Student exchanges are school programs which allow for undergraduates to spend a semester overseas in a partner university.
Exchange is something most university students look forward to. After all, it’s a chance to finally discover the vast world beyond the confines of our tiny island.
You get to make foreign friends, travel overseas and live independently – what’s not to like?
Those were some reasons I had for going on exchange to Berlin, Germany last year. That idealism rapidly dissipated when I realised – in the middle of the night – that I was sitting in a plane hurtling over the Middle East, all the while moving further and further away from home.
It ultimately turned out that my exchange wasn’t nearly as dreamy as I had imagined, yet it was still a beneficial time where I learnt many life lessons.
A SEASON OF DEPENDENCE
Going on exchange made me utterly dependent on God.
Owing to my laziness in the months prior to departure, I applied for my German visa late, which meant my entire trip was at the mercy of the embassy officials. I didn’t get my visa approved until the very day of my flight to Berlin.
The night before my departure, I was reading the Bible and feeling a little desperate, wondering if making a fuss at the embassy would move things along quicker. God convicted me that this predicament was a result of my procrastination, but He also spoke to me as I read on:
“Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.” (Proverbs 25:15)
So with patience I headed to the embassy the next day. And though they normally take months to process such documents, the officers listened to my gentle plea for urgency and kindly prepared my visa for me on the spot!
But my problems were far from over.
I touched down in Berlin a lot later than the time I had told my landlord, Niko, that I would arrive at the apartment. Without thinking my next step through, I took a cab to my new home before I realised what I had done.
There I was, with my massive luggage and backpack, without any data or minutes to give Niko a call or write him an email. And then there was the weather! I could have waited for hours in the cold. As I sat on my luggage at the gates of the apartment complex, I realised how alone I was.
Coming from a tiny island where I had everything I wanted and needed at my fingertips, I had never been desperate. What else could I do but pray? God, please help me. I need Your help.
I was reduced to utter dependence on God in a way that was impossible back home.
Right after I finished that prayer, a massive man emerged from the woods beside the apartment. In thick German, he called out to me, “Hello! Can I help you?”. I told him I was waiting for Niko, to which he said, “Niko isn’t coming, but I will help you.”
He then sat me down in an office and we worked through forms, payments, the building layout, the room’s rules — pretty much everything together.
Beyond instances like this, I was reduced to utter dependence on God in a way that was impossible back home: Finding friends. Finding a church. Getting a working prepaid phone card. Having working internet. Having a working heater in winter. Safety on the streets at night.
Exchange was a season where I had to rely on Him for every single thing I had ever taken for granted.
A SEASON OF INDEPENDENCE
As a deeply introverted person, I think a big part of me wondered if by going on an adventure all by myself, something about my introversion would change.
Looking back, I can tell you that was a dumb reason to go. But something did grow: I had to become more independent. I had to do banking, laundry, immigration stuff, groceries, cooking — every conceivable adulting thing that wouldn’t typically have been my portion in Singapore — I did them all.
I had to step out of my comfort zone to meet new people (in German!). I experienced a deep longing for spiritual community that seekers must feel in a new church — an experience that has since made me more empathetic and inviting to newcomers.
God used that time to show me who really was in control of life.
There were many triumphs, but there were also many days I lay in bed watching YouTube wondering why I ever came.
I know now that through exchange, God refined and moulded me to be a better person. God used that time to show me who really was in control of life. In a time of great loneliness, I drew near to God, and He drew near to me.
He became my closest friend, through a season that brought me into a lifestyle of dependence on Him.
KNOW WHY YOU GO
But that’s my story. Your exchange — if you do go on one — will be your own. Ask God what exchange can do for you that being home in Singapore won’t. It’ll be fun, but don’t let the time be fruitless or frivolous. In all your travels, ask that He would use them to mould you.
You’re sure to fall in love with certain places, but never stop being a child of God – in wide-eyed wonder at your Father who wrought this wonderful world. Go for a better reason than “I want a different life”.
Go, so that God may draw you close, far away from home.