EXCHANGE student programmes have become quite popular for young Malaysians looking for life challenges and inter-cultural experiences. This year, American Field Service Malaysia (AFS MAS) sent 34 students (including me) on such exchange programmes in various countries.

In the last five months I’ve been on this programme in Germany, I can confidently say almost every one of us faced different challenges, be it making new friends in school, building a warm and open relationship with our host families, struggling to overcome the language barriers or familiarising ourselves with a whole new environment and culture.

I had the chance to catch up with some of my fellow Malaysian exchange students in Europe recently, and we had a great time sharing our experiences so far, and also the challenges we’ve faced.

School, for example, has been a bumpy ride for Lee Chen from Kuantan, who is now in Germany.

“I find it quite difficult to mix with the other students in school, especially my classmates who always seem preoccupied,” says Chen.

It’s not Chen’s first time on a programme of this sort. He participated in the Intensive Program to Australia in 2010, and chose to participate again because he felt he learnt a lot from that experience.

This time, he hopes his current situation will help him learn to be more sociable: “It is a struggle but I have been trying to speak up more.”

Some of us are fortunate to have super-friendly, warm and accepting host families, while others are just not as lucky.

Chong Shu Jie, an exchange student from Johor who’s currently in Switzerland, said she felt very unhappy living with her first host family.

“I had a very difficult time as my hosts did not seem interested in understanding my culture, or any of our cultural differences,” said Chong, who is now with a new host family, and hoping that things will turn out better this time around.

On top of the cultural differences, those of us who chose a country where English is not the native language also have to deal with the communication barrier.

It was a real challenge for me since I knew very little German. In the small town I come from, there weren’t any language schools offering German, so I arrived in Germany only with a few basic words I picked up off the Internet.

Fortunately, most of us are coping well with our language problems. That’s one of the best parts of being an exchange student – being forced to pick up a new language.

“One of the main reasons I participated in this programme is to learn a new language,” said Loke Cheng Mun from Selangor, currently in Switzerland. Loke hoeps to speak fluent German by the end of the programme..

Apart from these external challenges, we also learn and discover more about ourselves during these exchange programmes.

Being left all alone in a foreign environment, you have no one else to depend on, and you are forced to make decisions for yourself.

One of the exchange students from the Switzerland group, Lee Jun Khee, has learnt how to manage everything on his own including doing this own laundry, cooking his own meals and doing housework which he doesn’t usually do when he’s back in Malaysia.

“I am glad took the opportunity to attend this programme because all these experiences have made me more mature than before,” said Lee from Sabah.

Of course, student exchange programmes aren’t all just about challenges and difficulties. Sometimes, being a foreign guest in a town can bring about some interesting experiences.

“I was interviewed for a radio programme and was also in the local news,” said Nurul Mariani Maswardi from Selangor. “It is nice, but also embarrassing at times, when strangers you meet in the market shout out to you like, ‘Hey! You’re that girl from Malaysia!’”

Nurul is currently an exchange student in Argentina.

From my personal experience, I think I have become more observant about my surroundings now. I try to understand why things happen and why people react the way they do.

I used to be very envious of others who got nice host families. Everything seemed to go their way, and school would be great for them and all.

But then my brother reminded me: There are no two humans beings in this world who will experience the exact same things.

The things we experience in our lives are always different. What I have learnt to do is not compare what happens in my life with what others go through. There’s no point being envious of others. You just have to be thankful for what you already have.

Clearly, student exchange experiences are not all plain sailing. There are bound to be some ups and downs, but if you look on the bright side, it is only through this roller coaster ride that you can toughen up as young adults, and prepare yourself for the challenges that you’ll face for the rest of your life.

Soon, it will be time for us to pack our bags and head home, bidding farewell to our hosts and the beautiful countries we’ve been living in. But we’ll certainly return to Malaysia completely transformed, and definitely for the better.

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