Alumni Spotlight: Hannah Ochterbeck


Hannah is a recent American high school graduate who spent her twelfth year as a foreign exchange student in India.

Why did you choose this program?

I was navigating the study exchange process on my own, and AFS had the easiest website to navigate as well as the most readily accessible information regarding their programs. Everything was clearly laid out, and the appearance of a large international network made it seem like a mostly safe option.

What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

AFS was very helpful with navigating the application system. They called me and suggested that I apply to a certain scholarship, and then guided my family through the acceptance process as well. When my flight information came through, they were very thorough. Once in my host country, I was guided by the appointed school counselor.

The program was so complete that it was over-protective. They required that they were a part of every activity I participated in, and I had to request travel waivers every time I wanted to venture outside the city limits.

My particular program did not offer many trips. Only two, in total. Every other trip was organized by myself, and I had to fight the local and national offices who were concerned about my safety on unproportioned levels for the opportunity.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

You need to pack enough clothes, but preferably ones that you wouldn't mind leaving behind when leaving because your suitcase will inevitably weigh past the luggage limit.

You have to be prepared to give up your freedom... and toilet paper.

Prepare ahead. Search online for places in your city that sell foreign items. Trust me. You'll want to know where those places are.

Fight for your freedom with polite and professional determination. Do not be afraid to let your voice be heard. If your host situation is lacking, encourage improvements.

Give your all to learn the language, even if language programs are not offered to you. I know it's hard, but try to learn the basics before you even arrive. I did not do this, and I regret it.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

School took up most of the day, and the rest is very situational.

Because I was in India, and my host family was decently protective, while also keeping insane schedules, I generally was a shut-in during the day and then taken to night clubs (aka country clubs) and restaurants at night until early the next mornings. I generally tried to catch up on sleep during my shut-in moments.

I found a Christian organization and got more and more involved in it as time went on. Near the end of my stay, I was trusted by my host family enough to visit a daycare for children after school every day, and attend church every Sunday.

Indians love to dance, and weddings are prolific in the winters. This equates to a lot of mundane down time and then periods of extreme partying.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I was honestly fearless... until after I had arrived. At that point, I was worried that I would not get along with my host family. Although it was not an issue that could be "overcome", it was something that I worked at constantly throughout my exchange. It was my choice to remain faithful to my determination to invest 100% into my given host family. Although I do not regret it, I also do not recommend it. Unless you have a higher calling for which you're enduring a persistent hardship, there is no reason to subject yourself to unnecessary difficulty.

My takeaway? Give it your all, and remain faithful to a cause... if it's worth it. Otherwise, the best decision is to look out for your own best interest (but obviously care about those around you).

In simpler terms, be determined to have an amazing exchange – whatever that means to you in the moments during your exchange, and in whatever ways are relevant to your exchange.

How was it like living in India?

I arrived in India during their Monsoon season. Because I was not familiar with the concept of a season designated entirely to rain, I assumed that the sky was always grey and the air always heavy. It was far from beautiful at the beginning – in more ways than even the weather. But, have heart. The seasons change (in more ways than the weather). You will more than likely have to find beauty and adventure in places they appear to be absent.

No toilet paper? After ten months, you'll prefer water.

You have to boil hot water for your bucket baths? Pretend you've gone back in time (and appreciate hot, flowing water when you have it again.)

You share no commonalities with those around you and making friends seems impossible? Ask questions and listen in-between. But not too many questions. In many cultures, over-eagerness is classlessness.

You're too tall for literally every piece of clothing everywhere? Learn how to sew your own clothes and feel like a totally glorious individual full of refined talents and amazing abilities!

These were just a few of the things I addressed in my exchange process. Everyone's experience is bound to be completely different.

My point is simply this: treasure these moments of challenge for what they are, and do not extrapolate them into horrific trials, nor shove yourself into denial and ignore the hardship until you snap into a pool of tears and defeat (I'm speaking from personal experience lol). Rather,

Step by step.

Breath by breath.

Find your joy.

Jesus always helps.