Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Central Wisconsin, *Maurice, from Switzerland

Where did you study abroad?
I went to high school in Central Wisconsin.

For how long? (and why did you choose that length?) 
I was there for 1 year, in 2003/2004, and at the age of 15 respectively 16 years old. I chose that length because you really need to spend at least 1 year to really learn a language and culture of any place. Even 1 year is quite short compared to the vast amount of experiences to be done in a different culture and language.

Which program? 
I was a foreign exchange student and went there with an organization called "EF". Even though my program was called "foreign exchange student program", there wasn't actually an exchange happening: My family in Switzerland did not have an American student in return. I went to High School, my level was "Junior" (even though I think I should have been a "Sophomore" according to my age).

Pre-departure preparations 
Applying to a foreign exchange program with "EF" requires you to do most of the preparations; if not, you won't be accepted to the program. This involves things like being interviewed by experienced people to find out if you can handle 1 year away from home, writing essays about yourself, language tests, reading articles/books etc. What I did for myself specifically was I bought a book about American culture and tried to implement some of those lifestyles at home in Switzerland so I wouldn't have to worry about that once I arrived there. In hindsight, you can't prepare much, though. The most important factor is that you can just let go of all of your expectations and opinions. You have to be ready to let go of what you believe in for that time being (without betraying yourself of course). As a foreigner you are expected to adapt and you can't change a whole community's mind just because you think they're wrong. You really have to learn to accept without judging, that's the key.

Any culture shock? excitement? nervous? 

On my very first day I had a huge culture shock. I arrived at my host family's house and only then I realized I'll be here for 1 year. I wanted to fly home that very second. Not because it was a bad house or anything, not at all. But just that feeling of being "gone" struck me real hard that day. I went to bed pretty early and the next day the feeling was gone. After that I didn't have any kind of culture shock anymore. Every day was more exciting because everything was so new. I would repeat this year without hesitating. And yes, of course I was nervous about many things. For example my first day at practice (football, wrestling and baseball). Those were very nervous days for me. I didn't know what the coaches expected and what the other players' would think about a Swiss guy trying out for their sports teams. And then the games and tournaments, the first game I was very nervous, too. Since I, as a foreigner, got the chance to play on the field, I felt like I have a huge responsibility to not let my team and school down. But it was only the first couple times, I felt very welcomed and didn't have any problems after that.

Best part 
Anything that had to do with High School sports was the best part. Practice, the games, the team spirit, school spirit - everything. Joining the teams was the best decision I have made. Thanks to being in the teams, I didn't have any problems finding friends and meeting people. Before even classes started, I already had somewhat of a social circle and didn't feel left behind at all, even though nobody really knew me back then. Anyone doing a "study abroad program" should absolutely join some kind of team or club. It's going to make his/her life much easier. And I think local people like it when you get active in clubs/teams and then it's easier for them to connect with you and accept you (this is just my own hypothesis of course).

Any difficulties? (cultural, language, etc) 

When you live somewhere for 1 year, you will have stressful and emotional situation, where there is not much time to look up words and think a lot about your answers. In some of those times, I wasn't able to express myself very clearly and it lead to misunderstandings. It didn't cause major damage but it would have been nice to stop the time in those situations and look up the culturally correct answers. But as I said, this wasn't an issue in most situations. Only when it got stressful or emotional - when you don't have a clear mind or much time to think about how you want to express yourself - my lack of language and culture skills were an issue and I then couldn't express myself the way I wanted. It's part of the experience and quite a challenge, because you still have to work on your social skills like you would at home. I wouldn't worry about it too much, though, it's normal and everyone who has to deal with foreign students knows about this. Just make an effort and be ready to apologize, because in the end, it's your fault you don't understand their language and/or culture - and not the opposite.

What you learned? 
I learned everything! I still feed upon what I have learned during my foreign exchange year today, every day. It ranges from school knowledge (math, speaking, English, writing etc.) to social skills (arguing, meeting new people, making friends etc.) - and everything in between. I also learned a lot about myself during that time, that is still very valuable today.

Any advice you’d give to a prospective study abroad student? All of my advice I have included in my answers above. To sum up: 1) Keep an open mind 2) Accept what you don't understand at first anyways 3) Don't feel guilty if you can't express yourself the way you wanted 4) Enjoy every day, you'll look back to it during the rest of your life 5) And join some sort of team/club that you find interesting and be active

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