By Gabrielle Fitzgerald, Bachelor of Psychology (Honours)
One thing I always wanted to do during my time at university was an international exchange. My first year may have been almost entirely online, but from an exchange, I would get my shot at the quintessential Hollywood movie 'university experience' (whatever that means….). I applied a couple of times, with varying factors that meant I could not do a whole year or half-year exchange. By the time I got to my third year of study, I was told I would not be able to do any of my units overseas because I had to complete credited units of psychology study. I was devastated hearing this news, thinking that would be another pre-COVID opportunity I would never experience, until I got a GLP email advertising Macquarie’s Mid-Semester Exchange programs. I immediately applied for the first program I saw, Seoul National University’s 'International Summer Program'. This program only lasted one month, and I could use my last remaining elective unit to participate. I waited eagerly until I was finally accepted. I would get to experience studying abroad! I would get to go on exchange!
While the exchange was only a bit longer than a month, I have to say it was one of the best experiences of my life for so many different reasons. Firstly, I got to travel to a foreign country and not just be a tourist, but get a deeper, richer understanding of South Korea’s culture, history, and politics. The course I took was titled ‘Human Rights in East Asia', and each lesson broadened my knowledge about Korea’s politics and outlook on human rights and political issues. Even beyond the classroom, it was amazing to just observe the differences between Australia and South Korea and the different societal and cultural norms. Being in South Korea, also meant there was an interesting edge of the country's relations with North Korea, getting missile warning texts and needing to know my closest air-raid shelters were experiences I had never had before in my life.
Beyond the politics, however, I also met some of the most amazing and interesting people I have ever met, perhaps people I would never have been able to meet if not for this exchange program. Even other Australian exchange students that I will be able to continue to meet while back home. Meeting so many people with such diverse backgrounds and life stories feels like a pretty exchange-specific benefit to my trip. The trip was made all the better when I was exploring the new country with my new friends.
Seoul, in itself, was also such a gorgeous city. There is no shortage of beautiful sights and interesting things to do. I specifically chose a place that would challenge me as I don’t speak Korean and the culture is quite different between Korea and Australia. On my first night after arriving, I felt scared and lonely. After finally getting to my accommodation thanks to Google Translate and body language to communicate, I was left feeling exhausted and afraid of how I was going to get through the next month in this foreign country. However, I didn’t know that I was about to meet the most wonderful and open-hearted people I had ever met, and not once did I feel lonely again after my first day. The interesting thing about exchange is also quite a simple thing: you’re not alone! While South Korea itself isn’t very diverse, being on an international exchange means that you are constantly meeting people from all over the world who are (usually) in the same boat as you: In a new country, not knowing anyone and ready to explore!
I’ll leave this blog post with one message: you have to take the opportunity to go on an exchange if you can. Beyond being an enriching learning experience with the classes you take, exchanges challenge you both socially and culturally in the best possible way. Cultural immersion, personal growth, and lifelong friendships are just some of the benefits of exchange, and yes while occasionally missing family and friends back home can be painful, these cons definitely don't outweigh the pros of experiencing something as life-changing as studying abroad.
If you're interested in exchange, find out more here.