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Secrets to a Successful Exchange Year: Resetting Students’ Expectations 

 February 6, 2024

By  Laura Kosloff

Something we coordinators talk about with students all the time is: what are your expectations for your life in your host country? High school exchange students arriving in the United States usually have an idea in their heads about what life is like in a U.S. high school as well as in their U.S. host family and community. They’re sure they know what’s real and what’s not.

They’re often completely wrong.

That’s not necessarily a problem; or, at least, it’s a problem we can fix. We coordinators talk about students stepping outside their comfort zones, learning how others live, and challenging their assumptions. Resetting their expectations as they actually live the experience is part of all of this. Indeed, much of the fun in working with exchange students is seeing how what they thought they knew changes over the 5 or 10 months of their exchange.

There are many ways students get unrealistic expectations. They get ideas about life in other countries from social media portrayals, long-time cultural misunderstandings, or just sheer lack of information about life and systems in the United States.

Sometimes I’m asked how can unrealistic expectations still exist in a world where students and their families can find so much information online before a student travels. Do students really come to the U.S. thinking that high school is like the 2006 movie High School Musical? (The answer is yes, some students do!) Let’s remember that the internet can only provide information we look for. There is no guarantee we’ll ask the right questions, or sufficient ones, and there’s no guarantee that what we find will be accurate.

We can laugh at the idea that high school might be like a TV movie, but resetting erroneous expectations is actually pretty important. Misconceptions about what to expect can result in disappointment, confusion, or unrealistic pressure on a teenager just as they are trying to get used to living in a new country, fitting into a family they don’t know, and attending classes in a different educational system. 

It’s the job of exchange organizations to help prepare students before students travel about what to expect, and exchange programs all have interviews, pre-departure orientations, chat groups, and more. But that only goes so far. Students and their parents will still see what they see on the internet and hear what they hear from friends and colleagues.

Let’s look at a few common misconceptions we’ve seen over the years.

Expecting to Get a Driver's License

Many exchange students want to get a driver's license while they are in the United States. It’s often one of the first things a student will ask their host parents (or us once we’re in contact with them as their coordinator. We get it – we know that getting a driver’s license can be a big deal for a teenager. They want to be able to drive – if not while on exchange, they want to be able to drive as soon as they return home. Additionally, in some countries the cost of obtaining a license is quite expensive and involves substantial time and effort. Students and their parents assume it is cheaper and easier in the U.S.

Truth is, though, it’s not much cheaper or easier. There can be regulations at government, program, and local levels. Some exchange organizations don’t allow their students to get a license, and we know some school districts prohibit it, too. Every U.S. state has its own regulations. Most (if not all!) have special rules for teenage drivers. Many states have timing requirements for teens; a teen might need to have a driving permit for 6 months, or 9 months, before being allowed to take the driving test. Many states have requirements regarding the number of hours of driving practice required.

When a teen under 18 gets their license, it’s often restricted; the teen may be prohibited from driving after certain hours, for example. In many cases, getting a teen license in the U.S. won’t transfer to the student’s home country due to teen license restrictions. Moreover, there is potential liability and long-term increases in insurance premiums for host families if their student has an accident driving the family’s car.

Expecting to Achieve Instant Academic Success

Exchange students often arrive with unrealistic expectations about their likelihood of academic success. Many students assume school in the U.S. will be easy compared to their school back home. While this certainly can be true for some students, it’s definitely not true for everyone. Teaching methods are different, curriculums are different, and subjects are taught differently.

Students are often surprised that they don’t understand what is going on in class; they often have done quite well in their English language classes back home, and don’t realize until they’re sitting in class that taking a class as a second or third language is not the same as hearing it all day every day. Students often misunderstand what is expected in terms of homework assignments. They may not realize the impact on their grade of frequent quizzes and tests, and may not know that there are consequences for repeatedly being tardy or missing class.

blackboard in background with equations, four textbooks in foreground

Expecting to Adapt Seamlessly to U.S. Culture and Customs

Adjusting to a new culture often involves up-and-downs. There's the initial excitement when students are just soaking it all in and reveling in the newness of it all. Later on, however, homesickness may set in, and the very differentness that was exciting at first may become annoying. Students will miss their families and their regular routines. These feelings are completely normal, and it affects everyone differently. But overall, it does require changing how you look at your daily life.

Students may know this intellectually before they arrive. Their exchange programs try to prepare them. But the reality is that exchange students can sometimes have overly optimistic expectations about how easy a time they will have in adapting to U.S. life and culture without any culture shock or discomfort.

It’s really common for students to tell us that they just thought it would be easy. “A town looks like a town, and a city looks like a city,” said one student last year who was struggling with how different her life here in the U.S. was from what she had anticipated it would be. “I thought, how different could it really be?”

Summary: Be Prepared for Change

We're always working with our students on how to adapt -- whether it be an expectation of what life would be like in a big city or a small town, living in a family with young children vs other teens, or just getting used to turning in one's homework. 

So what's the bottom line? Perhaps it's just to be prepared for whatever comes -- be open to things not being what you thought they would be. 

Signpost pointing to the right say "the way home" background is pleasant country road

Images by danuta niemiec and Geralt from Pixabay

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