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Plan a Year Abroad for a Gap Year

Updated on October 29, 2014

Recently I read an article about how more high school graduates are taking a year off before entering college to have a gap year. Some colleges see 15-25 students who enroll after their gap year. The challenge that colleges are finding are that gap-year students are taking a year off to work, and often do not further their academics or are less likely to complete their postsecondary education. After earning a paycheck, these individuals face challenges of being motivated to go back to school or be accepted for some schools. Some gap-year programs that offer a plan that are recommended by school administrations are the best bet for these kids.

Twenty years ago I was ahead of the trend and spent the year after high school as a Rotary exchange student in Germany. The greatest difference between what I did and what other students are doing for their gap year is that I had a plan, one that shaped my adult life.

Learn More about High School Exchange Programs

I started learning about the different high school exchange programs when my family hosted a Belgian girl in the early 80s. Heidi visited through the AFS (American Field Service) program. She spoke perfect English and brought a fresh approach to living to our household. She found our way of living quirky, but endearing. After that, my sisters went to high school, befriended the exchange students each year, and before long, our home became one of the meeting places for exchange students in the area. I can remember occasions when "Ecuador" played piano with "Japan" and "Sweden" played badminton over the clothesline with "South Africa".

One of my older sisters was the first in the family to become a Rotary exchange student. Rotary International also has a long history in their student exchange programs. Many of the local clubs host foreign students and send local students abroad each year. Though my sister's first choice was Japan, she was still thrilled to have her second choice of Australia. Before email and Skype, we communicated through monthly phone calls and numerous letters. In true baby-sister fashion, I wanted to do the same thing she did. I wanted to go to Germany as it was the land of our ancestors and the language I chose to study in high school for four years.

While those two organization were common in my area, they are not the only ones. It is easy to search the Internet for related keywords like "student exchange" or "foreign exchange student", but speaking with students and families who are familiar with exchange programs can share insight about pros, cons, and the legitimacy of a program.

The High School Exchange Experience

As a high school exchange student in a suburb of Bonn, Germany, I was enrolled in a German Gymnasium, or college-preparatory school. Even though I already graduated from high school in the United States, I was placed in the 11th grade and studied with my peers. I took History, Biology, Mathematics, German, Art, Music, Chemistry, French, Gym, and Religion. I already met all of my academic requirements I needed for high school graduation and college admissions, I was expected to actively participate and complete assignment in all of my classes.

What I learned in my year abroad was the difference of perspective. I discovered how "streaming" students worked in the education system from fifth grade on and how much more the 16-year olds in this kind of school knew compared to when I was a high school junior. My math class, for example, taught me about trigonometry, an area of math I did not study in the United States until I was in college.

My friends learned a great deal about me and gained a perspective of my country. A handful of my German classmates had already been exchange students themselves or had connection in the United States, but the majority were just learning that not every person or location in my country was like that portrayed in movies and television. Though my friendship with other exchange students in my school or region of the country did not help in my language acquisition, we were able to compare our experiences to determine what was cultural and what was individual.

The Big Difference Between High School Exchange Programs and College Study Abroads

High school exchange programs are immersion experiences for students to learn among their peers. The focus is not so much the studies, but the awareness and acceptance of different cultures. The exchange students become ambassadors of their country and bring what they learn abroad back to their peers at home. Their language fluency and tolerance of people who may differ than their community are skills that cannot easily be duplicated in a traditional classroom or online program. What exchange students learn in one year can help them decide with more confidence what they want to pursue for a major.

Study abroad programs are opportunities for college students to study at a partner school of their college or university. While many students travel to different countries to attend courses in a different country and learn a different language in order to interact with the locals, their courses are part of an Americanized program or conducted primarily in English. This is a part of their educational plan, but as part of their major.

Cost of Exchange Programs

It is important to research the different types of exchange programs and get an idea of the cost. Many programs charge a program fee that can get into the thousands of dollars. When I was an exchange student with Rotary, we were responsible for the plane ticket, insurance, and any incidentials prior to departure, like passport, visa expenses, etc. In some cases, outbound exchange students are eligible for scholarships to help with such costs.

Those costs can get a student to their destination, but there are more costs and fees that can incur. Some students may need school uniforms, public transportation passes, and other items that are not covered by the organization or the host family. Students can open a bank account so that they can have a safe place for a monthly allowance. Family members can wire money to their child abroad or the organization may offer a stipend for small expenses. A credit card can help in case of emergencies or large purchases. I had my own card when I was abroad to buy a train pass for long-distance trips or souvenirs. My parents gave me their blessings to use it, but I used it sparingly.

As a guest in a host family's home, it is not polite to expect them to pay for everything. They have agreed to provide housing, food, and sometimes they will invite students to events, museums, and other places in which they will treat. Open communication is important so that there are no awkward moments later. When I first talked to my host parents before I left for Germany, they told me that they had already made plans for a trip to Turkey for their fall vacation. I was welcome to join them, however they asked that I pay for my own plane ticket. We were able to plan ahead and budget for the trip and I enjoyed their hospitality and guidance in a country I would have not otherwise visited.

Inexpensive Ways to Treat a Host Family

  • Cook dinner for them. I brought taco seasoning packets from home and made them an easy Mexican dinner for them to try.
  • Invite them to an event or museum and pay for admission. If there is something you want to do, like a museum, outdoor fair, or something in your host town, ask them to join you and offer to pay for their entrance fees as a thank-you for all they do.
  • Share your skill. If you play an instrument, perform for them. If you are good at art, draw a picture for them. When they are busy with work or school, as you will be too, show them that you appreciate them with a kind gesture.

Plan a Gap-Year Abroad

High school exchange programs can last a month, a semester, or a year. Some students are able to transfer their credit from a foreign school, but gap-year students do not have to worry about graduation requirements.

The best resources for exchange programs are the students who have returned from their year abroad or exchange students currently in your area high schools. They can advise if they have had good luck with their coordinators and if they have received support from their organization. Rotary International has clubs all over the world and have years of experience working with exchange students. Other organizations have similar good experiences and support for youth abroad. Gap-year students will gain more from a structured plan abroad than spending a year at home working minimum wage and wondering what they will do with their lives.


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