Reflecting back on our International Student Exchange Experience in Malaysia
Whoever said school is boring didn’t go on an International Student Exchange!
It’s hard to believe it’s already been 6 years since our unforgettable time in Malaysia. As the cliché goes, "it feels like only yesterday"!
When the opportunity to attend an international student exchange was presented it seemed like an interesting proposition, one of those “once in a lifetime opportunities” that must be taken. What better way to end your university experience than spending the final semester abroad?
Most of the program attendees were enrolled in Europe or Australia, a fairly safe and standard approach to the international exchange. After all, studying in foreign countries can be quite challenging if English is not widely spoken or understood.
After careful consideration, it was decided that Penang, Malaysia was the best fit.
When the exciting news was broken to friends and family the initial response was, “Malaysia? Why would you want to go to Malaysia? Can’t you go to Australia or Europe?”
Most of them couldn’t even point out Malaysia on a map and typically got it confused with Mongolia or Taiwan.
The answer was simple. Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia has awesome white sandy beaches, hot tropical weather, amazing cuisine and it is centrally located.
Who wouldn’t want to go there?
Coming from Vancouver, Malaysia was literally one of the furthest locations from home. Being a predominately Muslim country, Malaysia seemed so foreign and different, so interesting and remote.
This introduction to Asian culture was unlike anything we’d ever experienced before, and ultimately led to a serious travel addiction that has yet to be satisfied!
Where did we live?
The Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is located in Penang, a heavily populated island in northwest Malaysia, near the Thailand border. After partnering up with two Canadians girls that were also in the exchange program, one from Alberta and one from Ontario, it was time to find an apartment for the five month term.
We lucked out and found a huge three bedroom for only $300 each per month, conveniently located just a short walk from the university and within steps of a bustling hawker market. We used a local realtor that was referred by the university, which ended up being a smart move because we ended up in a decent building that housed several other international students.
And the pool was pretty nice too...
1. Meet People from all over the World
One of the best parts about being on an exchange is that you’re going through the program with many other students from around the world. Not only do you get to learn about the local culture, you get to learn about other countries from the students in the program. Our cohort included a mix of local students, which created a great learning environment for everyone involved and allowed us to learn the language and customs first hand.
2. Travel More, with Less
Being in Malaysia with an apartment gave us the freedom to travel throughout SE Asia, taking only what we needed. Every weekend we would explore a new part of the region. Sometimes we’d have up to a week off (okay, so a few classes were skipped), which gave us the opportunity to travel to Thailand, Laos, Singapore and Borneo.
Each time, we’d only fill a small backpack, making it much easier than slugging around big long-term backpacks. After returning from our weekend adventures we had the luxury of an apartment to come back to, which meant the ability to do laundry and regroup before the next trip.
3. Live like a Local
There is no better way to experience a culture and country than actually living there. Going to school meant creating daily routines, just like at home. Taking local transit to the mall to purchase groceries was a much richer cultural experience than any museum, temple or tourist attraction. By mingling with local students, we learned where to eat, where to drink, where to shop and how not to get ripped off like a standard tourist.
4. Shake up your Education Experience
You’re only a university student once (well, at least in most cases). Why not take advantage of your youth and learn at another institution in another country? Although text book learning is not typically the primary objective for an exchange, you’ll learn a lot while in a foreign classroom.
5. Find Travel Companions
Worried about traveling through foreign lands alone? Being on an exchange gives you the opportunity to team up with other solo travelers that are looking for adventure. You can pretty much bank on the fact that every weekend someone is looking for a travel buddy, all you have to do is ask.
6. Learn about Travel Experiences from other Students
As noted above, every weekend someone in the exchange program is traveling somewhere. One weekend, we teamed up with seven students and traveled to Kuala Lumpur. Our other friends from class spent the weekend on the tropical island of Langkawi.
When we returned, we swapped travel stories and learned from their experiences, and vice versa. We informed them about bus schedules and city hostels in KL, and they informed us about ferry schedules and beachfront bungalows on the island.
Choose a country that has a cheaper cost of living
As a student, you’re probably limited on funds. By choosing a country that has a lower cost of living and poor currency exchange, you’ll be able to take advantage of your cash position and do more for less.
Select a school that has an International Airport
The reasoning is self explanatory. If the goal is to travel more, it helps to be close to an airport. Take it one step further and research airports to find out where the discount carriers fly. We often used Air Asia, a popular Malaysian discount carrier, and flew from Penang International Airport (very close to where we were living).
Avoid selecting classes on Monday and Friday
This will allow more flexibility and freedom to take weekend excursions. When you factor in travel time, a normal weekend goes by very quickly. It may take some negotiating but you’ll be thankful that you did!
Arrive early or depart later
Obviously this will depend on your school schedule. Typically there are only two semesters in a school year, meaning you can either show up to your destination the month before or extend your stay afterwards. Take advantage of the airfare already purchased and get more traveling done.
Wait until you arrive to find accommodations
Going on exchange is not like backpacking. You want to be comfortable and you need a place where you can study. It’s best to check out the apartment firsthand before committing, especially if you’re staying in a developing nation. Make sure the accommodations are close to the school or within a short distance to transportation. If you plan to find a roommate, it’s best to meet students at orientation and decide after introductions are made.
Take advantage of school resources
Read about the different options available. Meet students that have already completed the exchange; take them out for coffee and pick their brain. Get prepared by asking questions.
Our Final Thoughts
Don’t pass on the opportunity to take an International Student Exchange because of money or fear. It will provide you with so much more than you could ever imagine, so put in the extra effort and make it happen!
To learn more, visit our travel blog at www.travelingcanucks.com
Cam and Nicole