by Debra Cain, Programs Manager
At career events that we attend each year there are always a vast number of glassy-eyed students wandering aimlessly between the rows of booths looking for answers to their biggest dilemma, “What to do after year twelve?” It appears that they are hoping to literally ‘bump into’ a solution, inspiration or salvation for in fact they have failed to identify the answers from within themselves.
Despite a lack of clarity or passion for what they want for themselves, some of these ‘ambivalent’ students will successfully gain entry to tertiary level courses. It is also likely, given the high levels of ambivalence expressed by some of these students, they will continue to struggle with their choices, their purpose and their ability to succeed, to identify with and to integrate themselves into a particular course of study. We can only conjecture, but it seems logical that these students are at risk of failing to adapt to the academic and social demands of university.
Accepted wisdom dictates that motivation has a significant role to play in a student’s enthusiasm for learning. However, many final year school students and first year university students are incapable of answering the question, “What is worth knowing about and why?”
Students who apply for an exchange program do so with various motivations. What they do not realize beforehand is that student exchange is one of the most challenging and personally rewarding experiences that they could undertake.
In fact, it is common for long-term programs to propel students from indecisive, self-absorbed, socially awkward adolescents into mature, sophisticated, worldly individuals. It appears that student exchange, due to the controlled stressors and supportive environments represents a perfect means of increasing psychological and social maturity levels in adolescents.
Culture shock strips away the beliefs that we have of our sense of being unique individuals. Invariably, we find that we are products of a culture, a montage of cultural stereotypes, definitions and habits. At the same time the limits of stereotypes becomes increasingly obvious and the complexity involved in any human phenomenon becomes increasingly apparent.
Kathryn, a former WEP exchange student, wrote in a personal communiqué after five months, “probably the biggest challenges to date are just accepting some of the cultural differences and getting used to them, Usually I talk about them with my host mum. She’ll give me a logical explanation as to why they do something which helps me understand and be less judgmental.”
Student exchange is “reality living and learning”, without cameras, in supportive, non-competitive environments. It is total immersion learning (emotional and cognitive) whereby students are directly involved in explanations of human differences. Our students become participant observers, hypothesis builders and information synthesizers. They come to see daily actions as recordable events and parts of complex sometimes inexplicable. cultural patterns. They are constantly figuring out options and making decisions about surviving in new and unfamiliar contexts.
Having come to terms with the “I am”, an exchange student can get on with the questions “to what end?” Redefinition of one’s life objectives, opportunities for learning and acquiring new perspectives, better understanding of oneself and stimulation of personal creativity are common outgrowths of this maturity process.
Much of the insight regarding personal development and change is not understood until later in life. It is difficult for the students who do not have the jargon or knowledge of psychological constructs to understand what they experience while living away from home. For example, James, a former WEP student in Germany, wrote, “when I compare what I have seen, done experienced and learnt, to how much I would have gained from a year working in fast food place, as I did in year 11, or even anywhere else, my eyebrows raise and a strange smile comes across my face.
At WEP we ask, what better way is there to prepare students for the social, political and economic realities that individuals experience in culturally diverse and complex human encounters than learning to live in another culture?
Once our exchange students return to Australia it is not a question of whether they will cope during their final years of school, at university or in the workplace, rather it is a question of how high they are prepared to set their goals.