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An Italian in Philly: the challenges of being an exchange student

I’m writing this article as I’m sitting on the bus, admiring once again the skyline of Philadelphia, that will take me to New York for the second time this month. It’s probably not the most usual time to write about the challenges of being an exchange student, yet a part of me feels a bit melancholic in this moment.

Going to study abroad was my dream since I was little. I grew up in a small village in the countryside and I’ve always felt like part of me didn’t belong there, as if I was destined for something entirely different.

During my first year of university I already started experiencing a different reality: more people, more stories and more opportunities. Among the opportunities that were handed to me there was this one: becoming an exchange student.

I knew it was the right time. The pandemic was starting to fade and I already spent a few years in the academic world. I was ready.

Or at least I thought I was.

The first few days were undoubtedly the hardest. No one can prepare you for the sleepless nights where you’ll be thinking about your family and friends.

I’d say homesickness is the challenge that hit me first. Even before boarding the plane I was already thinking about all the time and celebrations I’d lose with my familiy.

I’d like to say that it gets better, but the reality is just that some days it will feel like you’re carrying an incredibly heavy burden and some days it will feel as light as a feather, in both cases the weight is still there.

Tied with the homesick feeling is the loneliness. Not always did things come as easy as I expected. I thought making friends wouldn’t be a problem, there are so many students at Drexel and so many exchange as well, how hard could it be?

Once again, reality doesn’t always match our expectations.

If you are shy and introverted like me you’ll have to really challenge yourself to be the one who makes the first step and takes initiative. Also, don’t let some unpleasant interactions discourage you, some people might not reciprocate your energy and that’s okay, you’ll find people who will.

One last challenge I’d like to address is the cultural shocks. Yes, some of them are funny, some are interesting, but some will really test you. I know one of the hardest things for me was to get used to the amount of homework and assignments I had (and still have) to do every single week. Having to schedule my week to be able to fit everything has been incredibly difficult and I felt like I was about to burn out more than once.

Maybe you’re already used to this type of teaching so it won’t be a problem for you, but there might be other cultural shocks you haven’t prepared for. If that’s the case, my advice is to keep an open mind, embrace the change and try your best to adapt. Remember that this is only a part of your exchange here and what matters is the overall experience.

As I’m reaching New York, I’m also reaching the end of this article. This experience has already taught me so much about who I am and who I want to be and I can’t wait to share with my friends and family back home all the things I’ve learnt and seen.

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