Follow us on Instagram
Try our daily mini crossword
Play our latest news quiz
Download our new app on iOS/Android!

Students come to Princeton for study abroad too

19 students pose in front of a white background. They wear casual clothing.

Exchange students gather prior to the start of the Fall 2023 semester. Courtesy of Jordan Zilla / OIP.

“I think the most common reaction is ‘Oh, I didn't know there were exchange students [at Princeton],’” said Jihyun Lee, a student from the University of Tokyo studying in the Department of East Asian Studies for the fall. “There's only 19 of us so I think it's kind of natural that [Princetonians] react that way.”

“Sometimes I have to tell them a second time. ‘No, no, I’m an exchange student, I’m not an international student. I’m only here temporarily,’” echoed Noah Hildbrand, a Molecular Biology student from ETH Zurich. 


The Office of International Programs (OIP) estimates that about 61 percent of Princeton undergraduates participate in a “significant international opportunity” of 4 or more weeks, which may encompass a range of experiences, including both internships and academic study. A portion of these students will spend an entire term abroad at one of Princeton’s 9 exchange institutions. But who are the exchange students on the other side of Princeton’s partnerships?

Jordan Zilla, Assistant Director of Study Abroad at Princeton, serves as the point of contact for incoming exchange students. 

“By technical definition, ‘exchanges’ are indeed programs designed to guarantee two-way student mobility. The programs that do not require reciprocity are called, in the study abroad field, ‘one way’ or ‘visiting’ programs, and the Office of International Programs also maintains a great number of those that students can pick from without having the reciprocity component embedded in them,” explained Zilla in a statement to the ‘Prince.’ 

Currently, there are 19 incoming exchange students, though not all of Princeton’s 9 partner institutions are represented this semester. In interviews with the ‘Prince,’ transfer students described the cultural challenges and opportunities of studying at Princeton.

Zilla went on to clarify that the number of outbound and incoming students are not always equal in a given year due to varying levels of student interest and security concerns that may limit a particular direction of the exchange. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic proved a challenge to the University’s exchange program, which was paused until Fall 2021 but which is now trending toward pre-pandemic levels. The exception was the partnership with Tsinghua University, where Princeton students already in China were allowed to study there as an alternative to Princeton’s remote curriculum.

Princeton’s first exchange partnership was established in 1999 with the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, or Sciences Po, in France. An engineering exchange program was established with Oxford in 2002, allowing BSE students to ensure that they remain on track with their degrees.


Other partnerships today include Bocconi University in Milan, Italy; ETH Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland; Tsinghua University in Beijing, China; University of Cantabria in Santander, Spain; University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, China; University of Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan; and the National University of Singapore (NUS), which is currently in its first iteration.

Incoming exchanges pay regular tuition to their home university and are then responsible for remaining expenses at Princeton such as housing, dining, and textbooks. The exception is for students from Hong Kong University, who have a separate tuition agreement with Princeton. According to Zilla, “exchange students are not eligible for Princeton financial aid, but they can typically seek out scholarships or other sources of funding through their home institutions.” Outgoing Princeton students who participate in an exchange pay their regular tuition to Princeton, and may receive assistance with remaining expenses because Princeton's “financial aid travels with you,” as the OIP website states.

Selection takes place via a two-step process. Exchange students are first nominated by their home universities before completing a Princeton-specific application through the Global Programs System.

Madeleine Iselin, a dual-degree student from Sciences Po and Sorbonne Université, already knew that she would be studying abroad, meaning it was a matter of deciding which university she wanted to attend. At Sciences Po, all undergraduates complete a mandatory international exchange in the final year of their three-year degree.

Get the best of ‘the Prince’ delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe now »

Iselin, who is studying in the Department of History at Princeton, said her primary criteria was a strong academic environment. “I think Americans also did a great job with campus soft power, meaning that they advertise their college campuses all over the world. So it’s like an image, something you kind of want to live once in your life,” she added.

Marliini Heikkonen, 1 of 3 NUS students to participate in the inaugural exchange with Princeton, is also studying History. Heikkonen noted that she wanted a destination that would push her out of her comfort zone, adding that she wanted to challenge her perceptions of the U.S.

“Obviously this is a skewed media representation, but [the U.S.] seems like a very unsafe or prejudiced place,” Heikkonen explained. “But definitely coming here now, I realize that Princeton is truly a bubble. Like this is such a safe space, at least that’s what it feels like.”

“Why I picked Princeton is [because] I wanted the academic rigor … I wanted to experience how it was like to be in an Ivy League. And now experiencing it, it’s like 600 pages of readings per week. [I’m] kind of dying,” she continued. She mentioned that any pressure she feels, however, is internal because her credit will transfer without the grade. According to Heikkonen, NUS is notorious for its bell curves and does not transfer grades due to concerns of grade inflation.

Zilla noted that Princeton is occasionally invited to participate in virtual exchange fairs, though Heikkonen explained that the research process is largely student-driven. “You're doing the work on like which region you want to go, which university you want to go.  Which is good, I guess. It gives you a lot of independence, you get to choose. But [there’s] no hand holding whatsoever, both from my university or from Princeton. There’s no information, and even online obviously the information’s quite sparse,” Heikkonen added.

For Hildbrand, coming to Princeton was much more spontaneous. “We had some information event for my department…I had to decide very fast, because like the event was on Tuesday, the deadline to apply for the American universities was on Friday. That week, I was just like, ‘Okay, well, I guess I'm gonna figure out if I want to do it,’” he said. 

Other universities, such as Sciences Po, have more organized exchange infrastructure, including a search engine that allows their students to find opportunities by region.

Between their official acceptance to Princeton and their arrival on campus, the exchange students received academic support and were familiarized with campus life through several virtual information sessions and check-in meetings.

“Once students join our university, they are considered like any other degree-seeking Princeton student and can benefit from all the resources Princeton has to offer,” Zilla noted, with some exceptions when it comes to the Center for Career Development (CCD). 

Hildbrand expressed satisfaction with the resources he is provided at Princeton, saying that that any gaps are "just small stuff. There was some career fair, and we couldn't sign up since we're exchange students. [The CCD] had limited space, and they really wanted to do it for Princeton students. But, that's the only thing I can think of."

When the group finally arrived at Princeton in August, they were welcomed with an exchange orientation aimed at establishing community within the cohort, featuring events like dinners organized by the Davis IC and OIP. Heikkonen said she particularly enjoyed meeting the deans of the residential colleges and leadership from housing and dining services. In addition, exchanges had the opportunity to participate in aspects of freshman orientation programming and were provided with a copy of the Pre-read, though Iselin said that because the exchanges are all upperclass students, they felt “a bit weird.”

Nevertheless, Iselin said that because the exchange cohort is so small, “there's more attention that can be devoted to us. They take you by the hand, show you to your dorm, and tell you where to go.”

“When I first got to Princeton, it honestly felt like I was on an island because it is quite a bubble,” reflected Lee, who is used to commuting an hour between her dorm and University of Tokyo’s liberal arts campus located in the bustling city center. Lee said that while it was initially a large adjustment, she has started to enjoy Princeton’s small community even more than her urban environment back home. “I just like waking up in Henry Hall, and being like, ‘Wow, I am at Princeton.’”

Incoming exchanges have the option to live in upperclass housing or in a residential college. 

“Since at Princeton, there's residential colleges and housing, even for upperclassmen, everybody stays on campus,” Lee said. “So I feel like that integratedness on campus is really different. Like, your friends aren't just your classmates, but your friends are people you have meals with. Your friends are people who basically share your entire life. The connection you get from that; it’s really different from what we get at the University of Tokyo. I guess it's not like it's deeper or shallower but I think it's just a different form of connection.”

While some of the exchanges like Lee and Iselin were assigned to room with fellow members of their cohort, others were placed with traditional, degree-seeking Princeton students. 

Abani Ahmed ’25 is Heikkonen’s roommate. Ahmed, who chose to join the housing waitlist last spring, described feeling confused after learning of her new assignment and unsuccessfully searching for Heikkonen’s email on TigerBook. The two met for the first time during move-in.

“I had no idea that we had exchange students … I know Princeton students who've studied abroad – like many – but I do not know any of the opposite,” said Ahmed. “Our intersection kinda only happened because of the room situation.”

Heikkonen spoke positively about having a Princetonian as a roommate, explaining that she was lucky to receive a “family welcome” from both Ahmed and her parents. “It’s really nice because you have someone to talk to, to ask literally regarding anything in Princeton like right in your house….I think having a Princetonian as a roommate is definitely a plus. You have one extra friend.”

At the same time, Heikkonen described her housing situation as a lowlight of her time at Princeton, referencing the struggle of using common restrooms as a hijabi.

Iselin said the biggest culture shock she experienced is the lack of culture around consumption and environmental consciousness. “For the last few years in Europe, that's all we talk about, and people are super conscious about their consumption habits. And here, I feel like most people don't care. And it's a bit weird when you see that they're like Princeton students.“

According to Zilla, incoming exchanges may choose to enroll in a University dining plan, or select from other options such as a co-op or eating club. After learning about Terrace, one of the eating clubs – which is specifically listed as a possibility in OIP’s Exchange Student Guide – from previous exchange students, five members of the current cohort chose to sign in there. Terrace is the only eating club to accept exchange students.

Since many of the exchange students expressed difficulty developing sustained relationships because of their status as upperclassmen and found it hard to join extracurricular clubs due to their inability to commit to a full year of participation, they described Terrace as providing an important social space.

“I think most eating clubs wouldn't allow us to stay, especially because most people are here for a semester...And we can't do bicker because we arrive in the fall. But, Terrace is so welcoming. People are so open and so warm. It was really nice of them to let us join,” said Iselin. “I feel like on campus, it's important to feel like you're part of a community, otherwise you can get lost really fast. Having [Terrace] to take your meals and socialize in is a huge help in adjusting to life in a new country.”

Iselin described the eating clubs as “an odd system,” but said she was glad that they exist because she finds them less scary than Greek life. “We hear some stuff about eating clubs, like different reputations, and it's really fun to analyze from kind of an observer standpoint,” she added.

Hilbrand agreed, saying “I love it. I love it. It was a great thing to join that kind of social club or whatever I spend time in. It’s very cool. They do a lot of fun things, very weird things, sometimes like very random, but I love it.”

With regards to the student culture here, Iselin noted that she was taken aback by the way Princeton students spend their time. “Here, students are really active and they have their whole calendar planned out, their whole lives planned out just to the minute. That's definitely a big cultural shock,” she said. “I don't want to spend my year with my life timed to the minute, but also just seeing people that are young being so active and so entrepreneurial, and really looking to do things all the time, it can be inspiring. It's good energy.”

In addition to the social differences from their home universities, the exchange students said they appreciated the different level of academic freedom provided by Princeton’s liberal arts curriculum.

“It’s very different in the sense that you can choose all your classes here, and we don’t have that at ETH. Like when I study biology [at ETH Zurich], I have a pretty strict curriculum,” said Hildbrand. “I only have STEM stuff.”

For Lee, this flexibility means she is able to maintain a similar focus as her Japan and East Asia major back home — now through a U.S.-Japan comparative perspective at Princeton — while also experimenting with coursework in other departments.

Several students also emphasized the many resources available to them at Princeton, whether easy access to research materials and rare manuscripts at Firestone or the individual advising.

Exchange students who are double majoring or seeking dual degrees at their home institutions must select one department to join at Princeton. For Heikkonen, who studies philosophy in addition to history back in Singapore, guidance from her chosen Department of History at Princeton has been valuable and unique. 

“The dean of undergraduate history studies gave me like half an hour of his time before course selection, just [to] like to listen to me talk about history and what I want to do and whatever classes I wanted. And he advised me which professors I should go for, which are better suited for my needs,” said Heikkonen. “I was kind of surprised, mainly because again, NUS is such a large school. You usually don't have that one on one time. But here, we do.”

While Heikkonen said she appreciates “the culture of building a relationship with [professors],” it was difficult adjusting to the “participation culture” of American universities like Princeton. 

“The participation culture here in classes. I think it’s very different, and it kind of ties in with a perception of Americans being more talkative. It's not a bad thing. But I was thoroughly surprised. People raise their hands to just say anything. And the professors are all so kind that they’re like ‘Good question,’” Heikkonen noted. “Like at least in my home university, everybody’s fearful of sounding stupid…so we only say things when we’re sure that it’s something productive, something contributive and smart. Which I guess also has it’s downsides.”

Hildbrand said he felt similarly, explaining, “I don’t like participation credit. Yeah, that’s very forced,” compared to the purely exam-based grading at ETH.

As the fall semester draws to a close, Heikkonen and Hildbrand are among 15 students from the current cohort who will return to their home universities. The 4 students on full-year exchanges will be joined by 5 new students in the spring. 

“Many people (including staff, faculty, and students) are not aware that we have exchange students as they are a very unique population on Princeton’s campus. They are a small group, and they are international students, but they are not degree-seeking students, so they are a special category of student, in many ways,” explained Zilla.

“Their presence on campus also helps Princeton students see the value of study abroad firsthand, and our students may feel encouraged or excited about the idea of attending that student’s home university at a later time. Many times, students have told me that they were excited to attend a university abroad because they met one of the exchange students here and learned more about the program,” she continued.

Coming from a university where exchanges are required, Iselin shared Zilla’s perspective, saying that she hopes to encourage more Princetonians to take advantage of exchange opportunities.

“If you see any exchange students, say ‘hi’ to them,” added Iselin, who will remain here in the spring. 

Sejal Goud is the associate Features editor for the ‘Prince.’

Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]