For most of my college career, I’ve handled my classes like this:
- Find a seat near the door so that I can make a quick escape.
- Make sure this seat is in a position where I don’t have to share a desk or get hemmed in by sheeple when class is over.
- Pay attention to what the professor is saying (or at least pretend to while doodling in my notebook).
- Avoid making eye contact with or speaking to other students.
- Learn stuff.
- Leave before anyone realizes I was there.
Sure, occasionally I’ll meet an interesting person to talk to, but most of my energy goes to doing my time and making my escape.
Being an exchange student has taken my comfortable, isolated way of life and shaken it like a violently epileptic kid with an Etch-A-Sketch.
First of all, I have to talk to my classmates. I’m traveling alone in a foreign country, so if I don’t talk to people, I don’t have friends. Most of the classes I’m taking are specifically for exchange students, so all of my classmates are going through the exact same thing as I am. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m an introvert, and talking to people costs energy (for those of you who don’t understand what this means, here is a truly brilliant description of introverts).
Second, since I’m traveling alone in another country, I stand out as a foreigner. Physically I don’t stand out as much in Argentina as I did in China and Germany, but I still can’t hide my accent. The people around me instantly know I’m not a native as soon as I open my mouth.
I took a philosophy class outside of the exchange program because I thought it seemed interesting and I wanted to be around more locals. Learning Spanish with a bunch of other foreigners creates a very relaxed, positive learning environment, but there is a huge difference between talking to someone who’s at the exact same level of Spanish as me and talking to a native speaker.
When I registered my advisor told me to introduce myself to the professor so that they know they have a foreign student in their class, but the professor showed up late on the first day. The students were already assembled when the professor arrived, so introducing myself would have meant going up in front of the entire class to declare myself as a foreigner.
I decided to wait until after class.
The problem: this particular professor takes a very interactive approach to teaching. Her classes are extremely fast paced, and after she explains something she’ll call on a student at random and say, “You, explain what I just said.”
I loved the challenge. This was a welcome relief from the slow, hey-everybody-let’s-all-learn-new-words-together type classes that I had with the exchange program, and her teaching style forced me to pay attention. I absolutely could not zone out, and I feel like the learning in this class was much more intense than in my other ones.
My Spanish was good enough so that I understood about eighty percent of what she was saying, but understanding a concept and being able to explain it in a second language are two completely different things. I sat in the front of the class, so naturally she called on me a lot. I think my most intelligent answer was: *blink* *blink* “Um, can you repeat the question?” After an hour and a half of this, the goblins in my head were all whispering about how bad I was doing and that I would end up having to drop the class.
The professor took off as soon as she dismissed the class, so I had to chase her down the hall. After I introduced myself, she told me she’d had no idea that I was an exchange student. Then she said that she’s had foreign students before, so she understood that this might be hard for me. She said that if I had any doubts, if there was anything that I didn’t understand, she would be happy to slow down and explain it again.
The next day before class she asked my permission to introduce me to the class. I wasn’t too excited to be put in the spotlight, but I said ok. She told the students who I was and where I was from, and then she went a step further to say that this was already a difficult class, but hearing the lecture in a foreign language would be even harder, so she hoped that all of the students would be willing to support me and make me feel welcome to their country.
Just the fact that she took the time to do that made me feel welcome. Because she had already outed me to the other students, it took away a lot of the shyness that was keeping me from talking. It didn’t matter if I spoke with a heavy accent; they already knew. The fear was gone. I was even brave enough to ask a student what a word meant during the lecture on the second day.
After that, she didn’t call on me at all. I’m sure that if I had raised my hand she would have listened to whatever I had to say, but she gave me space so that I could process the information without pressuring me into speaking if I wasn’t ready. I was incredibly grateful for this, and her patient understanding made me want to be more active in class.
Be nice to exchange students, kids. Chances are, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.