A lot of college students consider the idea of studying abroad for a semester, and many students find it to be a rewarding experience. Not as many students take the leap to become a foreign exchange student in high school, but for those that do, their lives will never be the same.
Maybe you’re just toying with the idea of becoming a foreign exchange student, maybe you’ve made up your mind and you’re ready to take the plunge, or maybe you already are a foreign exchange student, and you’re looking for some support.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, continue reading this guide to find guidance and advice for your foreign exchange journey.
What is Being a Foreign Exchange Student Like?
The experience of being a foreign exchange student varies widely based on many factors including what country you travel to and how long you stay. Some students travel to a large city, while some are in a small town.
Some attend a private school, while some attend a public school. Some are placed with a family without any children, while some gain host siblings while being a foreign exchange student. Some study for just a summer and some study for an entire year.
With most programs, you’ll have an orientation before you leave to help set you up for success once you’re abroad. You’ll also be able to contact your host family before you arrive. Once you arrive in your host country, you’ll begin living there as if you are a local and before long, you’ll actually feel like one.
Every student’s journey is unique, but the basics of how being a foreign exchange student works stay the same, and they are pretty simple. You will live abroad with a host family, you will attend school, and you will experience a new culture. Your host family will take you in as one of their own, and you will go on trips, experience the country and local culture, participate in school events, make new friends, and more!
You’ll get to experience your new culture as an insider with your host family. You’ll also get to choose different school activities to participate in, just as you do at your home school. This is a great opportunity to try something new or to stick with a familiar activity, which could help with homesickness and feeling out of place.
How to Become a Foreign Exchange Student
Before You Apply
Before you begin the process of becoming an exchange student, make sure that you and your parents have your finances in order, as being an exchange student isn’t free. Prices vary widely based on the program you choose, how long you plan to stay, and where you plan to go.
If you plan on studying for an entire school year, you can expect to pay around $10,000. You should also keep in mind that you’ll want plenty of spending money once you’re abroad for souvenirs, activities, and anything else that pops up. If you need help paying for your exchange student experience, you can look into loans and exchange student scholarships.
Another necessity to take care of long before you become an exchange student is the paperwork, including a passport and/or a visa. While most programs will help you obtain these documents, it can be a long process, so it’s a good idea to begin the process or at least become knowledgeable of the requirements for these documents before you apply to a program. You don’t want to delay your start or even miss out entirely because you’re waiting for your passport to come in.
You should also make sure you are ready to live in a foreign country without your family or your friends. While being a foreign exchange student can be very rewarding, it can also be very difficult. Talk to your family, friends, and teachers to help work through whether this would be an ideal experience for you or not.
Talk to your guidance counselors at your school to learn more about whether or not your classes from your host school will count at home. This is very important to ask and consider, as it may impact the timing of your high school graduation.
Apply and Choose a Program
Once you are sure you are ready to be a foreign exchange student, you need to choose a country and a program. Continue reading below for more information on different foreign exchange student programs.
After you’ve selected a country and program, you’ll need to apply to the foreign exchange program. The date you need to apply will depend on the program and when you plan to start, but in most cases, you will need to apply at least four months before you intend to begin, and many programs have deadlines earlier than that. If you’re planning to be an exchange student during a typical school year, it’s a good idea to research programs beginning no later than January, and to apply in March or early April.
Most foreign exchange programs will only accept you if you’re in good academic standing. If you already struggle to learn in an environment that is familiar to you, it’s hard to prove you’ll be successful in an unfamiliar, and potentially more rigorous, academic environment. If you struggle in school, work on tutoring, building study strategies, and getting your grades up at least a year before you apply to foreign exchange programs.
Once accepted, your program will place you with a host school and family, and they’ll help you through the process of filling out paperwork, booking flights, meeting your host family, adjusting to your new culture, and everything else in between. They will also talk to you about getting liability insurance, which you’ll need in case of a medical emergency during your exchange.
Foreign Exchange Student Programs
There is a wide variety of foreign exchange programs to choose from; make sure you do your research to find a program that is the right fit for you. A good place to start is the guidance counselors at your school. They will be able to tell you about different programs students have used in the past and will help walk you through the process.
Before selecting a program, think about what country you want to travel to, as different programs provide travel to different countries. It can be overwhelming to choose from all the different exchange student programs. We’ve narrowed down your search a little bit and included information about some of the most popular exchange student programs below. All of the listed programs are certified by the Council on Standards for International Student Exchange.
NorthWest Student Exchange offers a variety of foreign exchange opportunities, from an entire year abroad to summer long programs. Some of the countries they offer include France, Japan, Germany, Spain, and England.
Don’t let the name fool you; this exchange program offers travel to over 30 different countries, having grown immensely since it started in 1976. You can choose to study for an entire school year or for one semester.
AFS is a nonprofit that has been placing foreign exchange students for more than 70 years. AFS places students in 50 different countries. They offer summer, semester, and full year programs.
ISE offers programs that last anywhere from three to twelve months. They also offer cultural programs that last one to eight weeks. These would be a great option if you’re not ready to commit to a full foreign exchange program, or if you want to try a shorter program as a test to see if you would enjoy a full semester or year exchange. ISE places students in Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Spain.
This program offers short summer experiences, half year and whole year foreign exchange programs, and gap year programs. They place students in many countries including Spain, Norway, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, and Chile.
Challenges Foreign Exchange Students Might Face
Especially if you’ve never left your home or your family for a long time before, you’ll probably struggle with homesickness at some point during your exchange. When combined with culture shock (see below) homesickness can be difficult to deal with.
The great thing about a foreign exchange program though is that you’ll be living with a family that will be sensitive to this change for you and will be willing to help you cope.
Culture shock can be, well, shocking. Everything you know and everything about how you view the world can change very quickly when you move to a new country. Culture shock is even more difficult to deal with when you leave your family and friends behind.
It might make homesickness worse, and it may also make you feel depressed, lonely, scared, frustrated, irritable, and tired. If you struggle with culture shock when you go abroad, don’t be afraid to confide in your host family. Doing research on the culture of your host country before you travel can be very helpful as well.
Being the Minority
If you’ve grown up your whole life being part of the majority in terms of race, culture, sexual identity, or any other category, it might be hard for you to suddenly be part of the minority. When you look around a room and nobody looks, talks, or acts like you, it can be hard to feel comfortable, and you might have the sensation of feeling alone in a crowded room.
If at any point you feel threatened or bullied because you are the minority, report the instance to your foreign exchange program immediately. In most cases, though, any struggles with being the minority will come from inside yourself as you learn how you fit into this new culture.
When you live in a different country, you will undoubtedly encounter people who have different customs and practices than you are used you. A hand gesture that is polite in the United States may be very rude in a different country. You may know what you want to say to somebody but won’t be able to get the words across in a way that they will understand. Language and culture barriers can be frustrating, so be patient with yourself and ask others to be patient with you as well.
School can be very challenging when you’re not used to the school system or the way teachers run their classes. This can be especially challenging if you’re studying in a country that speaks a different language.
Give yourself some time to adjust, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help; your teachers, classmates, host parents, and guidance counselors will all be willing to help you learn and adjust. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions in class; your teachers and classmates understand that learning the material might be more difficult for you.
Benefits of Being a Foreign Exchange Student
Not just anyone has the courage to live in a new country away from their family as a teenager. When you face this uncomfortable new reality, you will grow and stretch in ways you have never imagined. You will return home a much more mature and well-rounded person. You’ll also learn more about yourself and how you handle difficult situations, which is invaluable as you go through life and face hardships.
Being a foreign exchange student forces you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, which fosters a confidence unlike any other. It might feel awkward at first to live in somebody else’s house, and it may be hard for you to be yourself when everyone around you is so different.
Once you get comfortable in these situations, though, you’ll learn never to hide who you are and that what makes you different is what makes you interesting. You’ll also learn to advocate for yourself, which is something that you may never have done before, especially if your parents have always advocated for you.
Sure, college is a great place to get away from your parents and stretch your wings, but when you stretch that distance over an entire ocean, things are a little different. Your mom can’t take a road trip to bring you your laptop that you accidentally left at home. You’re really on your own when your support system is thousands of miles away, and you are forced to figure out how to solve your own problems.
Being put in this position pushes you out of your comfort zone, and it can help you become more confident and better equipped to take on challenges for the rest of your life. This is also something that employers recognize and appreciate when they see applicants who have studied abroad.
Studying abroad can be really hard—much harder than people realize, but that’s also part of what makes it such a rewarding experience. Especially if you travel to a country that speaks a different language or has a very different culture from your own, simple everyday tasks can suddenly become very difficult.
Going to the doctor, sending a letter, driving, buying groceries—these are all tasks that come second nature at home, but that may be very different in a foreign country. When you tackle tasks such as these and realize that you are capable of figuring it out on your own, you’ll gain more independence and confidence in your ability to do so.
Learning to become more independent will give you the confidence you need to go out into the “real world” when you graduate college. You’ve already been on your own in a foreign country and figured out how to thrive, so you’ll have more confidence in your ability to do the same when you come home. You may even love your host country so much that you decide to return there to start a life once you graduate, something you’d be much less inclined to do had you never studied abroad.
The sense of independence you gain when you study abroad helps you discover who really are and what you’re passionate about in a way that’s hard to do when you stay close to home and the friends you’ve known all your life. It becomes second nature to experience new things because you don’t have a choice.
Exposure to New Culture
There’s a great big world out there, and far too many of us never get to see it. Exposing yourself to new cultures helps you to be a more empathetic and well-rounded person. You can learn about other cultures all you want when you’re sitting at a desk, but it’s never going to be as meaningful as it is when you experience the culture and meet the people for yourself. You’ll learn how other people live and how to appreciate different ways of thinking.
A study by Christine S. Lee, David J. Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm even found that exposure to new cultures while studying abroad improves creative thinking. When you rarely leave your hometown or state, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own world and way of doing things and forget that there are so many other ways of life. You’ll learn that whether it’s eating a meal or greeting a friend, your way isn’t the only way.
Aside from the fact that experiencing new cultures makes you a better person, it’s also just plain fun and exciting. When you are exposed to a new culture, you also get exposed to their customs, foods, climates, architecture, idiosyncrasies, and so much more. You’ll see the world differently when you realize all that it has to offer.
When universities and employers are looking at potential students and employees, they look for people who take initiative and have confidence in themselves. Strong leaders are also able to understand multiple perspectives and viewpoints, and they’re strong communicators. What better way to prove that you have developed and honed these skills than living in a foreign country?
Unique Educational Experiences
School systems throughout the world vary widely, and what’s standard procedure in one country may be unheard-of in another. Studying abroad introduces you to different ways of teaching and learning as well as different ways of thinking. People from other countries often have a different perspective on the world and on educational concepts. If you struggle with learning from the traditional school system at home, you might be surprised to find that school comes much easier to you in a different country.
Learning from different teaching and educational styles can help you learn and retain information better, and ultimately make you better at your field of study. For example, if you are studying journalism, you’ll learn new writing and interviewing techniques that you would not have been exposed to otherwise. When you combine these techniques with your prior knowledge, you’ll become an even better journalist.
Studying abroad also takes you on the world’s most elaborate and immersive field trips. These can be especially valuable if you study somewhere that is relevant to your major. For example, an art history major might get to spend days at the Louvre, and an architecture major might get to take tours of different types of buildings in South Korea. Here is a great list of study abroad locations matched with majors that benefit from each location.
Another benefit of your unique educational experience is that you’ll get to add your host university to your résumé. Employers like to see that you’re flexible and well-rounded, and this is a great way to show them that. It also shows them that you’ve been exposed to various ways of thinking, which likely makes you more open-minded.
Foreign Language Immersion
Being fluent in a foreign language is invaluable in today’s marketplace, and the best way to truly become fluent is to fully immerse yourself in the language. In fact, many colleges require students majoring in a foreign language to study abroad in a country where the language is spoken.
In a study for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the United States Air Force Academy, researchers found that short term foreign language immersion that students experience when studying abroad stimulates both language and cultural learning. This type of learning is of utmost importance for students who go on to become foreign language teachers, as they can better help their students understand the language and culture they are studying.
Even if you’re not studying a foreign language, studying abroad can still help you develop language skills, as well as the confidence and ability to communicate with others when there is a language barrier. The ability to break past a language barrier is a skill that can land you jobs, clients, and endless opportunities in a global marketplace.
New Friends and Family
Many students truly gain a second family in their host family. It may be a little awkward to live with a new family at first, but most students quickly become comfortable and assimilate as a member of the family.
You’ll meet friends at school, and you’ll likely stay in touch with your friends and host family for the rest of your life. You’ll also have opportunities to meet other exchange students from your home country, and it will be easy to bond over your shared experiences.
Networking & Job Opportunities
With the ease of digital communication, companies are increasingly expanding globally and are looking for employees who are cultured and well-rounded. When you look at the passport statistics, it’s easy to see that having traveled and experienced other cultures automatically gives you a leg up in a competitive job climate.
When it comes to applying for jobs, employers actually see studying abroad as an experience that gives potential employees an invaluable skill set. In fact, a recent study found that 64% of employers think that it’s important for potential employees to have international experience. Often, students who have studied abroad bring a unique perspective to the workplace that is valuable to employers.
Studying abroad also offers you the opportunity to meet and connect with people all over the world. The old saying that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know is so true, and the wider you can cast your net, the more opportunities will open up to you in the future.
The great thing about studying abroad is that it offers so many different ways to meet people of various backgrounds. You’ll be introduced to: other students from your school; study abroad students from other schools; professors, students, and faculty at your study abroad school; and locals in your study abroad country. It’s almost impossible to network this extensively without traveling.
Often, the opportunity to travel is the first thing people think of when considering the benefits of studying abroad, and it really is one of the biggest perks. For many people, this may be the only reason they decide to study abroad, and it’s a valid one. Many people never get to truly see the world outside of tourist destinations. In fact, while the number has been steadily rising every year, still today, less than half of all Americans even have a passport
After college, it becomes much harder for most people to travel, especially for the extended period of time that students get to travel while studying abroad. Jobs, families, kids, and other responsibilities just make traveling harder and more complicated. You may begin your study abroad journey with only the perk of traveling in mind, but you’ll certainly leave with many more benefits you hadn’t even thought of.
Traveling while studying abroad isn’t just limited to your host city, either; most people travel to many places other than their study abroad city. Students who travel to Europe, for example, find it very easy (and cheap) to catch a flight or hop on a train to another city or country for the weekend. For most people, there’s never a better time than college to visit another country on a whim. It will never again be this easy to fly over to Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day or catch a train to Germany for Oktoberfest.
Some students are able to arrange their class schedule to have long weekends, which makes it even easier to travel. If you have a lot of travel related items on your bucket list, now is the time to check them off. No matter where you choose to study abroad, the whole experience will most likely be the most epic trip of your life.
Becoming a foreign exchange student is a big decision, and one that you shouldn’t take lightly. Although it can be an extremely rewarding experience, it isn’t for everyone. Make sure you weigh the pros and cons and really think about your why.
What is it that draws you to studying and living in a foreign country? Is your draw to be a foreign exchange student stronger than the hardships you may face along the way? If so, fully prepare yourself, make your decisions carefully, and be prepared to embark on the journey of a lifetime.