Digging deep into an international student’s Instagram

The first ever recorded photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in the year 1826. Though Niépce’s pictures developed as negatives, these photographs marked a pivotal point in history. From 1826 onwards, moments in time could be immortalised and capsuled.

It’s no surprise then, that students on exchange would utilise photography as a tool to  eternalise their time overseas. This desire is exacerbated by the popularity of Instagram, where meticulously crafted posts are prized.

For some, these posts are an earnest snapshot of everyday experiences in their host country. However, in most cases, one’s Instagram is filled with carefully composed content in the guise of a hedonistic lifestyle. A gram sure to separate them from the pack.

So, when students embroiled in our social media age find themselves overseas as an exchange student, you know the “greatest hits” of their journey will be posted online for everyone to see. From the cliché sites, to the parties, to the people, and to the overly long personal reflections on their experiences in a foreign country. What we see is an illustrious tour of joy and ease. But how much truth is there behind these images? 

Therein lies the problem of the social media mirage. A phenomena of hyping up experiences with glitz and glamour. We’re all guilty of this, but post-after-post of staged moments encourages peers to view exchange experiences on the surface level.

What these Instagram posts fail to convey, is that the exchange lifestyle isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. In between moments worth commemorating, are struggles and dare I say…boring days. 

Rebekah, from Monash University in Malaysia, did her exchange here in Melbourne during the first half of 2018. A primary point of reference was, unsurprisingly, social media. The allure of fresh experiences and fond memory-making was too seductive to pass up on.

“Every day was perfect.

“Sharing my memories online gave me a chance in the future to reminiscence on my time here,” she said. 

Though homesickness is a common problem faced by many, Rebekah’s biggest hurdle was the need to be fully independent.

“Exam stress paired with the pressure to home-cook most meals and going on weekly grocery runs, while also having to do your own laundry…was tiring.”

Many exchange students tend to adhere to the unspoken social media rule of keeping everything tasteful, neglecting to post their bad experiences.

Charissa, who came from the National University of Singapore in the second half of 2018, says her exchange posts were “not in a diary format nor was it super descriptive.”

Rather it had a focus on being aesthetically pleasing, an almost ethereal escapade. Charissa’s gram remained fairly surface level – designed to impress, whilst the “more negative and neutral stuff,” was left for “face-to-face interactions.”

This unrealistic standard of international exchange posting, brings with it unrealistic expectations and a misleading sense of purpose. Societal pressures to “perform” well whilst finding pleasure in overseas experiences, is felt the most by the socially savvy. 

Not only do many feel the need to impress their friends, but also, to attain the type of lifestyle they had admired prior to their exchange. A self-fulfilling prophesy of sorts. 

“Some of my high school classmates that I wasn’t very close to went on exchange in Canada and Japan. I was sort of jealous,” confessed Monique, who had come from New Zealand for exchange this year.

“I wanted to go to festivals and visit the attractions I see in the movies! I wanted to do cute posts like they did.”

She admits her exchange experience wasn’t as fun as she expected, “other than the two times I went for road trips, I was mostly stuck in libraries and lecture theatres.”

In the end though, none of them regretted their experiences. Pulling back the pretty veil of Instagram posts, the nitty-gritty reality of exchanges is what gave these international students a shot at independence. A chance they’re all grateful for.

Studying overseas is an exciting adventure that people treasure. Shifting focus from the picturesque snapshots. It turns out that the peaks and valleys we face every day is what makes life so interesting.

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