Exchange Matters / December 8, 2022

Lessons Learned As An International Exchange Alumni

By Oko Khosbayar, Membership Intern, Global Ties U.S. 

In 2014, when I was a freshman at the undergraduate level, I took the courage to go on an exchange program for the first time in my life through an international organization where I volunteered. I went to Thailand and taught basic English to pupils ages 6 to 15 in the province of Sisaket. This was an eye-opening experience. I fell in love with exploring the world and getting to know different cultures. Living with a host family and being treated like their own daughter was truly precious. Since it was the first country I ever traveled to abroad, Thailand has a special place in my heart. 

A few years later, in 2016, I had another opportunity to study abroad. The time I spent as an exchange participant through the Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSI) Student Leaders Program on Women’s Leadership was a truly wholesome experience. From attending a conference at the U.S. Department of State with hundreds of young women from 20 different countries to spending a weekend with a local family, each activity was special. The most memorable yet unfamiliar experience for me was staying in a dormitory and attending classes a few minutes away. In my home country, although we have dormitories at our schools, most students live at home with their families. The concept of a campus, where the majority of students live and study together in one place, almost doesn’t exist. Another eye-opening experience was being encouraged to share my opinions during discussions where we talked about leadership. Looking back, I think this was a growth process. After returning from that six-week program, I was super clear on one thing: I needed to go back for more. I wanted to experience a real campus life and all that it would offer me and be able to express my opinions without fearing judgment. 

I strongly believe no matter where you’re from, it is important to leave your community for a while and see other parts of the world. Whether it be short or long-term, working or studying, living or traveling, exploring other cultures opens your eyes and changes your perspective. Often, we define a country based on limited knowledge provided by the media. However, there are lots of things to see and experience for yourself. This is especially true when you have the opportunity to experience the local culture, connect with locals, and learn from those you meet. 

During a parade in Wichita, KS. July 4, 2016 Photo credit: Instagram page of the Kansas Women’s Leadership Institute

When you are a part of any international exchange program, you will interact with peers from different countries. This was a highlight for me because everyone had something valuable to teach me. Many public diplomacy theorists and practitioners agree that exchange programs are the most effective tool in shaping public perception overseas. Even though its outcomes take a while, the impact of public diplomacy starts by engaging in cultural and educational programs and listening to what others have to share.

Currently, I’m a master’s student in the public diplomacy program at Syracuse University, and I have the privileged opportunity to be interning at Global Ties U.S. When I first saw the internship positions on the website, I thought to myself, “This is it. This is where I want to work.” The fact that Global Ties U.S. is a critical organization, implementing U.S. exchange programs and advancing U.S. foreign policy and public diplomacy efforts, made me more curious. Now that I’m a part of the organization, I truly appreciate and enjoy my time here. The tasks I complete, the workshops and webinars I attend, and the team meetings all help sharpen my professional skills, learn more about this field, and grow. I am learning a lot about public diplomacy, both academically and on a practical level. The more I engage with the activities in the Global Ties Network and engage in my studies at Syracuse University, the clearer my career goals become: to contribute to and sharpen the public diplomacy policy of my home country of Mongolia.

Having this internship opportunity, especially at a prestigious organization like Global Ties U.S., wasn’t easy for me as an international student. I went through many interviews and sent out hundreds of applications with other organizations before joining Global Ties U.S. It’s pretty hard to stand out when you’re interviewing for roles that are not in your native language and there are thousands of other applicants. I would say to my international peers: Keep giving it your best, ask for support when you feel you are struggling, and don’t lose hope.

In Sisaket, Thailand, in July 2014 with my pupils. Photo credit: Oko Khosbayar

Living in a different country makes you resilient, strong, and a more well-rounded person. There will be times when you may miss family moments, find it hard to make friends, worry about finances, or struggle with other things. However, there is always a way to figure things out. What I appreciate the most about being in the United States is that every voice is heard. Your opinions are welcome, and people want to hear from you. There are also many resources and support systems that you can seek out to help you through tough times. I’ve learned the power of accepting people just the way they are.

I would encourage anyone who is considering studying or working abroad to go for it. It can feel scary and overwhelming, or you might not know where to begin, but I would advise you to take the leap because some opportunities aren’t offered again, or it can be too late. Even if you are initially scared or uncomfortable, exchanges are moments for personal growth. Take the leap; you will thank yourself later.