Over the years I have partaken in various opportunities of exchanges through education. The first was a high school exchange to the US when I was 17. I thought it would be helpful to cover some bases on what to do in this situation and what to consider leading up to it.
In 2009, I went on an exchange to the US and things will probably have slightly changed but here is some advice I took from this experience.
Where to go?
There are many programmes available when going on exchange. There are many destinations to chose from also depending on what language you want to learn and what culture to experience. I wanted to improve my English which meant that it gave me a vast possibility of choices. First, it is good to look at the possible culture you want to live in. You are becoming part of everyday life and what are the things you always wanted to experience? What is something you do not want? For example, when going to the UK with 17 or 18 you will have a lot of freedom just as you would have probably at home. You are seen as an almost adult who can make their way to and from school alone and other things. The US, on the other hand, shelters their kids more. Even in your early 20s, you might still have a curfew in the US. This means your parents or in this case, host parents give you a specific time which you have to be home for. Also, in the UK with better public transport you can be more independent, nonetheless the US is so different from probably your own home country, if you are from for example Europe, that you would experience something very new. Therefore, the culture and what comes with it is important to consider.
Furthermore, the further from home you go on exchange the more difficult it will be communicating to home due to the time difference and for sure also going home. This might be a good or bad thing. You are more immersed in the experience when you are fully embracing your new home and might get more homesick when you go home throughout your stay. I personally decided for the US because I was always curious about all the things I heard about it and if they were really true. I do not ever regret this decision it was an amazing experience as you can read here. I think the choice of a destination can be hard. On one hand side, you should try and refrain as much as possible from expectations so that you won’t end up disappointed, but on the other, you still have to make a considerate decision which is hard but also personal. What you might like about a place might not appeal to others and some places are more expensive than others to go to, so is it really worth the difference? I often make pro and con lists to help me make up my mind. Then discuss it with your parents and see what they think about your choices.
How long to go?
Most high school programmes offer either one or two semesters which usually means six or twelve months roughly. I think both have their pros and cons. I went for a year and I was glad I did. Yes, you will be gone from home for a long time, you will miss birthdays, maybe Christmas and other occasions that you usually celebrate with your family. The length of a year seems daunting and I felt the same but for me, it was the right choice and I will explain why. First, it does take a while for you to get adjusted to the new surroundings. It will take some time to make friends and get used to things. I started to feel like my English got better about 3 months in and about 6 months in I started to feel like I was making true friendships. Ending the experience then would have been hard for me.
I think it takes longer than 6 months to perfect a language but also to get the full experience. Of course, I missed my family around Christmas, but it was also great to experience a very different approach to Christmas in the US. Also being able to attend Prom, visit NYC in my fall break and spend some of the summer with my friends were some of my favourite memories that I would have otherwise missed. Therefore, I am a big advocate for going for a year even though I also understand that this is not always possible. It might be too expensive, or you would not be able to return to school as easily back home. I do understand that, but I also think it often is a one in a lifetime experience and if you can, go as long as possible. The time will fly.
Which organisation to go with?
There are many different organisations that offer exchanges and depending on where you want to go or where you are from the choices will be different. I will not name specific ones or do any advertisement for the one I chose but I think there are some factors to consider which I will share instead. Of course, price is probably one of the most important things to consider, but not just price but also what do you get for this price. What is included and what is not. Are flights included and insurances? If not what would that costs additionally and is that worth the savings on the package overall? I chose an organisation that was well established in Germany, where I am from, and had over 40 years of experience. This made me feel confident that they have done this kind of exchanges often enough to know what to expect. Also, I went to one of their events where the products they offered were shown and their approach seemed the right one for me.
Further, the size of the organisation allowed me to place more trust in them. Their network was great and they had offices and employees all over the world. This gave me the feeling that there will always be someone available who can help me if needed. Another thing to consider is the living situation provided. Do you want to live with a host family or in for example student housing? Does the company you are looking at provide your choice and how do they recruit their host families? I think when it comes to host families, in particular, it is important to find out how they vet them and what the host families get for hosting you. Some get paid, some don’t. So that is something to consider. I stayed with a host family that hosted me voluntarily which was normal in the state I was. It made sense for them as it gave them the opportunity to learn something about a new culture.
Further, it is good to know what the organisation offers when things go wrong. Do they have an emergency hotline you can call? Do they offer you, someone, to contact abroad other than your host family? What will be their support be while you are there? I think often we don’t want to think of the worst circumstances but it is good to be prepared even if it never is needed. Better than being in a bad situation and not knowing what to do about it. Then before deciding on a company look for reviews of others. What have others experienced and would they recommend the organisation? I don’t think there will be one provider that has only positive feedback as things can go wrong always but it gives you an idea about some things that could happen. And as mentioned before and lastly, go and meet the organisation. Get a feel for them and if it is a fit for you and your family. This can either be done at a fair or at an event they host. Usually, these things need signing up for on their website. I hope this gave some ideas about where to start when finding the right provider for you.
What else to consider?
Some of the things you might have to consider in addition to what I have said above will be discussed now. One of them is that you need to control your expectations which can be very difficult. On one hand site is it is great to get excited about the possibilities but on the other hand site, it could be that you imagine things very differently from reality. This might cause some resentment if things turn out differently. One good mantra I always tried to keep is that things might be different but that is neither good nor bad. Another thing to consider is culture shock which can occur when the culture experienced is very different from the one you are used to. This means that everything can seem strange or weird in a negative way. It helps to just keep an open mind and explore maybe why things are different without any judgment. This can be hard as a culture shock can creep up completely subconsciously.
Nonetheless, the more mindful you approach this the greater the experience will become and maybe be the best time of your life. I hope this helped to give some guidance on what to consider before going on a high school exchange.