Far from home: Pros, cons of studying abroad as a Filipino student

Rainielle Kyle Guison
Far from home: Pros, cons of studying abroad as a Filipino student

EXCHANGE STUDENT. The best part of studying abroad is the people that you still get to keep in your life even after parting ways.

Photo by Rainielle Kyle Guison/Rappler

Was studying abroad and seeing Rome's Colosseum in person worth months of missing my family?

MANILA, Philippines – Traveling around the world is one life goal we can all agree on. However, we also know that this is not something everyone can experience, especially when you’re still a student and not earning money. Thank heavens, student exchange programs exist.

In January 2020, my friend Arvin Radin and I had the chance to participate in an academic exchange program, where we had the experience of a lifetime. Arvin had chosen to travel to Indonesia for 8 months, while I had chosen to travel to Italy for 14 months.

Before leaving the Philippines, Arvin and I were told by a lot of people that our trips would change our lives, and having returned home, we can finally say that they were right. It was a new experience filled with thrills, excitement, and fear.

While strolling along the Italian streets made me feel like a main character in my own coming-of-age film, there were also moments when I missed the Philippines so much. At first glance, it could be all butterflies and rainbows, but like everything else, it has its downsides. So is it really worth it? Here are some pros and cons to studying abroad which might help you decide before you make the big move.

The world is your oyster…but pearls are expensive

ROMAN HOLIDAY. Visiting the Colosseum was one of the things on my bucketlist, and its fascinating architecture did not disappoint. Photo by Rainielle Kyle Guison.

The most highlighted pro of going on an exchange program is the opportunity to visit one or more countries, so the world could really be your oyster. My exchange program in Italy allowed me to see famous landmarks such as the Trevi Fountain, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and of course, the Colosseum. Since Italy is also known for its rich history in art, I was also able to appreciate the majestic paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo, Raphael, and other known Italian artists.

LOOKING UP TO MICHELANGELO. The Creation of Adam is just one of the many paintings by Michelangelo that graces the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel. Photo by Rainielle Kyle Guison.

One country can already offer a lot of tourist destinations, but with an opportunity like this, you should also consider visiting neighboring countries. For example, Italy is a good host country since it shares borders with France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, and Slovenia. Moreover, the Schengen visa also allows holders to visit any of the 26 countries in the Schengen Area.

ELLE IN PARIS. If you will be studying in Europe, you should never miss seeing the Eiffel Tower up close. Photo by Rainielle Kyle Guison.

You can also choose an Asian country for your exchange program, and this is what Arvin did. Southeast Asian countries are visa-free for Filipinos, so it would be easier to visit for exchange students. Arvin also mentioned that a bonus with ASEAN countries is that the topography and climate are pretty much the same, so adjusting to the weather wouldn’t be a challenge.

While this all sounds very exciting, there’s still a downside – expenses. Because of this, studying abroad is not an opportunity available to everyone. Leaving the country and getting a visa is already expensive, and traveling for leisure would definitely incur more costs. Even though there are cheaper flights and hostels, you might have to rethink some destinations as you also have to consider your living expenses.

But do not be discouraged, as there are ways to address your money worries! If you really want to see your dream destination, you can try to save money by limiting eating out and cooking your own meals instead. You can also find part-time jobs such as student assistantships in your host university. And if you have the opportunity, apply for scholarships! These might be competitive but are worth the effort as they usually include travel, insurance, living, and accomodation allowances, which can definitely make your exchange experience more fun and less financially-stressful.

Get ready to meet awesome people BUT be prepared for differences

Meeting new people while studying abroad can be intimidating, especially with the overwhelming diversity of nationalities around you. Extroverts might find this exciting, but introverts – maybe not so much.

As an extroverted person, I really enjoyed meeting people and building close relationships with them. I met students from various parts of the world and made lasting friendships with some of them, including a Nepali, a Polish, a Czech, a Russian, a Latvian, some Hungarians, and a lot of Italians. On the off chance that I visit their countries, I will definitely have a place to crash, but the real beauty in this is the experience of understanding a new culture and learning a new language.

I MIEI AMICI. Sometimes, it’s not about the place, but the people. The best part of studying abroad is the people that you still get to keep in your life even after parting ways. Photo by Rainielle Kyle Guison.

However, you might not be able to appreciate these things at first. Culture shock is real and it happens to a lot of exchange students, including me and Arvin. You might think that I was more surprised considering that Italy is a westernized, liberated country compared to the Philippines, which is rather conservative, but Arvin also had a fair share of culture shock moments in Indonesia.

He shared his experience of engaging with the locals in Indonesia, mentioning that it really introduced him to the culture and dominant religion that they have. According to him, it was surprising to find out the realities of Muslims, especially since he was exposed to so many stereotypes about them. He said he was glad to have had the opportunity to better understand their culture and beliefs. He noted that it is important to be sensitive as this will lessen your chances of unintentionally disrespecting other people. It will take some time getting used to the cultural differences, but you will get the hang of it, just like we did.

SIMILAR FACES, DIFFERENT CULTURES. Filipinos and Indonesians have similar facial features but their cultures are very different from one another. Since Indonesia’s dominant religion is Islam, it’s common to see women wearing hijab. Photo by Arvin Radin.

Apart from different cultures, language barriers can also be discouraging when studying abroad. How are you supposed to live in a country where you don’t understand a thing? In both of our interactions with Italians and Indonesians, the elderly usually do not speak English, while younger people like those who go to university are more likely to be fluent in it. Try to take basic language courses in your host university or learn from language applications like Duolingo or Drops.

Good for your CV but you could be delayed

I always highlight the opportunity to travel when talking about exchange programs, but you have to remember that your main purpose there would be to study. Academic exchange programs have a lot of advantages to them and it includes getting better credentials, especially if your host university places high in world rankings. Apart from that, it’s just generally good to experience the education system in other countries. 

While we’re still in university, we have the active goal of creating a competitive résumé or curriculum vitae, so that we can have a better chance of getting employed in the future. Having an international academic institution in your CV will definitely impress employers.

Studying abroad also helps you obtain new knowledge and skills which can help you in your university career. I was able to credit some subjects I took in Italy to my home university, which lessened my remaining units in my course. As for Arvin, the subjects he took served as “extra learning” as he did not apply to get them credited.

LEARNING FROM THE BEST. One of the reasons Arvin chose the University of Bogor is because it ranks among the top 100 universities worldwide for Agriculture and Forestry, which is what his bachelor studies are about. Photo by Arvin Radin.

Unfortunately, though, Arvin and I were both delayed in university because of our trips. This meant that we couldn’t take the same subjects with our batchmates anymore, and that we wouldn’t be graduating with them in the same year. Of course, there are ways to still graduate on time such as crediting all your subjects, taking more units in your remaining semesters, or enrolling during midyear in your prior semesters of studying abroad. Remember though, that there’s no shame in graduating later, and it’s up to you to weigh if getting delayed is worth the experience of going abroad.

A new sense of independence, but home is where the heart is

Studying abroad is just like studying in another city, except you’re a thousand miles away from home. You’ll live in a dormitory, go to university to study, hang out with your friends after class – basically live a normal life as if you’re just studying in the Philippines.

Far from home: Pros, cons of studying abroad as a Filipino student

Personally, I didn’t experience living alone before I studied abroad. It was my first time to travel on my own and live in a dormitory, and it almost seemed like an adventure with the new things I had to learn. Somehow, living independently and doing things on my own was very fulfilling to me.

Studying abroad gives you the opportunity to start on a clean slate so you can develop your own routines and habits. As Filipino children, we usually have our parents always guiding us and telling us what to do, but living on your own in a faraway country, you suddenly get to decide what to do with your days, and at your own pace. Arvin and I both agree that studying abroad gives a special feeling of freedom.

However, there will be days when you would suddenly feel the distance, because there is nothing else like the comfort of the house you grew up in. And for Arvin and I, we felt especially homesick when COVID hit our host countries. When we had to isolate ourselves, going out wasn’t allowed and we most usually had to cook for ourselves. I got sick once in my second semester abroad and it definitely made me think how easier it would have been if my parents were there to take care of me.

MISSING HOME COOKING. In Indonesia, food is not very different from the Philippines especially with the use of herbs, spices, and seasonings, but sometimes, Arvin still misses his parents’ cooking. Photo by Arvin Radin.

Aside from that, you simply miss things you’ve gotten used to, like the familiar faces of your family and friends, the taste of sinigang and adobo, or the comfort of your bed back home.

Fortunately, it’s easy to talk to your friends and family through online chat and video calls. Just remember that there’s a time difference especially if you’re studying somewhere in Europe or the Americas. As for food cravings, don’t be afraid to explore the city. More often than not, international restaurants are available in big cities. Another game changer for me was discovering Asian variety stores in my city, so take note of this!

Enjoying the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

The pros and cons to studying abroad can vary from student to student depending on their goals. Some may even see the challenges as an advantage, if they’re to look at it as an adventure, while others may think that they would rather get the pros from something other than an exchange program. It’s all up to you.

Far from home: Pros, cons of studying abroad as a Filipino student

According to Arvin, it’s good to have the mindset that going on an exchange program can be both exciting and challenging. It would also help if you could set your goals before proceeding with it so that you wouldn’t get lost literally and figuratively.

Some last tips that we could offer is to expect the unexpected and be open to opportunities. This once-in-a-lifetime experience doesn’t come to everyone and if you’re ever given the chance to apply to one, give it good thought.

As for me, going on an exchange program is still, without a doubt, the best experience I’ve had. I created so many good memories, and while there may be some downsides to it, the fun times made everything worth it. –

Elle Guison is a Rappler intern.

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