Foreign exchange students: Finding themselves far from home

For many, college is the door that opens to a world of opportunities—the stepping stone to widened horizons where one is able to cultivate experiences that compel them to look beyond themselves. Now, more and more academic institutions are offering opportunities to study abroad, and more and more students are choosing to take the leap and enrich their lives by immersing themselves in the new and unfamiliar. 

While international exchange programs entail a separation from the comforts of home, it also means getting the chance to explore the wider world and having an experience of a lifetime.

A journey into the unknown

There are those who say learning should not be confined to the four walls of the classroom, and Temduang Tep-areenan and Gauthier Franque are some of the brave youths who believe in that.

Originally from Thailand, Temduang eagerly shares that it was her curiosity and yearning to explore other countries and their different cultures that led her to participate in exchange programs in Germany and here in the Philippines.

Despite how exciting traveling can be, venturing into unfamiliar territory can give one feelings of unease and isolation, and being away from their families is no easy task, especially when Christmas is around the corner. This was a sacrifice that Gauthier would face when he left France for an exchange program.

But he found a workaround. “They were [really] excited for me, that I have the opportunity to [come] here. And now there [are] new technologies, I think it’s easier to talk to my parents, family, and friends,” he explains, with technology bringing its fair share of conveniences through online calls and messaging bridging the distance between them and their loved ones.

Leaving the comforts of their home country was not easy. Gauthier fared a bit better, as he found company with his 20 companions who also participated in the exchange program. Unlike Gauthier, however, Temduang left Thailand alone and arrived in the Philippines knowing a few acquaintances. Whatever unease they felt initially did not last long, as they both made friends quite easily, eventually finding their footing.

It’s more fun in the Philippines

Filipinos have been known to be outgoing and welcoming of new people, and this idea was echoed by the exchange students. Temduang first found the hospitality quite awkward, but she later warmed up to it. “Even if you don’t know the person, they’ll still greet you, and [they are always willing to help]. Gradually you just think, ‘Oh, this is how people do [it] here,’” she says, recalling her first few weeks here. “They’re friendly, [saying things] like ‘Good morning, ma’am; good morning, sir!’”

Gauthier, meanwhile, remarks that the pleasant hospitality made it very easy for him to make new friends in the Philippines as he claims to have found Filipinos to be more sociable than the French. He further recalls every place he visited, each one having people welcoming him with open arms.

Being almost at the conclusion of their semestral exchange here, both students also managed to find time to travel outside of Manila. Temduang stayed in Cebu for a few days, while Gauthier had taken trips to El Nido in Palawan and visited the Banaue Rice Terraces in Ifugao, one of the country’s famed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. With these small-scale trips, they were able to immerse themselves into the local culture, through creating memorable experiences, tasting different types of mouth-watering food, and enjoying friendly interactions with the locals.

A learning experience like no other

With this being Temduang’s second time participating in an exchange program, there are a number of things she has picked up along the way while far from home. “[While you are on an] exchange, you are quite self-dependent. You have to decide everything on your own, so I think it’s very good practice for the [coming future],” she says.

Gauthier shares the same sentiments, adding, “I think that going [to] another country is a good way to become an adult.  We are not with our parents, we are not with all of our friends, we are not in the same place as usual. We leave our comforts behind and in that way we learn, [and become interested in] a lot of thing. In that way, that way we become adults.” In the end, Temduang concludes that as much as an exchange program is an educational opportunity, it is also a journey of self-discovery. “It’s not only other cultures that you learn [about] when you go on exchange,” she contends. “I think you learn more about yourself, too, because you get to explore other things which you probably wouldn’t [be able to] do in your home country.” Becoming an exchange student may take an individual far from home, but if the experiences of these students are anything to go by, the journey will indeed bring one closer to different contexts, helping one find their own place in the world.

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