By Anna McKane 

From all the eye-catching posts on social media, to incredible stories shared by alumni about their study abroad programs, one might get an idealistic picture that a foreign exchange is the journey of a lifetime.

It has been rightly quoted that “life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey”. Exchange is truly that, a journey of not only experiencing a new and unique culture, but also of self-discovery. It is also true that challenges, more specifically overcoming challenges, is what makes the journey so rewarding. This is experiential learning, learning by doing. The way an exchange student responds to the new cultural encounters makes all the difference in determining the experience’s value.

As I have learned through experience, cultural differences make the most rewarding of all challenges. Some differences can be easily observed – they are akin to being on the tip of the cultural iceberg; for example, an auto driver trying to double the price of my ride just because I look like a foreigner and do not quite fit the bill of being ‘Indian.’   Other differences are more difficult to grasp – they are analogous to the part of the iceberg that is hidden by deep waters; such as the collective nature of Indian relationships and family.

Cross-cultural challenge itself is not as important as the way one responds to it. From day one of my exchange, I have learned that the most effective way to deal with these challenges is to work with the people around you. It is a very humbling experience to realize how much is out there to learn.  That is the true benefit of being on exchange. You are immersed in a culture, surrounded by its people, 24/7. Nothing could be more exciting (and yet intimidating) as that.

Bonding with and sharing experiences with my host families has been among the most fruitful parts of my exchange. Being with so many people has shown me the diversity of the sub-cultures within the broader Indian culture. Each family has their own customs, daily routines and traditions.  Having the opportunity to embrace these different families has proven to me that the most vital tool for exchange is to keep an open mind, be flexible and be ready to push the limits. When I look back at the things I’ve accomplished during these last 6 months, I am in disbelief and in awe of everything that turned out possible for me to accomplish. Frankly, I would not have attempted any of those things back in my home country – whether it was learning Hindi, attempting Taek-won-do, practicing yoga, learning and performing a traditional Indian dance, making a presentation on stage, representing a country in a Model United Nations simulation, or simply pushing myself to interact with more people.  I found that deep inside I am a lot stronger and a lot more open-minded that I thought I was!

The impact of my exchange is not measured in units, but rather in the numbers of lives touched. Add in the innumerable chachas, chachis, mamas, mamis, nanas, nanis, and many more relatives, and the number grows quite a lot. I attend a school with thousands of children, and I have lost count of how many times I have been greeted in the halls with a bright and cheerful “hello Anna didi!” You see, the number of lives impacted grows exponentially, getting larger and larger by the day.

Through my interactions, I hope to have shown others how important it is to stay curious, to see the world with an open mind. I hope that through making little Santa decorations and labeling my crude doodles of Christmas trees on the chalkboard, that my young Amitasha girls can look past our language and cultural differences, and gain a new perspective because the amount they have taught me is insurmountable.

I have always been told that “you get out of something what you put in.” This exchange has made this statement come to life in ways I never dreamed possible. The impact I have felt from my experience in India is not something easily put into words. It is something I feel every second of every day. I am grateful beyond description for what my daily struggles have taught me.  More than that, I am awestruck to witness the true impact of exchange. The way the eyes of Amitasha students light up when they see I have come to teach on Friday, the way my school friends can so easily laugh along with me, the happiness I see when someone watches me display what I have learned in India and so much more makes me confident in saying that exchange is what you make of it. Everyday is filled with new experiences, new challenges. Turning these challenges into learning experiences for yourself and those around you is what the true vision of exchange really is and I am so fortunate to be a part of it.