Exchange students at U.Va. prepare for a bittersweet end

As exchange students prepare for their journeys home, they get ready to leave behind the lives they have made in Charlottesville

exchange

The International Buddy Program, composed of University students and exchange students from around the globe, at Monticello earlier this fall. 

Courtesy Victoria Spiotto

As University students begin the process of studying for and taking a plethora of finals these next two weeks, there are some students preparing for an additional reality — saying their final goodbyes to a life in Charlottesville they have spent five months forming and now must leave behind. 

This semester, this group is composed of 60 exchange students, who came from college and universities around the world to learn from our professors and experience American culture but now must prepare to go back to their home universities as their semester-long exchange draws to a close. 

Exchange at the University

Throughout its history, the University has worked to build relationships with partner institutions around the world to cultivate a dynamic learning environment on Grounds. As a result, the International Studies Office now works with 74 partner institutions — including universities in Germany, Japan, Brazil and Australia, among others — to connect the University to the broader world.

The International Students and Scholars Program, which has a staff of four people, oversees the exchange student process. According to Linda Callihan, an International Student and Scholar advisor who assists exchange students both before and during their time here, there are currently 93 exchanges students from 34 different institutions and 17 countries across the globe, 33 of whom will continue studying here next semester as well. 

In order to qualify for this opportunity, many partners institutions first require their students to complete and submit an application for the exchange program within their respective universities. Once all applications are reviewed, the partner will select a limited number of students to nominate for its exchange program, a group whose applications will then be sent to the ISO for approval. 

It is only at this point that they begin to prepare for their adventures abroad, obtaining student visas through the ISO, booking flights, finding housing and preparing for a potentially life-changing opportunity. 

It costs a minimum of $8,825 per semester to attend UVA as an exchange student, not including travel costs or extra expenses. This figure includes meals, housing, books and other school supplies.

At the University, exchange students can live on grounds in the International Residence College and in other residence halls such as Lambeth and Rice, or in an apartment off-grounds. Callihan works with students to ensure that they have access to housing and assists them with necessary applications if needed.

Adjusting to the culture

For many of these exchange students, arriving in August can feel overwhelming. Because of this, the ISO provides a crash-course introduction to Grounds upon their arrival, which Callihan believes helps them receive the full benefits of this community during their short time here.

“Once they arrive here, we do an orientation program for them to help them understand the resources that are available to them, all of the basic academic issues that they need to be aware of,” Callihan said. “They have to be integrated pretty quickly so that they can feel comfortable and hit the road running.”

Beyond the ISO, full-time University students have also taken the initiative to help integrate these students into our community through the International Buddy Program, a group that matches exchange students with University students to help provide a touchpoint on-Grounds during their exchange here. 

IBP President Victoria Spiotto hopes that the program can help foster a sense of community for these exchange students who often do not know anyone when they arrive.

“One of my favorite things about [IBP] is that I wanted to make all exchange students feel like they were part of the community together,” Spiotto said. “I planned a lot of events that would allow everyone to be together, and also would encourage the buddies to come because usually it’s hard to make that happen [as] U.Va. students have their own lives.” 

This semester, these events included organizing tailgates before football games, planning hikes to Humpback Rock and bookings trips to Monticello. To facilitate the organization of these events, a  Whatsapp group with all the exchange students and their buddies was also formed for the first time this year. 

But despite these resources, for many students — including Lodovico Galli, an exchange student in the McIntire School of Commerce from Bocconi University in Milan, Italy — the transition can still be difficult and trying to make friends can seem daunting.

“When I arrived, I was alone in a sense because I didn’t know anyone,” Galli said. “That was pretty hard because you have to behave like super nicely maybe when you don’t want to all the time, but you have to to make friends or you won’t meet anyone else.”

To help overcome his original worries, Galli attended many events and dinners hosted by the McIntire School, which brought together University students who went abroad and incoming exchange students. 

“It was pretty nice to meet people like that, and that’s how I met some of my friends — through these kind of things,” Galli said.

Beyond just adapting to a new school, the transition can involve adapting to cultural differences between countries.

“I think some of the biggest changes were small cultural things, like having lunch at 12. That is way too early,” said Andres Diaz Gonzalez, a fourth-year exchange student in McIntire from ESADE University in Barcelona. “In Spain you would have lunch at 1:30 [p.m.] at the earliest time. When people tell me they have a 12 o’clock class and they’ve already eaten lunch, it’s impossible — I can’t eat at that time. I’m not hungry yet … That’s one of the aspects that’s hit me the most because I’m a very big food person.”

Gonzalez has also recognized that the American cultural view of eating is much different than in countries like Spain. 

“Something I’ve also noticed is that, people here, they see food as more of a chore, like something you have to get out of the way and it’s just to fill you up,” Gonzalez said. “Whereas in Spain, there’s a lot more culture like, ‘Okay guys, let’s get together. We’ve going to sit down and share a meal.’ Even if it’s the University cafeteria … it’s like a social moment where you have an interaction with your friends.”

As students work to adjust to these cultural and social differences, Callihan believes joining clubs and becoming involved with various groups on campus can help. 

“[Joining clubs is] something that we encourage. It is a way to feel comfortable and at home when you become involved in things, but it also enhances your experience and understanding of the culture if you’re involved in activities and start to get to know people that way,” Callihan said. “We don’t want people just to come here, go to class, and that’s it. Exchange is more than that. Exchange is experiencing life and all those social and cultural activities that are available here.”

Both Galli and Gonzalez became involved outside the classroom to help during this adjustment period, joining a McIntire consulting club and working with UNICEF, respectively.

Tackling the academic environment

Some exchange students said that as a top-tier academic institution in the United States, the University’s academic demands and structure took some time to adjust to. 

Galli has noticed the greatest difference between Italy and the University in the way that classes are structured and how students approach studying. For example, he believes the academic culture at Bocconi is more individualistic as most students tend to study alone and many do not view attending class as very important. As a result, the two biggest changes Galli has seen have been the class-attendance requirement in most classes and closer teacher-student interactions. 

“Here … I could go to class and interact with the professors because there were only 20-25 students in the classroom in most of my classes,” Galli said. “I really like this part and the possibility that the teacher’s were always available for you in any chance. Yeah, they were always at your disposal if you needed them.”

Galli has also found that American teachers let students participate more actively in classes — a reality he knows he will miss most when he returns to Bocconi.

Gonzalez is also sad to be leaving the dynamic and multi-faceted academic environment the school provides. ESADE University, where he attends, only runs two university schools — one in business and the other in law. For that reason, his experiences here have allowed him to engage with people who have different academic interests than himself, an opportunity his school does not provide as robustly.

“For example for me, my university only does business and law, so meeting people from other majors, such as Media Studies or International Relations and Russian, doesn’t happen at my university,”  Gonzalez said. “I just want to keep discovering these different perspectives that I don’t get at home.”

The disappointing yet exciting farewell 

While classes are important for any student, whether exchange or not, some say that the learning that has taken place outside of the classroom has been even more meaningful. During his exchange, Gonzalez’s perspective of America has shifted, as have his perceptions of Charlottesville in the wake of the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, when white supremacists marched down the Lawn and held a “Unite the Right” rally that turned deadly on the Downtown Mall.

“The biggest [takeaway] I’ve had is maybe taking away some of the prejudice I’ve had against Americans, especially in the wake of coming here after what happened in Charlottesville last year,” Gonzalez said. “You come to the South, you have this certain idea of what American-ness is and so one of the biggest takeaways is — especially in University students — [that] people at U.Va. break the mold in terms of what you expect someone from Virginia, living in Charlottesville, to be.”

To him, there has been a stereotype of how southerners talk and what their beliefs are, but his exchange has given him the opportunity to see through this and see that many students here are much more open that he thought they would be. 

For Galli, knowing he will be leaving this community — one that has began to feel like home now — after these final weeks of classes and exams is upsetting.

“At the beginning, I was like, ‘There’s not much to do in Charlottesville. There’s Trin and Boylan, if you want to party and stuff,’ but now, the people I met, those I think I will miss the most,” Galli said. “I’m happy to see my family again for sure and it’s Christmas, so that’s a good feeling but at the same time it’s a one-time experience — just knowing that it probably won’t happen again makes me sad.”

Much like Galli, exchanging the Charlottesville community for his home university later this month brings about mixed emotions for Gonzalez. He is extremely excited to see Barcelona once again but also wants to continue to build these relationships.

“It’s very bittersweet because obviously I miss what I’m accustomed to in Spain but at the same time, a semester is such a short time,” Gonzalez said. “It’s long enough for you to build some sort of meaningful connection or relationships with other people, but it’s not fully possible to build a more intimate relationship … You want to keep meeting people, keep seeing these people and learning what they’re about.” 

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