personality which lets them live away from their home and families without getting homesick. It is very difficult to eliminate homesickness altogether. However, there is a trick for living with it: minimise contact with your family and friends at home. Keep your contact with them brief and contained – for example, a one-hour chat with your parents each weekend – and ask them not to message or call you at other times. The more you practise going without your family and friends from home, the better you’ll get at it.
  • Being outgoing – Even if you’re not a naturally outgoing person, you can still make plenty of friends and meet new people by doing two “mechanical” things consistently. The first is spending as much time as possible with other people – at school, with your host family, and by accepting invitations. Try consciously to surround yourself with other people as often as possible. Then, make conversation with those people using the “stack” of getting to know you questions I discussed in my post on giving a good first impression. You’ll come across as an outgoing, natural conversationalist, when in fact all you’ll be doing is going through a practised routine.

If you can think of any other characteristics that foreign exchange students do or don’t need to succeed, please leave a comment below.

Good luck,

Matt

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