It’s been nearly six months since I left the United States and other than a few conversations here or there I haven’t thoroughly reflected on the discoveries I made during my student exchange. You might be wondering “Well why now?” I guess it’s mostly because I’ve returned to university this week and it’s solidified the fact that I am a different person now.
I have been a different person since my return but I didn’t have to deal with that until now. Before returning to Wagga Wagga, the only friends I saw were ones who had also been on exchange, I spent the vast amount of my time on the internet and both of those things contributed to my lack of awareness of my deviation. The one area I did notice a difference was with my mum. I always looked to my mum as an open minded, honest and opinionated woman. My horizons have broadened and now I’ve surpassed her level of tolerance into acceptance. That’s hard to reconcile when I want to have discussions on topics that I feel my mum is very intolerant of.
Now those differences are pointed out to me on a daily basis. Wagga Wagga is the same as it was before I left, the people are the same and I am so different to them, and all I want to do is go back to America where I felt at home.
I found a message I sent to my friend Christine a while back. She had asked if I could tell her what strength meant to me and relate it to my exchange. Reading it to my mum this afternoon brought me to tears. I think by far this shows how much the people, more than the place, changed me and allowed (perhaps even forced) me to grow.
My time at HSU seemed to be nothing but challenge after challenge. Some would have put it down to homesickness, others might have seen that I wasn’t content working towards a degree I was no longer happy studying. I didn’t have the strength to pursue my studies, I felt like my time in America was limited so I focused my efforts elsewhere. I threw myself into my social life and travelling America.
Despite failing half of my classes, I don’t have any regrets. I gained strengths socially and emotionally through friendships that will hopefully last a lifetime. My confidence is at an all time high, because the people I met on exchange believed in me. My personal identity was strengthened by peers who accepted me wholly with all of my faults. Funnily enough, putting my insecurities on show allowed me to accept those parts of myself, as others accepted them, and grew my self-confidence.
I think that while I was at Humboldt I was continually questioning whether I had made the right choice to turn my passion for photography into a career. Sometimes I still struggle with that, but I think reading this again has brought to light a few ideas I’ve had since I wrote it. Firstly, becoming a travel photographer has been my dream, and still is, since I first left the shores of Australia when I was 19. What was different about going to America was that I wanted to have memories of the experience and I wasn’t sure whether having a lens between me and that experience was the best option. This shouldn’t have been a problem, however I usually try and work through persistent questioning through photography, so when you are questioning what you normally use as a vehicle of self discovery it’s kind of difficult. I suppose I turned to writing as my outlet through this blog, but that did little to help my apathy towards my photography subjects.
However, I think there were many reasons why I found the studying part of my exchange the hardest part. The first thing that I noticed was how different the structure of their whole university system is compared to Australia. I much prefer the self learning style of teaching at Charles Sturt University. Even though the actual content in any given subject was probably more holistic at Humboldt, there were too many similarities to high school (which I hated) because of the long hours, over feeding of information and compulsory attendance that actually affected your grade.
I think if I could have stock piled electives to do on exchange it would have taken a lot of stress out of studying because failing an elective wouldn’t have set me back in my degree. Also the options they have in terms of subjects is phenomenal and I would have relished the ability to take classes in Psychology, Gender Studies, Drawing, etc. Taking classes on topics that interested me, even if they didn’t fulfill the requirements of my course, would have added considerable value and interest to the studying part of my life.
My exchange definitely added value to my life, but I perhaps could have achieved that by working abroad. I think that the experience could have added value to my degree and subsequent career, if I had the inclination to explore America with my lens glued to my face but I didn’t. I know that it’ll look good on some peoples resumes but it probably won’t add that much value to mine.
Everyone knows the benefits of an exchange but my experience didn’t live up to all of those expectations. So I wanted to share my reality, and I kind of wish someone would have warned me of the not so amazing sides, perhaps no one else has had those sides but I certainly did. I’m not saying it wasn’t amazing, I’d do it all over again. But, I was super stressed out because I felt like the pressure of doing well was multiplied by the fact that I was representing my country and school, who chose me as a representative and even gave me financial incentives.