Why a Student Exchange: Perspective

PostcardLast year, when I told people I was going on a full year exchange to Singapore, I would constantly get back the kind of words that people have just waiting to go.  “You’ll have the time of your life,” they would say, or “I’m so jealous, I wish I could do that.”  It was a formula that everyone seemed to know: a surprised look, a trite compliment or two, a little bit of useless advice about train or bus tickets until finally and invariably, the same ridiculous conclusion, “It’ll be a great experience!” It’s a phrase that lends itself quite admirably to any crossroads in life – so well, in fact, because it’s entirely useless.It somehow manages to encompass every eventuality, any possible moment of reflection or discovery, and drown them all in a stale and sterile sea of cement grey. It’s a group of words that don’t actually mean anything. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re probably still in first-year MIT.
It’s going to a great experience, everyone told me. And not just adults either, but even students. People young enough to know better. How was it that such a tumultuous, life-altering decision could be contained so neatly in the listless vacancy of a cookie-cutter response? I wasn’t too upset about the phrase itself, how it was drained of blood or meaning. No, what irritated me was that I kept hearing these words, word for word, every damn time.At first, I really hated it – and I mean despised, like the kind of hate that you save for people who litter though they’re next to a garbage can, or that guy holding up the express lane because “he thinks he has a nickle.”  But then, before I could stop myself, I started to think about it; it’s the kind of nagging question that follows you to bed and keeps you up all night.  Finally, something dawned on me: nobody really knows what an exchange is good for.

It’s true that most people know what to say about things they’ve never had any experience with or really know anything about–people are generally pretty well versed in things that everybody “knows.”  I know that it always rains in England, for instance, and that French people are weird. That’s just the way it is. As for exchanges, we all know a few things about them. We know they’re fun, that you get to meet all sorts of interesting people, and that we certainly would go on them if it weren’t for all the reasons that we can’t. And we’re sure that if we did, it would make for a great experience. No, we can’t be more specific.

Do you see what I mean? We know reflexively that student exchanges are to be applauded, without any real idea about what it is we’re lauding. Not even Western’s International Student Centre knows why you should go on an exchange. In an email that you’ve probably already deleted by now, there were listed numerous reasons that are presumably supposed to compel students to consider exchanging themselves. Now, there’s nothing I enjoy more than having a go at ridiculous writing, but I’m going to limit myself here to two points. Among others, two of the “advantages of going on exchange” are that you can:

Internationalize your degree
• Develop intercultural competencies

The worst part is that I think they’re being serious.

“Internationalize”? It means “to make international,” which is pretty much unavoidable if you’re inter-nations.  Most of us would have figured that one out. As to the second point, I doubt if they’ll ensnare many imaginations with their spectacular promise of “competence.”
As we get older we’re more susceptible to wisdom, which is really just a bunch of things that we know better than to do. It’s regrettable, and it’s basically incurable, but it’s just life. The folly of age is instructing youth, while the folly of youth is listening to them.

What it amounts to thus far is that nobody seems to know what is the point of an exchange. Most people I talked to weren’t helpful, the International Student Centre doesn’t really get it, and now you’re probably confused too. Everyone’s encouraging, sure, they’ll all tell you that it’s a cool thing to do, but nobody can tell you why.

So here’s what I have for you; this is the point to which I have been building. Perspective. That’s what it’s all about. It may not sound like much, but perspective makes all the difference. It’s the reason to tear yourself from the fabric of your life for a destination strange and unknown, the reason it’s right to make such a seismic decision on nothing more than a vague supposition that, somehow, this is good.

Skeptical? Of course you are, you’re in MIT. Let me explain.

As MIT students, we should already have some idea of how crucial perspective is. Take Facebook for example. From one perspective, it is an invaluable resource for connecting friends.  From another, Facebook isolates us and cheapens human relationships.

Do you blog?  Do you refuse to blog?
Do you buy Apple products?
Will the revolutions in the Middle East result in lasting change?
Is Stephen Harper a tyrant, or an able politician doing his job? Is he both?
All of these depend on your perspective.

Marshall McLuhan: he changed the world with his perspectives.  He was right in ways that

Marshall Mcluhan knew all about the importance of perspective.

no one could have anticipated, not even himself. Ray Kurzweil believes we should surgically enhance ourselves with technology and become cyborgs. Donna Haraway believes in a metaphorical cyborg that removes prejudices by blurring boundaries. They have totally incompatible viewpoints, and they’re each famous for them. So was Steve Jobs. His unique perspectives on design and usability shaped a generation: ours.

A perspective is a viewpoint, and how we see the world depends from where we’re looking.  Taken together, our perspectives are how we understand the world, and how we understand the world – well, that’s everything. We each see the world from a certain lens and try to live accordingly. Each of us has a unique vantage point from which we snag small parcels of sense from an indefatigable life, to stitch into something intelligible – maybe even reassuring. Of course, we barely have any idea that this happens, but it’s true. We are what we know, we know based on what we see, and what we see depends on where we’re standing.

A student exchange is an exercise in perspective. Indeed, it is nothing else. It is a chance to observe something radically similar, somewhere entirely different. It’s an opportunity to see things differently: to see how the life you live looks from the outside, and how something outside of what you know looks from within.

Your ideas will change, but not only that: they’ll evolve. And so will you. Some things are the same, others are barely recognizable – and it’s neither good or bad, it’s just different. You’ll begin to wonder about things that you never even knew were questions. You’ll find new ways to think about old problems; you’ll see how stereotypes are born and perhaps even be one yourself. The things you learn on an exchange are directly applicable to the real world because they are the real world. They are a real world, I should say.

To go on an exchange is to live a fragment of life under different conditions; to come to different conclusions, or at least to learn that different conclusions exist. Transplanting yourself once in a while is good for you–the motion keeps you from stagnating. It’s fun, sure, but it’s so much more than that: it’s healthy. It is necessary, even. And it is, above all, a great experience.

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