By Sharlene Huang, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business
Just like that, four months of my exchange programme came to an end. It was a experience, and a process of self discovery. The toughest part was leaving when I’d just adapted.
February 2015 was when I left home for one semester of international exchange in Warsaw, Poland at the Warsaw School of Economics aka Szkoła Głowna Handlowa w Warszawie (SGH). SGH has the oldest business school in Poland, and is one of the country’s top universities.
Adapting to life in Warsaw was daunting. My first challenge was definitely communicating with the locals. Poles communicate primarily in Polish, and although many also speak English, it was not always easy to find an English-speaking person on demand. Even in the university’s international student hostel of the university, there was only one administrative manager who could speak English. Simple tasks like asking for directions and buying groceries suddenly became very difficult.
It was only some days after arriving that I learned that many locals were very proud of their own language as a representation of their nationality. This was especially important to them, given that Poles had to speak Russian during the communist period. Over time, I tried to pick up some basic Polish vocabulary as a mark of respect. Strangely enough, people did seem friendlier even if I could only greet them “dzień dobry (good morning)” or “do widzenia (goodbye)”!
Part of going on an international exchange programme is to learn and embrace differences. But if there’s one exception, it would be that racism should not be embraced or tolerated under any circumstances. On one occasion, a fellow student came up to me and shouted “Asian”, accompanied by other offensive comments, right into my face. I barely knew this student and I was honestly quite offended by his actions, yet I told myself to let it go because I was alone in a foreign land. In hindsight, perhaps I should have stood up to him. Despite living in such a globalised world, the reality is that there are still such insular individuals. It was an unpleasant incident but it made me more appreciative of the racial harmony we enjoy in Singapore.
Because I could only attend classes taught in English, most of my classmates were exchange students from other parts of the world. This proved to be a valuable platform for me to learn more about other cultures outside of Poland. One of my projects was about MNCs in different countries. My group chose Singapore, and it was a unique experience for me because I could not take it for granted that my classmates would immediately understand what I was talking about in our group discussions. It was crucial to set the context for them – I felt like I became an unofficial ambassador for Singapore!
Besides the cultural exchange opportunities, going on exchange also allowed me to travel to different parts of the world. One of my most memorable trips was my trip to Iceland, where I saw the northern lights and explored an ice cave. Seven of us went on this trip, and it was great to experience some familiarity among friends while being overseas! Apart from the fun moments, we also encountered a minor traffic accident where our vehicle skidded off the road and crashed into the snow walls formed at the sides of the road. Luckily, we were all unharmed. It was at times like these that you experience friendships in its rawest form – Bryan, who was at the wheel at the time, made sure we all stayed in the car while he braved the gale to check out the situation. The rest of us also helped to make sure everyone was safe, before cracking a joke or two to relieve the tension.
Photo credit: Jacob Ma
Photo credit: Jacob Ma
One of the biggest takeaways about going on exchange is that it really pushed me out of my own comfort zone. Experiencing new things is a part of growing up, isn’t it? For instance, while I was on exchange, there were times when I had to eat alone (which is one thing that I really dislike) – but I learned to embrace that and many other things that are not the norm for me. I’m also glad I picked a place that’s entirely different from Singapore for my exchange programme, because it showed me a lot more than I’ve ever expected. I too, surprised myself with my ability to adapt.
The experience of going on an overseas exchange can be lonely and difficult sometimes, but it can also be as exciting and adventurous as you allow it to be. For those heading off to exchange soon, good luck, and safe adventures! And for those who are still considering an exchange, if you can afford the time and money, go for it – it’ll show you a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view; no one to tell us no or where to go, or say we’re only dreaming (: