A Student’s Question: Should I be an Exchange Student?

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The real question “is not whether you should do an exchange year or not, because you should. Everyone should. … The real question is, when should you do an exchange?”

6 Reasons Why You Should Do An Exchange While Still in High School (Nationality Unknown, Dec. 2014)

Yes. If you can make it happen, you should.

The purpose of educational exchange and cultural programs is to support personal growth, lead to a deeper understanding about foreign cultures, and improve international relationships. What better way to do that than to go to school in a foreign country, live with a family, and learn what daily life is like?

There is a saying in the international exchange community, “exchange is not a year in one’s life, but a life in a year.” Students return home with more maturity after having lived for so long without the cushion of family and long-time friends. They also have a better understanding of what their host country is all about, and perhaps a better idea of what the world is all about. They’ve learned about another culture, and the differences and the similarities. They know better than to believe everything they see in the media — wherever they have gone, the media coverage has no doubt not been completely accurate.

USA, Oregon,Portland, man with bicycle There are some practical reasons as well that students might find more intuitive. Thinking about what you want to do with your life after high school or college can be daunting. Spending a half or full year abroad during high school or college may help you formulate your thoughts more clearly. You can pursue interests and activities you might not have done back home; you might find out you want to pursue theater or art simply because you took an acting class at your U.S. high school. You might discover you do not, in fact, want to be a research scientist after spending six month doing a particular kind of research.

Is There Evidence That It Will Help Me?

There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that studying abroad in high school will help you in college applications, graduate school admissions, and job applications. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan (author of Student Guide to Study Abroad and Preparing to Study in the USA) wrote in 2013 that when she asked employers what they liked about potential applicants who had studied abroad, employers noted the ability to solve problems in situations the applicant had not dealt with, adaptability, communication skills, and knowledge of another culture.

For U.S. teens, study abroad in high school certainly would help you to stand out from the crowd in your college application process. It takes guts to choose to spend a semester or academic year abroad at any age; college admissions counselors are going to look carefully at a student who has shown he or she can do it in high school. It shows a willingness to try new things, an ability to deal with the unexpected, and a desire to learn. Similar arguments apply to college students considering a study abroad program during their undergraduate career.

Patrick Stephenson, former speechwriter for the NATO secretary-general, wrote this about his junior year of high school in Spain:

Inspired by an ancient and noble culture, I turned from a mediocre sophomore with average grades into an accomplished high school senior with an impressive academic record. The experience paved my way to Yale and a career in international politics.

He argues that U.S. students should study abroad in high school. Benefits from his point of view include learning another language and culture, improving one’s resume for college and future job prospects, learning about one’s own capabilities, and more. He emphasizes the importance in today’s global economy of having citizens who understand the world and how we all fit into the bigger picture.

What About My Parents?

High school students sometimes ask us how they can convince their parents that study abroad is a good idea. We suggest that they recognize that their parents have valid concerns and reasonable questions. Parents may well be worried about all the unknowns — a normal human response. Students can educate their parents — and themselves — by doing the research and providing parents with real information about what is involved in studying abroad.

  • Read materials on blogs (like this one!) and study abroad websites.
  • Read carefully through the websites of some of the exchange programs. Call and talk to someone and ask for details about programs and countries that interest you.
  • For some students, starting out with a short-term study abroad or exchange program might be a good way to go. Going abroad for 3-4 weeks can be one way to get used to the idea and help a nervous teen — and a nervous parent — feel more comfortable with being in a different culture and living in a strange place.

But Things Can Go Wrong!

Of course. Going to live in a foreign country in a culture that may be very different from what you are used to. Life will not be the same as getting up and going to school at home. The experience will challenge you in ways you cannot imagine ahead of time. Things will not go the way they do in the movies or on a television show. Unexpected problems can arise. That is, after all, life. Things may not go the way you want them to in your ordinary home country life, either.

passport and knapsack* You might “fail” in the sense that you do poorly academically, for example, no matter how hard you try. That does not necessarily mean that you have really “failed.” In many cases, academics are not the point of the experience. Indeed, many students don’t receive academic credit for their exchange year.

* Getting used to a different school system can be a challenge and can contribute to poor grades simply because you don’t know what is expected of you. The confusion can cause anxiety and worry that you may not do things correctly.

* Communicating in a different language on a daily basis is likely to be harder and more exhausting than you think it will before you go. You may think you understand what people around you are saying, but it will turn out you have missed key concepts. This can contribute to poor academics and difficulties in your relationships with people around you, including the people you live with.

* Making friends may be much more difficult than you thought it would be. If you’re used to having the same group of friends for years, or if you are not the most talkative person, having to make outreach to make friends can be a challenge. Foreign students often start out thinking that everyone knows they are an international student, and wonder why don’t my teachers know? Why aren’t people coming up to me to introduce themselves? Exchange students often feel that they have “failed” if they have not made friends after a month or two. We hope you can recognize that this can take time.

* Something bad could happen. Yes. Don’t live your life, however, in the fear that something could possibly happen someday, somewhere. Bad things can happen anywhere, at any time. Bad things can also happen at home, and if you stay home, you won’t meet people who could change your life, or see wonders that could affect how you view the world – or learn about other cultures and customs.

Studying abroad is, first and foremost, an instructive exercise in failure. . . . the lesson you learn — that initial setbacks, patience and work are the prerequisites for eventual success — is more important than an A in Calculus.  That lesson can’t be taught. It must be learned firsthand.  A high school year abroad is a quick and dirty way to discover just how ignorant you are. As such, it’s the door to a lifetime of learning and discovery.

Why High School Students Should Study Abroad (Patrick Stephenson, Huffington Post, March 2015)

 

 

Photo credits: Thinkstock.com, Daniel Sankowski/Unsplash

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