Now that we’ve reached the last month of the fall semester, the deadline for applying to study abroad exchanges is approaching for full year and fall term exchanges (for most schools, at least). As someone who’s applied twice and may end up doing it for the third time (stay tuned for a future post on that), I want spill the beans on everything I didn’t prepare for or wasn’t warned about when preparing for study abroad.
If you’re planning to go on exchange or thinking about applying, look out for these things to expect.
Prepare to wait for a long time. Whether it’s anticipating a response from Learning Abroad whether they’ve nominated you for your chosen destination or it’s waiting on documents to be sent to you by your host institution to apply for a visa, you’re probably going to wait longer than you expected. And most of the time, there’s little you can do about it and it can make it difficult to prepare for future steps in the process. The most that I could do in my situation was take it as I go. I avoided getting overexcited, limiting my web searching for aesthetic Airbnbs, pictures of gorgeous cites I wanted to travel and anything that convinced me I was absolutely going when I was still in the process of waiting and preparing.
There’s a lot of paperwork. This may be a no-brainer for some people but as someone who hasn’t gotten the chance to travel on my own, I was not prepared for how many documents I needed to obtain to secure my exchange. Don’t get me wrong, I knew there were papers to fill out but not in the amount that was expected of me. You have required documents for U of T, documents for your host institution, government documents, health insurance forms, and in our current circumstances, some extensive pandemic-related forms. My exchange is scheduled for March and I leave in February and I know I have paperwork to fill until I get off the plane at my exchange destination. Be prepared to do a lot of googling and emailing because not all the forms are clear and there were a lot of questions I asked Learning Abroad, my host school, and other people going on exchange about them.
Getting a visa can be complicated. Depending where you’re going, the visa process is…chaotic. I can’t speak for every country but for South Korea, I learned that there are several different types of student visas (I truly thought there was only one!) and I had to find the one required for my exchange. I bounced between the Toronto Korean Embassy and other websites regarding what documents to submits and where to do it. You may have to prepare for the embassy of your chosen destination being unhelpful or slow in responding to questions or even your host university not responding to your concerns because that’s what happened to me.
An important thing to note about applying for a visa is that if you’re host school is slow in sending the required documents for your visa application, it’s out of your control and you will just have to wait. For my situation, Yonsei University told us exchange students that they’ll issue the Certificate of Admission between now and January and we’re supposed to board the plan in February. That is very stressful to deal with but also realize it’s not the end of the world, I’m still here, right?
You need to figure out how you’ll get out of the airport. Again, another no-brainer but this was something I took for granted. Keep in mind that I’ve never been out of the country by myself, and I’ve never been to South Korea. Especially if it’s a country where you’re not fluent in the language and or not acquainted with it, safety is the top priority. Whether a country is incredibly safe or not, you need to caution yourself with people who scam foreigners and anything that can put you in danger.
If you have family in your exchange destination, get in touch with them. If not, look for shuttle services that take you straight to your destination. No matter what, plan this beforehand and do your research. Get an idea of the transportation system, contact your host institution for arrival advice. This is a crucial step in the process.
If you’ve made it this far, I have one more tip that I urge everyone to get on: Connect with others going on exchange. Specifically, people going to the same destination. Learning Abroad provided a private Facebook group for people on exchange for 2022, and I reached out to people there. Talk to people in your program, people you know, find public groups going to your destination. The internet can tell you a lot of things but I learned that it’s talking to other people that filled the gaps for questions that couldn’t be answered.
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