Kansas local, a vast working knowledge of how Emporia State University works, an established group of friends, a bubble of comfort. Strolling through campus saying hi to those I recognize, pleasantly in my cultural comfort zone. I know where I’m going, I know what I’m doing.
At least enough to pretend like I do. Suddenly; who do I intersect with?
The Exchange Student.
Exotic. Mysterious. Holy.
Two of them actually, arm in arm, speaking in either a language or accent unaccustomed to my ears. They seem…unapproachable. Again, set apart. From a different land. They’ve got each other, both of them vastly more interesting than myself. How could I go talk with them? How could I ever make friends with them? What would they want to do with me?
I remember thinking these things before going abroad to become the Exchange Student myself in Graz, Austria for the 2016/17 school year.
There I realized, very quickly:
Yeah, this doesn’t feel exotic, mysterious or holy. It kind of just feels like I’m….inevitably lost, late, and behind in the game.
I went over to Austria a month early in September to take an Intenstive German course. Naturally this experience was peppered with other international students: what Austrian local would take a German class?
I would spend 3+ hours a day with other international students, all equally feeling lost, late, and behind as myself and in the market for some friends. In our breaks between course we would have picnics in the Stadtpark. Our conversations would usually be in English as we made up such a wide spectrum of German language ability that to be fully inclusive we would settle with a language almost every European knows to fluency.
I went over to Austria with the desire to be as Austrian as possible for the year. I was going to learn how to speak the dialect if it killed me; I was going to assimilate to the culture; I wouldn’t hang out with Americans of course because I can just do that in America.
But it didn’t work out that way so much.
It definitely took a while before I got to know local Austrians.
Right off the bat I fell in love with the other international students; getting to know about Croatia, Australia, Hungary, Slovakia, France, Italy, Slovenia, Sweden, Finlad, Germany, Bosnia, Alaska…instead of just getting to know Austria.
It was easy to fall in love with the other international students. We were in the same boat, right? Out of our element, desperate for friends, desperate to share horror stories of the Austrian bureaucracy system. We spent much of the first month together struggling through German grammar. We went to the same parties, the same pubs, the same events geared towards welcoming International Students.
The Austrians are really lovely. Really lovely people. But the local Austrians had friends already, had Austrian-German knowledge, had residency permits and flats and favorite pubs and knew how to get around and where would our paths cross?
Eventually through a mutual Hungarian friend I got to know one Austrian really well; who then introduced me to his Austrian buddies; who then accepted me into their open inclusive Austrian arms; who then hung out with me and taught me Austria.
But it took a bit of time.
Now, being back at Emporia State Universtiy, strolling through a campus I am very familiar with, saying hi to friends and buddies that I’ve known for ages, whistling along in my cultural comfort zone…I see Exchange Students again.
And I hear whispers:
They only hang out with each other.
Well, uh, yeah. Of course. It’s the beginning of the year. Many–if not most–of them feel varying degrees of lost, late, and behind in the game. They’ve been introduced to each other, they’ve been given opportunities to bond amongst themselves and you can bet it feels amazing to talk with someone who knows how hard it is to be here as an exchange student.
For myself as an Exchange Student, I never felt like I was in any way better than an Austrian local student. They were always the superior; this was their ballpark. Because of this it was difficult for me to approach them until they approached me. Or at least made it seem like they were willing to have a conversation in the broken German I could muster.
It just took a few of them to open the doors for conversation before I gained the confidence to talk with whomever I wanted.
Peace and Blessings,