This article was written by Mannat Sabhikhi (Batch of 2016).
I spent my last six months of law school on exchange in the Netherlands and this post is sort of an unsolicited recommendation letter for it i.e. for exchange in general, I wouldn’t want to take responsibility for Dutch weather. While I realise that not everyone can go on exchange not only because of the limited choices available but also as there are systemic issues that prevent students from availing of this opportunity but for those for whom the stars align – GO!
Exchange programmes are quite the norm in Europe with the Erasmus programme funding intra-continental exchanges of European students. In fact Erasmus is so integral to their college education that European students refer to ‘exchange’ as the ‘Erasmus experience’. Some universities even mandate that students spend at least one semester abroad. The importance that is attached to exchanges as not only a form of cultural exchange but also a part of personality development is seen in other countries too. For obvious reasons this is not the case in India. The idea of ‘finding yourself’ is laughable. As you all know, activities that do not have a direct instrumental effect on ‘CVs’ and ‘job prospects’ are not universally encouraged by parents and university authorities. It is perhaps connected to the notion that travel is a break or a vacation and not an exercise to be pursued in itself because of the value it can add to your life. It doesn’t help that it can be prohibitively expensive without scholarship. But I digress, in this post I want to talk about how this fits into law school life.
Essentially, exchange kicks you out of the law school rhythm you’ve formed after four years and drops you into a new environment. This results in exposure to new things- think of your first year in law school, where constantly being exposed to different things led to it being perhaps the year with the most being learnt in law school (See Spadika’s description of first year-http://nlsquirks.in/reflections-of-a-soon-to-be-alumnus/). On exchange you’ll be figuring out a new system of education, travelling, meeting people from different countries, living more independently, adapting to different cultural norms and learning about a new region of the world. The intensity of the change in environment and the freedom to navigate it on one’s own terms, makes you incredibly self-aware. While any new experience will give you a steep learning curve, I think having this experience in college is significant as the number of months you will have will be the maximum possible, the demands on your time few and the consequences of experimenting and messing up will be minimal.
Moreover, it also gives you that over used concept in law school – perspective. After four years in law school, you would generally have been exposed to most of the major things law school has to offer and by the time you actually go on exchange you could have a fair idea of what you would like to do immediately after college and for the lucky ones, for a longer period of time. If you’re still unclear, being exposed to new and different areas of law, methods of teaching, legal issues and opportunities will help more in the process of deciding than staying in law school. And for those who are clear on how they want to shape their careers- the thought process you applied in law school might not necessarily apply in the world in large- stepping out of law school to test your reasons will make you surer of them and I think you’ll be better for it.
I think one element of exchange that enables the above two things is flexibility. In law school, while theoretically there is enough time to pursue non-NLS mandated interests or activities; we all know that it’s not how it plays out. 4 hours of class, 6 days a week, a set-in-stone project and exam schedule; add to it the very human inclination to procrastinate and a trimester just whooshed past. On exchange, while you may not necessarily have more time (your choice in university will influence how much time you have to devote to curricular work); in general you will definitely have more flexibility to shape those months in line with your priorities and interests.
For me, my desire to go on exchange stemmed from a wish I had since school to backpack across Europe for a few months. So going into the exchange, most of my ideas of how it was going to play out were shaped by the desire to see the maximum possible; I didn’t really have any expectations of it being of any other value. As the months went by though, I was struck by how true all the platitudes about exchange and travel being a transformative experience was. I can’t offer one particular instance because they were so many- the rambling conversations with flatmates, studying courses you actually enjoyed, biking in all kinds of weather (be it snow, hail or something in between), the relentless mundanity of cooking for yourself daily, traveling on a shoestring budget in unfamiliar places, making friends (even if only for a day) in hostels around the world and countless others. All of this cumulatively was not only tonnes of fun but also led to many firsts while at the same time enabling me to look at my own life with fresh eyes.
So why give up your last few months in law school? Potentially miss your last univ week? Voluntarily increase your interaction with the exam department? Turn up in July to give exams that you missed? To quote Jhumpa Lahiri, “Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it.”