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Short Term vs Long Term Exchange Programs: What’s the Difference? 

 May 5, 2014

By  Laura Kosloff

The objective of the Short-Term Exchange Program is to foster world peace, international understanding and good will by extending international communication at the personal level through the exchange of students of high school age. It is our hope that these students will be able to see firsthand the problems and accomplishments of other peoples of different colors, creeds, and cultures.

In recent years, high-school and university students have shown more interest in short-term (3-6 weeks) exchange programs. In the U.S., we’ve seen that interest translate into increased participation in these programs. It’s easy to see why these programs are attractive to students: they’re cheaper, easier to fit into a school career (often occurring during the summer), and for many students and parents they probably seem less risky. The same often goes for families hosting these short-term students, who may see the experience as a way to “try out” the exchange idea before committing to a semester or academic year exchange program.

© 2014 Thinkstock
© 2014 Thinkstock

But short-term and longer-term exchanges are more different than they might at first appear. Often, it’s not easy for students or host families to extrapolate experience from one kind of program to another program. While many students and families follow up a short-term hosting experience with a longer one, many don’t, often citing a bad experience that makes them leery of a longer-term commitment. But if it’s an apples and oranges comparison, both students and families can lose out on the life-changing experience of a longer term exchange.

Do short-term study abroad exchange programs work?

There is some evidence that students are more likely to find long-lasting benefits from longer term programs. Mary Dwyer, of the Institute for the International Education of Students, in More is Better: The Impact of Study Abroad Program Duration (2004), concluded that “more is better; that is, the longer students study abroad the more significant the academic, cultural development and personal growth benefits that accrue.”

The Association of International Educators (more commonly known as NAFSA, the acronym for its former name) concluded in 2006 in Study Abroad on the Fast Track that short-term programs do serve some useful goals. NAFSA found that these programs can provide benefits to students with family or job responsibilities; students with limited financial resources; community college students; and students who are not ready for a long-term immersion program either due to emotional maturity, insufficient language skills, or other reasons.

NAFSA was looking at college-level programs, but the reasoning can also be applied to high school exchange. Short-term programs of 3-4 weeks can be a good way for a young teen to begin to experience another culture, begin to realize that language immersion has tremendous benefits, and at least begin to learn how to adjust to a different world away from home.

What’s key to recognize is that summer programs fundamentally differ from longer term programs. Short-term students are often less mature emotionally and intellectually. Their English is usually not as advanced. They often take part in short-term programs because they do not yet qualify for semester or academic year programs. Supervision is often not as comprehensive either, due to the short time frame.

There is no right or wrong here: it’s simply a different kind of program, with different goals and intended for students with different motivations and skill levels than longer programs. From the standpoint of host families, however, the relationship of the short-term student in their home is often much more that of a “house guest” than that of a family member. The students may participate primarily in activities organized by their program, interacting mostly with other short-term students rather than with the host family.

The key is in setting your expectations

The truth is that short-term stays can be great; they can also be miserable. We’ve hosted a few short-term students. The first, from Japan, really couldn’t communicate in English at all. Years later, we had a French student who was a great fit, and the timing was great. The following summer, we agreed to host another French student at the last minute, even though the timing was tough based on our family schedule that summer. He was miserable, as were we.

Keep in mind that culture shock and homesickness are possible even in short-term programs. What’s more, these issues can be difficult to overcome in just a couple of weeks, overwhelming the student and the host family. Improved language skills are tough to achieve in a short-term program, which could make communication between student and host family challenging.

This does not mean short-term programs are useless. The Dwyer study I cited earlier also noted that:

well-planned, intensive summer programs of at least 6 weeks duration can have a significant impact on student growth across a variety of important outcomes. While it requires very careful educational planning, expert implementation, and significant resources to achieve these outcomes in a shorter-term length, the results of this study should encourage study abroad educators and should reinforce the value of short-term programming of at least 6 weeks duration.

I have two observations, as someone who has participated in both short-term and year-long programs.

Julia with the winning pumpkin
Julia, from the Netherlands, celebrating Halloween in the U.S., 2013
  •  The emphasis should be on the “begin” part of this equation for short-term programs. They are intended to be and should be considered as an introduction for both students and hosts. Don’t make these programs something they’re not.
  • The benefits of short-term programs weigh more heavily as a “positive” on the student side, which is what the studies tend to focus on. For host families, it is much harder to develop in a 3-4 week time period the lasting relationships that exchange programs are known for. You barely start to get to know your student before he or she is returning home.

So if you want to open your home to short-term exchange students, that’s great. But do it for the right reasons: don’t think of it as a “test run” for a longer-term exchange. You may be “testing” your way out of an experience that could change you and your children’s lives.

Anyone participating in a short-term study abroad program will soon realize that they wish they had more time in the city they are studying in.
–Elizabeth Hehir, junior at Marist College in New York, in a blog post April 22, 2014
I’ve linked this post to the May 2014 My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com – take a look, you’ll find some other interesting blog posts.
  • I would love to go to a long term program, it seems everything ends up being better and more permanent, from learning the language to personal growth. Thanks for mentioning the cultural shock/homesickness that can occur even in short times, I hadn’t really considered that.

    The only real reason I would pick a short term program over a long term one is because I don’t really want to take a gap year after high school going into college; I don’t want to be a freshman that’s a year older than all the other freshman. In conclusion, I feel like if we were able to stop the clock at home, we would be perfectly fine going on the longer exchange programs.

    • Hi Josephine,
      Thanks for the note!

      I would urge you to think further about taking a gap year. Many students who do take a gap year find that they are much better prepared for college when they go a year later. Instead of feeling that being a year older than many other freshmen is a negative factor, they find that it’s an advantage. Our own son was nervous — as you are. He changed his mind, did a gap year, and was glad he did. Not only did he learn more than he ever thought he would on his exchange program, but he felt much better about his first year of college. I can’t tell you how many students feel the same way!

      If you can’t take a year off between high school and college, think about doing a semester abroad in college — or even during high school. There are lots of options and different types of programs from which to choose.

  • Thanks for a thoughtful look at study abroad options! My family hosted a German student for a month when I was in high school, and her proficiency in English made a big difference. I can see that if she had been still struggling, we’d all have had a more challenging experience! Still, even in the limited time, I think we all learned from each other. I’m glad she came, and that we hosted her!

    • Hello Regina,
      Appreciate your comment and thoughts. It’s interesting, I suspect, to look back on it now and realize how things could be different. It’s definitely true that you can learn from each other in a short-term program, even in the short time period, if it all “comes together.” I’m glad it did for you!

      • My first hosting experience was 6 weeks in the summer. It was very good. It lead us to open up the door to… Our next 21 exchange students came for the academic year. This included the young lady that came for 6 weeks. Considering the benefits of the full academic year… my vote is for the academic year.

        • I would tend to agree for the most part. But I can see how a short-term experience might be a good introduction, for both students and families.

  • So many excellent points here! I was really snobby about short vs. long-term programs until I wrote my dissertation on short-term study abroad. My students were far more interested in the 6-week summer program than the year-long program, and I wanted to understand their reasons and experiences better. The upside is that well-run short-term programs can be wonderful experiences for students. The downside is that many students overestimate their cultural awareness and intercultural competence after these programs. But, if students and families are aware of the pros and cons of short programs both can get a lot out of the experience! Even a month abroad a can make a life-changing impact.

    Thanks for participating in the #MyGlobalLife link-up!

    • Hi Cate,
      Thanks for the positive feedback! I started out a few years ago thinking the short-term programs could not possibly be beneficial, but like you have come to realize that’s too simple a conclusion. They do serve a purpose; the key is getting families and student to think clearly about what they are looking for in a program, so that they can make an informed decision as to “is this what I should do?”

  • In my earlier years I took part in three separate exchange programs to Germany, both West and East, each lasting 4-8 weeks. They offered home stays and intensive language studies, and I had a great time in all instances. But each time I left wanting more, and a longer experience. Two months is just enough time to settle in and feel comfortable, then it’s time to go back home.

    • We have hosted 22 high school exchange students. We have enjoyed all of them. I would not host for less than a semester… a full school academic year is ideal. It takes time to get to know each other. We learn about their culture from their point of view. We share our culture values.
      Hosting continues to be a experience we enjoy! We have family around the world. I could not be more proud of this experience and hope others open their heart and homes and explore the hosting opportunity.

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