Psychologists define learning as "a more or less permanent change in behavior, or a behavioral tendency, as a result of experience." I have been taking advantage of this opportunity to learn the French language and experience the French culture, as well as better understand myself.
As an exchange student, I bring a part of my country into France with a show-and-tell method: explaining my way of life and showing them with my daily attitude and behavior. The people don't learn about my culture by simply asking questions, but rather by being around me.
Everyone that I come into contact with gets to experience a part of my country, and at the same time I get to experience theirs. This is far more beneficial than experiencing another culture via mass media, which has the potential to be inaccurate or biased. I try to stay as involved as possible so that I can share and experience as much as possible.
At first, I wasn't sure how to act. I wanted to be myself, but I also wanted to make a good impression. Although I am representing my country with optimism, I must also stay true to myself. I first had to understand myself and my own culture. This helped me to understand my behavior, which led to understanding myself.
This has been a huge change for me, but I've learned that change is an excellent thing. Change forces us out of our comfort zones, stretches us in ways that might hurt for a little while. But the rewards can be astounding. Purged by identifying and eliminating the fears that hold us back, we emerge as better people, more free and certainly more interesting; which is what I hope to gain from this experience.
I can't deny that this experience is stressful. When I disagree or don't understand something that is different to me, I must assert my feelings, opinions and beliefs rather than take action on them; I realize that I am here to learn the differences and accept them, not to defy them.
Language barriers also create significant stress. Although my French has dramatically improved, I am by no stretch of the imagination fluent yet. I use stress to my advantage: I realize how different this really is, and I am learning how to deal with stress in the meantime.
Not only do foreign exchange programs do more than promote cultural understanding, they also promote personal growth. Communication between countries encourages students to learn from each other; and on a personal level, exchange allows people from different cultures to share their lives. The world becomes a smaller, friendlier place when we learn that all people -- regardless of nationality -- desire the same basic things: a safe, comfortable environment that allows for a rich and satisfying life.
Britni Lang is an exchange student in the Rotary International program. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or see her Web site at pg.photos. yahoo.com/ph/rotaryyouthexchangeinfrance/my_photos.