Realness of being ‘the foreign exchange student’

An in-depth look from exchange student Laura Bitondi’s point of view


Laura Bitondi, Journalist

   When the bread tastes fresh, but it is not the same; when friends are compassionate, but it is not the same and when I am living in my new home, but it is not nearly the same. This is what moving 4,000 miles far away from loved ones, and day-to-day things feel like; the realness of being an exchange student.

   Meeting new people and having a great time in an American high school at the very young age of 16 is a unique experience. But if I am honest, my experience differs so much from the expectations I had. Moving to the U.S. for a year gets extremely idealized on social media platforms, and those images create a wrong idea of what it is actually like.

For that reason, people often have a specific image in their head when you tell them that you are from a foreign country. They are most likely to only see you as “the foreign exchange student” and believe that we do not need to take everyday aspects like school seriously. I catch myself becoming frustrated over being stamped as the “foreign student” because it is so difficult sometimes to try and fit into this new social community.

   Creating awareness of the difficulties that exchange students face has become really important for me personally. Distinctly when I experienced my first extreme feeling of homesickness during the holidays. I would have never thought that I would ever be grateful for winter break to be over, but this year it pulled me out of a deep inner sense of being alone.

Laura Bitondi (Photo by: Julia Josling)

   What does being alone actually mean? The average person will be by themselves now and then, but I believed that homesickness does not differentiate from feeling alone, but it really does. The six-hour time difference to Germany has a huge impact on this situation. There is no mom, who can give you a hug whenever you need it, or a dad who tells you that they are proud of you. This is the reality of truly being with only you, yourself and your thoughts. 

   I came across multiple situations where I met other exchange students who shared this exact feeling. 

   “Coping with homesickness is the hardest part,” says senior German exchange student Malte Werblow.

   My personal coping mechanism is still difficult to figure out, but luckily I made friends with the greatest and most caring group of Northwest students. Hanging out with my friends and basically not being alone helps extraordinarily. Being by yourself in those situations is comparable to a loophole. On the one hand, you feel so sad and hopeless that you do not want to socialize. But on the other hand, being around peers and socializing keeps you from being sad. It is an inner conflict.

   Giving students at Northwest this perspective is important. Combining the two sides of what happens behind the scenes emerges an individual point of view of exchange students and what it actually means to start a new chapter on the other side of the ocean.