We had six one-semester students in our group this year, more than ever before. It seems like we have seen more interest in shorter exchanges over time. Some one-semester students come for the first half of the U.S. school year; some come for the second semester. Our bottom line, recommendation is that if you can do a full year, do that instead. Here’s why:
- It usually takes 2-4 months for students to figure out how the American school system works. It often takes that long or longer to make friends. It can take that long to really adjust to your host family’s lifestyle and family rules, as well as to feel comfortable in a totally new environment. One-semester students don’t miraculously learn or adjust faster than full-year students.
- Students who come for the first semester often ask in November or December if they can extend their exchange for the full year. At that point, however, it may be too late to extend a student’s visa.
- Students who start in the middle of the U.S. school year often have more difficulty adjusting than first semester students or full-year students. It’s not that hard to figure out why. When these students arrive, most students—both exchange students and permanent residents—have settled into the school year. Other exchange students who may also be attending the new student’s school have learned how the school system works, know the local community, and feel comfortable in their host family. There’s no one else who really understands the adjustment feelings of the new students; for other students, that’s in the past.
- Students starting at the beginning of the second semester often have little time after they arrive before school starts. They don’t have a week or two before school starts to enjoy a short vacation with their new host family or to learn where things are in their community. They arrive, and school is likely to start within days.
- The nature of short-term exchange makes it less likely that students and host family will develop the kind of long-lasting relationship that everyone hopes for — the kind where the host family visits their student back home in the future, or a host brother or sister spends vacation time with their exchange sibling’s family.
- One-semester students may be less able to be able to take advantage of extracurricular activities like sports, drama, or band/orchestra. Music activities such as band, orchestra, and choir are often year-long activities for which a student needs to sign up at the beginning of the school year. Drama and theater activities and classes, and sports teams, may or may not be available for one semester students. Yet these activities are among the best ways to meet other students and learn how to “fit” into a new school.
These reasons are why we tend to recommend that students take advantage of a full year for their exchange.
We recognize, of course, that a full year is not always possible. If it isn’t possible for you, then it’s critical to work even harder to accelerate your adjustment process as much as possible. Suggestions:
- Don’t be shy. Force yourself to talk from Day One. Make sure you start a conversation every single day to get yourself involved and to meet people.
- Join a club, join drama or choir, or join a sports team. If you can’t do that at school (which may well be the case for a student entering mid-year), join a city sports league or sign up for an activity in the community. Most cities and many towns, even smaller ones, will have yoga classes, martial arts clubs, dance studios, and other opportunities.
- Do NOT hang out in your bedroom. It doesn’t matter if all you are doing is reading a book in the living room, doing your math homework at the kitchen table, or watching TV with your host family — as long as you take advantage of opportunities. These are all places and activities that could get you started in a conversation. These conversations will help you become familiar with local culture and get to know your host family.
- Limit your conversations—both spoken and in online messaging—with friends and family back home. Every 15 minutes you spend talking to friends and family back home is 15 minutes you’re not using to your advantage in your host family and host country, and probably takes you 30 minutes backward in terms of your adjustment process.
Most of our readers will note that we make these recommendations for full year students, too. Absolutely true! It’s just even more critical for half-year students, who do not have the luxury of time. A full-year student can observe the school scene for a few months before deciding on a sport or other extra-curricular activity. She can listen rather than talk for a while at the host family dinner table. A half-year student doesn’t have those few extra months, if she wants to be successful in her exchange, learn the culture, get to know people, and develop a relationship with her host family. Get started from Day One, and you’ll stand a much better chance of having a good half-year exchange experience.
Photo credits: Thinkstock.com; Jan Hück (German exchange student 2014-2015).