2010 - Tan Zhu Dong from NUS in Connecticut

The biggest thing I learnt is that with the many friendships built, I now have the ability to communicate across continents and cultures.

Every exchange experience begins at home. It starts with planning what to bring, defining what constitutes a necessity (I left with 18kg of luggage and returned with over 40kg) and ultimately, taking the first step of actually getting there. My first step began the day I walked into NUS, knowing that I wanted to go to the United States to study. Due to financial concerns, instead of studying there full time, I chose to participate in an exchange scheme. I found out as much as I could about the Student Exchange Program (SEP) at the International Relations Office (IRO) information sessions, the fairs, online and through friends. After all, forewarned is forearmed.

But let us skip ahead to the times I had in UConn. It was winter, and boy was it not as fun as I would have imagined. Undoubtedly, there is that feeling of experiencing snow for the first time, but drowning in the cold weather constantly for over 4 months after living in a tropical country leaves one bitterly cold. I had to take a hot shower immediately upon waking up to ‘thaw out’ and I could only function after I was properly warmed up. Aside from the temperature, the amount of sunlight does indeed affect one’s mood. Living at the equator, one cannot imagine the sheer difference in sunlight experienced by people living very much further away. A few days after reaching campus, it became apparent that the sun rose at 7am and would set around 5pm. The reduction in sunlight hours compounded by the cold and the change of environment left me feeling very much adrift for the first few weeks. But I still planned to push on through!

The first thing that I had to do when school started was join the Salsa dance group. I have danced Salsa for quite a number of years in Singapore and wanted to see what it was like overseas. Not only did they conduct lessons, they had a performance group which would open ‘Latin Fest 2010’, a celebration of Latino dance and music where they had invited famous Latino singers to perform. It was indeed a unique experience to observe the different cultural centres in the university representing the various racial groups and organising various events to cater to each group.

Next, I began mixing with the other exchange students at the International Exchange Orientation Meeting. Invariably, in my opinion, I had less in common with the Australians and Europeans and more in common with those from Asian countries like Korea and Japan. Furthermore, I am not much of a drinker and the partying and drinking nightlife held no real interest to me (note: past tense) which a lot of the exchange students were very much into. However, I did find a kindred spirit in an Italian master’s student, Raffaele. He shared some of his homemade Italian pasta with me, complete with authentic cheese from Italy itself. We shared much time together learning about each other’s culture and even ended up travelling together across the west coast of the USA for about three weeks.

Even so, the USA has a very strong party culture, especially when the campus one stays at, a rural campus no less, has no entertainment around it but bars and clubs. I eventually became curious and thought I would just take a stab at it. Two weekends before finals week, most US colleges have a ‘Spring Weekend’ where students just let loose on campus before the actual studying begins. It is technically supposed to start on a Thursday, but many start by Tuesday or Wednesday. There are ‘officially’ assigned locations for people just to congregate with friends and drink. There, I made the startling discovery that it is illegal to carry uncovered alcohol beverages on the street; it has to be ‘covered’ in a paper bag or in a cup. But so ensued, the drinking and partying for four consecutive days. It didn’t end there because the desire to savour every moment before finals week, which would signify the end of the exchange, led to even more partying and drinking on the week before finals!

There were also all the travelling trips we took during weekends, Spring Break (not to be confused with Spring Weekend) and immediately after the semester ended. There was the Cherry Blossom festival in Washington D.C., the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate bridge.

While travelling is a large part of the exchange experience, having been on exchange and experiencing everything that was on offer, the biggest thing I learnt is that with the many friendships built, I now have the ability to communicate across continents and cultures.  I strive to understand more than just the little island I was brought up on, to know about different lands and traditions and ultimately, to have a place to stay and someone to show me around when I visit them in a few years time...