Travelling broadens one’s horizons. Oftentimes, however, when one goes abroad the trip will only last for a couple of weeks, barely scratching the cultural surface. A fun trip, to be sure, but is over before you realize it.
Once again it’s good to be a student! As a student you have a very unique chance to see places tourists most of the time do not get to see: student exchange programmes and international work placements. This is a story of one such experience.
It’s spring 2012. I was a third year environmental engineering student in Lahti University of Applied Sciences. The UAS was a part of an international local government cooperation programme, due to which each year, few students were sent to the country of Ghana, municipality of Ho, for a three-month work placement period. Each group of students would carry on the project work that had been done so far. The aim for these three months would be to improve general waste management in the municipality, put into service dry toilets built for local schools and to implement a set of pit composting tests for organic waste produced in some of the local communities. For these three months the five of us would live in Ho, a township of approximately 100 000 citizens.
Why go that far?
Previous-year students introduced us to their experiences: photos, memories, the plethora of things they encountered. Between the lines you could read the actual point of this introduction: not only would this contribute to that valuable work experience we needed in any case, it would also be an awesome, unforgettable experience, the like of which we might never have again. For me, it was something I needed to see for myself, now that I had the chance.
How did it go?
The major difference between a casual trip abroad and staying abroad for a longer period is the way you get past the culture shock one has to face. What makes it even more essential is the fact that one has to learn to cope with day-to-day life there, work with local colleagues et cetera. As a result, the first week or two were more or less spent in a constant state of bewildered haze, wide-eyed stares and a hint of home sickness. Then you realize you have learned the basics and, in a way, got accustomed to the local life. You get the confidence you need, learn the customs and manage to be street-wise when required (where to shop, the local prices vs. tourist prices and so on). While the local culture never completely ceases to throw a surprise here and there, eventually you find your feet – something that probably won’t happen in a two-week vacation at a beach resort.
So how exactly did you grow as a person?
I have held a lecture in a seminar at a city hall with almost every person of importance from the local government listening, hitchhiked a ride on the back of a pickup truck from the middle of nowhere, had a monkey standing on my shoulder eating a banana, suffered from a crippling diarrhea in the middle of a jungle (hey, it was fun afterwards!) and received an hononary membership of an African tribe. All in all, what I got was the most fascinating and memorable experience of my life so far – one I would not trade for anything.
As for the work experience part, after 2012, in almost every job interview I have been to, I have been asked to tell more about this particular time. ”International work experience” tells everything I need to say about my language and negotiation skills, and how I manage to work with different kinds of stakeholder groups for example.
Dear student! Your home is not going anywhere. The chance to go to student exchange or to an international work placement is given to you right now. Now – not ”after graduation” or ”after retirement”, and definitely not ”at some point, if I have time/company/[insert a reason here]”. Have a glance at what your international studies’ office has to offer – you will not regret it.
If you are already on an exchange (since you are reading this blog entry in English), at least do not pass the chance to weigh in with your own experiences, and if someone you know is in doubt, be sure to reassure that someone.