How To Be A Foreign Exchange Student - My Story
Broaden Your Horizons - Become An Exchange Student
Is there a country that you long to see? Do you dream of adventure beyond the boundaries of your own little world? Are you seeking a change of pace that will alter your life and expand your horizons in ways unknown? Or are you simply looking for something to do, something different, something challenging?
Being a foreign exchange student is all of that and so much more. What begins as a stirring in your soul can end up transporting you to a whole new life and you may not recognize yourself at the end. You may just transform into the person you have always been at heart.
I want to give you a look into the decision to study abroad and to choose an student exchange program. A look colored from my perspective. The logistics, the application, the fees, those are simple things that can be done quite easily. It's the internal application in your heart that can prove a little trickier.
In 1987 I traveled to Norway as an exchange student . I spent an entire year living with a Norwegian family, going to school and making friends (and you can hear all about my year and see more pictures here). And it still stands as one of the most life changing decisions I have ever made (right up there with getting married and having children). I would do it again in a flash.
Here is my story.
All Images copyright laurapeterson215 unless otherwise noted. This is me, in the traditional costume of the region I lived in during my year in Norway.
Hosting An Exchange Student - A great way to learn about being part of youth exchange.
This is my host mother and sister on the family porch in Norway. My host sister was also an exchange student, to the United States, the year before I lived with their family.
Given that you're reading this lens, most likely, you've heard of student exchange programs before and I'll venture to guess that either you or someone you love is considering being an exchange student. And while you are asking the question, "How do I [they] become an exchange student?" I bet the bigger question on your mind is "Can I do this?" Can I give up a year (or summer) of my current life, right in the midst of my high school years and live with complete strangers, in a completely new place where they may not even speak the same language? Can I?Ã
Yes. Yes you can. Let me be your biggest cheerleader, your biggest advocate. You can.
There are some things to consider as you set about to up-end your life and I'll get to those shortly. But first, have you ever met an exchange student? Do you know any foreign students currently living in your town? Has your family hosted an exchange student?
I would highly suggest finding one if you haven't met any before. Look at some of the local exchange programs (some of the biggies are AFS, YFU, the rotary club) and contact them to start. Are there students currently at your school?
My family hosted our first exchange student, Sussi from Finland, when I was ten years old. We were a last minute host family (another family backed out I think) and Sussi arrived right before we were leaving on a road trip to New Jersey for my cousin's wedding. What must that have been like for her? To show up with a new family and be whisked away to a family event? Crazy! But I think it gave us a unique opportunity to get to know her more closely than if we had stayed at home until school started.
The year after Sussi lived with us, my sister left for a year in Denmark. During the second half of that year, we hosted a boy, Mads, also from Denmark (completely coincidence, it's not a requirement to host someone from the country you or your child goes to). And our third experience hosting an exchange student was when I was a sophomore in high school. Babette from Germany. She and I were very close in age and shared a room while she lived with us.
Would I have made the decision to go without having had exchange students in our house? I'm not sure I would have, but mainly because I may not have known about the opportunity. Living with these students, welcoming them into our family gave me a unique insight into what it is like and planted the seed in my mind. When you see someone else doing it, it's much easier to think, "I could do that too."
So Now You've Met A Student From Another Country. - How do YOU make the decision for you?
The entire group of YFU Norway exchange students at our mountain camp, just before heading to our host families and our new life. I'm just about dead center, with a denim jacket. 1987
Making the decision to leave your life as you know it and venture into the unknown ultimately comes down to making a choice. You can write pro and con lists (I did). You can talk it out with friends and family (some friends won't want you to go because they are afraid of missing you, losing you...). Family can be tough too, depending on your exposure to exchange programs. As a mom now, I will encourage my sons to go to other countries but I know I will have a difficult time letting them go.
I had very mixed feelings when I first considered leaving home. I didn't want to leave my friends. I would be gone for my junior year of high school, a year that felt really important in a lot ways. I was worried that my friendships would change while I was gone. I worried it would be too weird when I came back and I would have a tough time adjusting to my "regular" life again. I worried about the family I would have, whether I'd feel supported, who I would turn to when things got tough. I wondered how I would learn the language.
You can worry and think about all these things and hash it over but in the end, I think it comes down to a choice. A gut feeling. A knowing deep inside that while you may be scared and uncertain and unaware of all the things that may come up along the way, you'd rather take the risk because it feels like the rewards could be so great. And they are. They truly are.
Here's what happened after my year. My friendships did change. Some were still good, some drifted away. When I was making the choice to go, what made it easier for me was I knew that when I returned to my home, I would have one year remaining of high school. I knew that even if all my friends had moved on leaving me friendless (and if you have good friends, that's very unlikely), I'd only have one year before moving on to college. I knew I could handle one more year.
Coming back to an American high school after being in Europe was a little strange. And toward the end of the year I was ready to leave, but I think that was normal senioritis...the normal process of growing beyond the institution of school and getting ready to spread my wings and fly to my adult life. But my fears of not adjusting back to my world just didn't come true.
Perhaps the biggest change for me when I returned home was that my parents were in the midst of a divorce. Thankfully I knew about it before I returned and had a few months to prepare myself. If they had waited to tell me, I think I would have gotten off the plane when I returned home, heard the news and then said, put me back on the plane!
If you're still struggling to commit to a decision (you know, indecision is in fact a decision) ask yourself this: What would I regret more, having the opportunity and not taking it, or taking the chance to challenge yourself? Imagine you are forty years old thinking about this one choice. What would you tell your teenage self? Trust yourself. You can do this.
How Long Will Your Youth Exchange Last?
This is Tom and Todd, two American students that were in Norway with me. The both learned to knit and were talking about knitting at an exchange student gathering in Bergen, Norway. In fact, the sweater Tom (on the right) is wearing was made by his own hands. Pretty cool, huh?
There are several programs to choose from when you decide to be an exchange student. YFU has the options for year-long, semester, summer and gap year programs. Once you have settled on a program, the logistics of becoming a student will be similar in most programs. Gap year programs cover the year after you have graduated from high school. So if you aren't certain about college and what comes next for you, consider a year abroad. In today's economy and with the skyrocketing costs of college, I think this makes perfect sense for seniors that just haven't figured out what comes next for them.
The Exchange Student Survival Kit - All the things you need to know
This book came out 20 years after I left for Norway, but I wish it had been available. Highly rated, it's written by Dr. Bettina Hansel, who has had years of student exchange experience with AFS. She writes of how technology has changed student exchange (much more connection with friends and family than when I was studying abroad! Then we relied on telephones and snail mail!). Also important, is discussions of war and crime, the changing of society and family life and so much more. Whether you are undecided or ready to go in a few months, this will be a valuable guide.
Tell me where you would love to go (or where you did go) in the comments
You might just get to visit amazing places like in this picture. This is Hammerfest, Norway, the northern most city in the world. I traveled there by boat with a group of exchange student from all over the world. We passed the arctic circle, saw the midnight sun and fished and had fun. Such great memories!
Would you like to be an exchange student?
What Do I Need To Do To Be Part of An Exchange Program? - Ask lots of questions.
I think this is the only photo with my entire host family with me. I love this shot! This is outside the family house.
There are countless student exchange programs. When I went, I chose Youth For Understanding primarily because that's where our hosted students came from and I didn't really know of any others. Now you can do a google search and find pages filled with programs.
My suggestion would be to find people that have been part of the organizations that interest you. Your decision may also be affected by what country you would like to visit, and whether you would like a year long program (I highly recommend this!), a half year or a summer. Different organizations offer different options.
See if the program offers information sessions, preferably with current students from other countries, as well as alumni from previous years in attendance. Ask questions. Talk with students. Find out how they manage issues that arise. What happens if you have an accident while you are there? Will you have some form of insurance? Can you travel beyond your host country? Are there organized exchange student gatherings and learning opportunities? Can you drive while there? How much will it cost? Will you be able to have any visits from your family? What does the program do if your host family just isn't a match for you?
Ask these questions. I broke my leg while I was in Norway and thankfully I had insurance through my program. My host family wasn't financially obligated either. And I got to see the inside of the Norwegian health care system. Fun stuff.
I think one of the most important factors in whether you will have a good year or not is how well you are matched with your host family. So finding a program that takes great care to match students and families is important. This isn't to say that you will be matched with a family so well that there is never any conflict. That's simply not realistic and when you think about it, I'm guessing there is conflict with the family you have at home. So. Conflict free isn't the goal. The goal is finding a family that will support you and be there for you. A family committed to integrating you into their lives and inviting you to be part of their family. It really makes a world of difference.
Some Different Student Exchange Programs
There are a wide variety of exchange student organizations. Make sure to check out each one for yourself. Here are some starting points for you.
AFS has been around for more than 65 years and is one of the most well-known exchange organizations around.
- Rotary Programs
Rotary programs have been around for over 75 years. Choose from over 80 countries.
In existence for over 35 years, ASSE originally began as an exchange betweeen Sweden and the United States. Now there are over 30 countries that participate in the exchange program.
- Youth For Understanding
YFU is the organization I went through for my year as an exchange student. YFU started in 1951 as an effort to heal wounds created by World War II. The first students were from Germany and they came to live in the United States. The goal: to build br
Learning A New Language
In the middle of my year abroad, a small group of exchange students gathered at a remote cabin to connect, see how life was going and have some fun. There was dancing, eating and talking about our year. On the way, I had to purchase a "halv kylling" or half chicken. I didn't know what that meant when I read the flyer about what I was supposed to buy! It was only when I found the place to buy it that I really understood what I was getting!
One of the best ways to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in a place where it is spoken all around you, all the time. You'll learn the conversational language which is really how we communicate. While it can be frustrating to learn a new language, the rewards are great.
YFU did their best to equip us with as much language and cultural knowledge as possible. Before leaving my home, I was given books and information to start learning the language. Once we arrived in Norway, our entire group of exchange students was whisked away to a mountain school for a week to learn the language, the culture and get to know other exchange students. It was an amazing time.
For those of you that are considering going to a country that speaks your native tongue as a primary language, please reconsider. If you are a native English speaker, unless your heart is absolutely set on visiting Australia or New Zealand for a year, I recommend finding a country that speaks another language. Perhaps one you haven't studied in school. I knew only a handful of Norwegian words before I set foot in the country and only because I had a language book provided by the exchange organization. I didn't know if I was pronouncing the words correctly (this was pre-internet, mind you). I knew very little. My host family spoke English quite well, as is common in many countries, and I had no trouble communicating with them. Even if they don't speak English, as happened in my sister's case, you will learn. You'll learn faster than you think you will.
Eventually, you'll begin thinking in your new language. And you'll even start dreaming in it. I still have dreams in Norwegian now and then (usually the type of dream where I can't remember a Norwegian word and I'm in school, having a test, or that kind of stress dream!). The greatest thing is the sense of accomplishment when you push through your limits and really learn this new thing. You'll have waves of excitement and fun, frustration and annoyance and then ultimately accomplishment. What I can tell you is you WILL learn. You can't help it. It will happen.
A Great Way To Learn a Language Before You Arrive In Your Host Country
Pimsleur language programs are excellent at helping you learn a language. This comprehensive program comes highly recommended as an excellent way to start learning. You'll learn BokmÃ¥l, and the Oslo dialect. Of course, if you are traveling to another country, you'll need a different Pimsleur course!
Logistics - The process
A group of exchange students (and me, in the red pants) on a boat trip up the coast of Norway to Hammerfest, the northern most city in the world! We passed the arctic circle, saw the midnight sun and enjoyed lots of fun, fishing and being together with other exchange students.
Once you have settled on an organization, the logistics of becoming a student will be similar in most cases. You will need to apply to the program and select the country you wish to visit. Some countries will have a language requirement (meaning you need to have some prior knowledge of the language spoken in your host country). Most likely, you will have an interview. Once your application has been approved, you'll begin the process of preparing to leave. It's really that simple.
Tuition costs vary depending on the length of stay and the country you will be visiting AND the exchange organization you use. Some programs also offer scholarships and information about fund raising for your trip. Don't let cost stop you. There are always options if it really is your dream to go.
Emotions Throughout The Year
YFU Norge gave us this chart of what we could expect from our emotions throughout our year.
For the most part, the emotion curve depicted on the chart held true for me. In the beginning was excitement tinged with nervousness. Toward the middle of the year, there was some homesickness but a more settled feeling. As the year wrapped up, there were a whole host of feelings...from excitement to be going home and seeing friends and family, to sadness over leaving my new found friends and family.
A lot of people suggested that Christmas would be difficult and is a time when most students experience homesickness but that wasn't true for me. There were so many exciting and wonderful traditions and foods when I was with my Norwegian family that there was no time to miss home. It was a most amazing experience for me.
A bit more challenging was New Year's Eve. I had just broken my ankle on December 30 and was in a bit of pain. My friends and family kept telling me about the fireworks that would go off that evening and I think I expected something big. Remember that I grew up in Florida and was used to Walt Disney World style fireworks. What I experienced would have been great had I not been expecting something bigger. Perhaps it was the pain from my ankle also that colored the night. Other than that, there were moments, here and there that were more challenging. But overall, I was so happy during the year. I could not have asked for a better family, town or year. It truly was tremendous.
The Benefits Of Youth Exchange
I could list pros and cons here, giving you an exhaustive list of things for you to consider. But I won't. Because your list won't match mine or anyone else's. There are common things to think of but to be completely honest, the benefits of being an exchange student FAR outweigh any possible negatives.
My grandfather died while I was in Norway and my parents decided to divorce. And while it was hard to be away from my family and miss my grandfather's memorial service, it was infinitely more rewarding to be experiencing what I was. Life will happen around you. It doesn't stop while you are gone. But you will be changed and shaped and it will still be an amazing time. I know for certain that my grandparents would not have wanted me to miss out on my experience in order to be near them when my grandpa died. It all works out for good.
- Learn and become fluent in a new language.
- Learning a new culture deepens your understanding of your own culture and broadens your appreciation of the world.
- Increase your college opportunities. Colleges love students that have studied abroad.
- Expand your job opportunities.
- Learn about the global world and your part in it.
- Make incredible new lifelong friends and family.
- Experience another culture from an insider's viewpoint. By living with a family, you gain a true understanding of your host country's culture.
- By experiencing a new culture, you open your eyes to your own culture and can ask better questions. Ultimately, this can help you shape not only your own life, but the world around you as well.
- Perhaps the biggest benefit of choosing to live and study abroad is the incredible confidence in yourself you will develop. Making this choice and living it will change you. It will change your life. I was such a different person from my sophomore year of high school to my senior year. You cannot come away from an exchange experience without changing. It will be one of the most important things you do in your life. I cannot possibly explain what an incredible, profoundly transformative experience this is. You will grow immeasurably.
My Final Words Of Encouragement
The next generation. These children are in traditional dress. They are my host sisters' children. And they are actually much older now. Life moves on and connections remain.
This is a decision only you can make. And it will be one of the best decisions of your life. Think ahead, to the time when you have returned from your year. Or five years ahead. What might your life look like? It's hard to imagine, I know. Really try though. Imagine your life without going and then again if you do go. Believe me, it's worth the time.
I was able to travel all over Norway and even to Germany during my year. I traveled to Bergen, Trondheim, Oslo, Hammerfest, and the Arctic Cirlce. I saw the King of Norway (the top of his head at least) during a chapel service in the palace and then saw him again close up, along with the King of Sweden on my return trip. I went to many other incredible places and saw wonderful things.
My journey didn't end when I returned to Florida in 1988. The connections I made with Norwegian friends and with my host family are lifelong connections. In recent years, I have been able to reconnect with many of the friends I made in my year and most of my host family through Facebook. I'm able to be connected with them on a daily basis now in a way that is exciting and rewarding. My host mother and one sister visited me one summer as did a dear friend (and he came back with his wife many years later). I returned to Norway the summer after I graduated from college and it was wonderful to be back.
I cannot imagine my life without this adventure being part of it. It has shaped me in ways I have yet to discover. As you think through your choices, remember that it all comes down to a choice. Which choice will you make?
*If you are seriously considering becoming an exchange student, you are welcome to send me a message through the contact button on my lensmaster page laurapeterson215 and we can connect to chat.