Youth and High School Exchange Programs: What’s the Right Program for You?

In an earlier post, I talked about the differences between J-1 and F-1 visas, and how which visa a student obtains can affect his or her study abroad experience in the U.S.  In this post, I will back up a step, and ask students to think about their motivations for going on a study abroad program in the first place, and hopefully help them think about the options that might be best for their situation. This discussion is intended primarily for high school students; the decision-making process for college age students would be different.  Also, while I focus on the U.S., the basic question would be the same regardless of the host county a student is considering: “is this the right program for me”?

Let’s look at one particular issue for today: let’s look at the picture of a high school student who chooses to go to a host country specifically to get used to the host country and to prepare for college entrance exams and applications in that host country.  How does that affect the youth cultural exchange experience?

In the U.S., most high school exchange students come on a J-1 cultural exchange visa.  This visa comes with certain rules and expectations attached, both for the student and for the host family.  Because of those rules and expectations, if a student’s motivations do not match the program’s mission, the experience can go poorly for both the student and the host family.  The purpose of youth exchanges is cultural; that is, to share your country’s lifestyle and ideas with that of your host family, and for the host family to share their lifestyle, city/town, and country customs with you.  If you have a larger goal of applying to college, what do you think you will want to focus on during your exchange?  Most likely, you would need to focus on studying for college entrance exams and a specific language entrance exam (e.g., TOEFL, required for foreign students applying to college in the U.S.), or both; these would likely require special preparation courses and time.  You might need to spend time doing the actual college applications, and you might feel you need to visit colleges in which you are interested.

These activities take time away from your host country high school studies, making friends and going out with new friends in your host country, and spending time with your host family.  Indeed, these activities may conflict with youth exchange regulations and guidelines.  In the U.S., for example, high school exchange students often are limited in the extent to which they can travel on their own, so visiting colleges may not be an option. Students are also required to pass all classes at their U.S. high school, so if your college prep class interferes with that you may find yourself on academic probation.  If you need to study in your free time, it may well prevent you from going out with friends and seeing anything in your host city.  Additionally, students who choose not to interact with their host family may face a disciplinary process or possible removal from the host family home.

Let’s look at it, too, from the perspective of the host family seeking to bring a new family member into the home.  They will want to encourage the student to take part in family activities, learn new things, take classes the student cannot take in his or her home country.  No doubt they will want to encourage the student to do what the students wants and needs to do, and no one wants to deny a teen something that may be important for the student’s future.  If a student says “I need to take the TOEFL in November,” many host families will likely say “of course.”  But how will they feel when their student feels she cannot go to the beach for the weekend because she needs to study for that extra language or college prep class she is taking?  How will they feel when the student stays in his room all the time on the computer because he needs to work on his college entrance applications, or doesn’t want to go to the movies because he is now failing a class at school due to the time he has spent reviewing colleges?  At what point will the family feel they have a “boarder” in their home, and not a member of the family?  Remember, in many countries host families are not paid for hosting a student; this is certainly true in the U.S. under the J-1 visa exchange regulations.  If there is no exchange and no learning, if the student is purely a body using a bedroom and eating the host family’s food – ask yourself, is that fair?

Don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s wrong to be motivated to learn about a country before making a decision to go to college there.  That’s not the message here.  A wish to go to college in another country is not a poor goal by any means. Indeed, it’s a great idea; in a way, it’s an extended version of study abroad and can immerse you more completely in another culture much more completely than a high school semester or two ever could.  But going to that host country in high school as preparation for the college experience may not be the best reason to participate in a youth exchange program, since those programs have the mission of cultural exchange and development of a long-term host family relationship.  Your best bet may be to find another program.  Perhaps a summer homestay program can give you the flavor you need to evaluate the host country, or perhaps you should focus only on other programs; in the U.S., for example, perhaps an F-1 visa would be better for you, as it does not require cultural immersion and relationship development.

The same arguments could be made if your motivation is to get your driver’s license a couple of years earlier than you could in your home country, because you think getting a driver’s license in a particular host country would be easier.  The discussion above could easily apply to that situation as well – your motivations would be to study for your driving test, and practice driving, and not hanging out with friends and your host family (and the truth is, it is not as easy as you think to get that license!). Students considering study abroad may have other goals, too: perhaps you have not been getting along with your parents, and you think getting away from them would be a good idea.

Whatever your motivations are: think about your options carefully.  Make sure you understand the requirements for the study abroad program you are choosing.  Your success during your year abroad is likely to depend on it.

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