Written By Elise Tingvoll

Studying abroad: Exchange vs. Full time studies

Published: March 17, 2017

Many are interested in an international experience, but not everyone is willing to dedicate years to obtain a degree from a university abroad. Luckily, most universities offer an abundance of opportunities to do a semester or a year abroad. How do you choose what fits you best? As I am both a full time student abroad, and also doing an exchange year at the moment (which is my second exchange experience), I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the subject.

  • I always recommend studying abroad full time over doing an exchange semester/year. Why? When you are an exchange student, your experience is different. It is hard to integrate and get the “full experience” when you are only there for one year, and especially if you are only doing a semester. So, equally, I also recommend doing a year, not a semester, if you decide to go on exchange.
  • If your university only offers the opportunity to do a semester abroad, it is still better than nothing, and totally worth it! Doing an exchange is a good way to experience a country or a city that you’ve always wanted to visit. Whereas studying abroad full time is mostly about the academics, an exchange experience allows you to focus more on the cultural and linguistic, as academic expectations are usually lower for exchange students.
  • I had my first exchange experience in high school. I spent a year in Arizona with a host family, and it was an experience that has shaped me greatly. I had an amazing year. However, one of the biggest lessons I took with me was to be better at putting myself “out there”. I recently read an article about how peoples personalities differ when they speak another language. I find this very true in my own case, and when I was in the US I had to get to know this part of myself I didn’t know existed. Communicating and “being yourself” in a language that is not your own is a terrifying, but also an extremely valuable and educational experience.
  • When you decide to go abroad, join sports or associations. Learn a new skill, write for the school newspaper or do an internship. When you’re abroad for a shorter period of time, establishing friendships can be hard. And having friends for many, myself included, is the key to everyday happiness. Make sure you put yourself in a setting where these friendships form naturally, and don’t fall into the trap of only hanging out with the other exchange students (it’s very easy, as the other exchange students constitute a safe zone. Trust me, I did this “mistake” when I was in the US). People are not necessarily going to approach you just because you are “foreign and exotic”, and many are more reluctant to establish deeper connections with you if they know you are going to leave soon. So it’s important to step out of your comfort zone and not be scared to reach out to people, even if the language might be a barrier.

All in all, I am very happy that I have gotten to experience both. I have never regretted doing my whole degree in France, but I am extremely grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to spend a year in Colombia as well. It’s been a nice “break” in the way that academics are not as demanding (what I touched upon earlier). In that sense, I’ve had more time to spend with friends, doing sports and.. relaxing. Taking a full weekend off work at Sciences Po is simply not an option. I’ve also had the time to emerge myself in learning Spanish, and having that as my first priority (this is what I missed in France, as my other classes were prioritized over learning French).

Photo: My football team at Universidad Icesi here in Cali, Colombia. I love my sport, and I love these girls. Being part of the team has made my experience here so much better!


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