Exchange Lessons: Learning to Venture Out of My Comfort Zone

By Tan Jun Wei, SMU School of Economics

When I first signed up for the international student exchange programme, I thought of it merely as another opportunity for global exposure. However, my perspectives about the exchange programme have been altered drastically by various experiences during my exchange trip to the United States (US). In retrospect, I am very glad I made the decision to spend a semester at the University of Pennsylvania because it turned out to be so much more than I expected. Here are three defining aspects of my exchange journey.


1. Learning to be independent

To be honest, things did not get off to a very good start. While learning to be independent was part of the reason for me embarking on the exchange programme, I had trouble adjusting to the new environment. In the few weeks leading up to it, I was extremely busy with internship commitments. It was only when I first arrived in my apartment in the US that I realised how far away I was going to be from home for the next few months. Sure, I’ve had the experience of being away from home for long periods during National Service, but Pulau Tekong was just a ferry ride away. Philadelphia and Singapore, on the other hand, are more than 10,000 kilometres and 12 hours apart!

Making weekly trips to the grocery shop, purchasing furniture from Amazon, and surviving on a staple of microwave dinners served as constant reminders of how much I have taken for granted in Singapore. I would be lying if I said that I did not miss home. But I am also thankful for this experience because it has helped me grow as an individual. I think I am now more appreciative of my family, my friends, and the comfort of home (Singapore).


2. Doing things differently 

University of Pennsylvania - Joining a case competition

Last minute decision to join a case competition with three other exchange students

While hectic, my three years at SMU were somewhat routine. Unbeknownst to me, I had allowed myself to turn into a person who is contented with staying in my comfort zone. Living in a fresh new environment helped me rediscover the joy in trying out new things, meeting new people, and taking on new challenges.

While I used to be someone who prefers to have everything planned out, I found myself packing my bags and leaving for a weekend trip to another city, on the very same day I had decided to go for it. While I used to be someone who detested “Art and Craft” classes in primary school, I found myself spending hours in art museums marvelling at the works of contemporary artists. While I used to be someone who was very reserved, I found myself starting conversations with almost every person I shared a ski lift with at Yosemite National Park.

Although the initial adjustment period hasn’t been easy, I think my exchange experience has made me become a more open-minded, outgoing, and spontaneous person.


3. Seeing the world 

US Exchange - View at San Francisco

Marvelous view at San Francisco

Had I not taken the time to travel to different parts of the East and West coast, I would have thought the US to be a relatively homogenous country. During my trips, I learnt to appreciate the differences in culture, lifestyle, food, and history of the various cities and states. On long drives between cities, my friends and I would ponder about how living in the US would be like. I think this invited us to raise questions about things that we have grown so accustomed to, and helped us gain new perspectives about Singapore.

US Exchange - View of Niagara Falls

View of the Niagara Falls from the Skylon Tower

Of all the places I have visited, I liked Niagara Falls the most. I remember being captivated by its beauty and how it felt as if time had stood still at that moment. The Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park offered similar, breathtaking experiences. They made me realise how incredibly vast and amazing our planet can be. Likewise, they reminded me of how much more of the world I have yet to see.