Everything you weren't told about law exchange
Everyone comes to exchange with different expectations but overwhelmingly, you don’t consider exchange unless you think it will be a magical, life-changing experience. What sometimes gets lost in the glow of exchange expectation and the excitement of moving overseas to start an adventure is what you can actually expect to occur, feel or experience. Your program might not be exactly what you expect and for some, it might not always be a totally positive experience. Here are some truths about exchange that no-one actually tells you.
You will gravitate towards meeting law students.
If, like me, you wanted to meet new and different people, you may be disappointed when you realise that every person you initially meet and every person you say goodbye to will be a law student. Normally your host university split you into events via faculties so you only ever party with law students, study with law students and in many cases, travel with them too. They haunt your experience. No one wants to be having the same conversations about job prospects but with an international twist that they could be having with law frenemies back home.
Tip: Go to events on your own (it’s weird but worth it) and live in a dorm.
Your classes could go either way – they might be really hard or super easy
My exchange to the University of Copenhagen was all the more amazing because my classes were discussion based and my exams were oral exams. All I ever had to do was give my opinion and then have a 20 minute chat with my lecturer about some of the course content. No problem questions, no closed book exams. Bliss. But I had friends that said they studied the entire time because they made poor class choices or they struggled with language barriers.
Some universities have different expectations of you. Do your homework and check out the uni before you pick it as your preference and hope you get lucky but be prepared to study.
Context to everything will be off
You are walking into another country, perhaps one you know a bit about but have no huge knowledge base on. I specifically picked my home country because I knew nothing about its people, its culture or its history. It’s a rude shock to get into classes and have people talking about political issues you don’t understand.
Tip: Read a newspaper or some Buzzfeed lists before you go over there. Ask questions. Nationals are always willing to explain why something is as it is if you keep an open mind.
You are now a first year law student again
You have no idea how the library works, how to use their online resources, who to talk to when you are having an issue and finding your classrooms can be ever more difficult when you are still trying to figure out how to read parts of a language. It got so bad for me that I would just do any research I needed using my home universities logins. I nearly missed one of my exams because I couldn’t figure out how to check what day it was held on.
This issue pops up even in how you do assignments. You’ve learnt what terminology and lecturer expectations back home are but on exchange? You question whether the essay is meant to be theory heavy or like a case study or even what an essay in this country is. Unfortunately, no-one can really give you an answer because everyone is as confused as you are.
And then there’s the fact that you never really understand the legal system you are studying until you watch it. I wish someone had told me I should go to a court and watch some proceedings. I was studying international criminal law, was in Europe but no one ever told me that I could just go to The Hague and watch! Give it a go, wherever you are.
A change as big as exchange has knock on effects into your relationships. I wanted to focus on travelling and meeting new people, so I separated myself considerably from home. That’s hard for people who aren’t gaining the new experiences you are and are coping with your loss. Over the course of the exchange and when you get home, you might realise that some of your relationships will not be there any more or a relationship you had with someone is totally different.
My important relationships actually improved. I became better friends with my family because I wasn’t living with them. Any time I did spend with them was constructive and positive. My boyfriend and I came out of it more assured of each other. Just as equally though, I’ve had friends who have kept that distance with me after my return.
Coming home will affect your sense of self.
The person you became on exchange is generally the person that you want to be, who does the things you want to do. It’s hard to come home to obligations you left behind, and to pick up where you left off. When the dream ends, it’s always going to hurt.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on 31/8/15.
Enjoyed this post? Sign up for the Survive Law weekly newsletter for more.