High School Exchanges Offer Early Taste of International Student Life

By Yao Lu – April 22, 2014 | 8:30 a.m. EDT

A solid U.S. high school exchange program can be the foundation of a great experience studying abroad. But international students should be aware when choosing among programs that they can vary in size and goals and can give students totally different perspectives on how the American high school system works.

When I was first offered a chance to become an exchange student, the idea of going to another country and living with another family sounded interesting and refreshing. Besides, being exposed to Hollywood movies and American TV shows from an early age made me curious about what the U.S. was really like.

After rounds of interviews and tests of my English skills I was sent to live with a small family in rural Michigan, where I attended Napoleon High School. I was rather disappointed at first – on the way to my host family, all I could see were farms and small houses. There were no high rises, no neon lights, no busy traffic.

It was very different from my life in China, where I lived in a big city with tall buildings. But after a while, I started to appreciate rural life. My host family – a couple in their 50s with two dogs and two cats – had children who had already left home but came to visit all the time. My host parents had a lot of relatives living nearby; I was constantly meeting new people and learning new things about them.

They were also learning a lot about me, and about China and my culture. It was then I decided to apply to American universities so that I could continue broadening my horizons and meeting new, exciting people from different backgrounds.

The program I applied for was called Youth for Understanding, a nongovernmental organization that offers exchange programs for students from many different countries. There are many different exchange programs, hosted through nonprofits, governments and even private businesses. To choose the right one for you, there are a few questions to consider.

1. Work or play? Many of my friends back home think of exchange programs as a steppingstone to studying abroad in college and start making plans to do so from freshman year in high school. They participate in the program to get themselves familiarized with the American school system.

As exchange programs typically assign students to families, it is highly possible that these students would not get into a prestigious high school. Of course if you feel that being an exchange student is more about getting to know a culture than studying, then you will probably have fewer concerns about which school you will be entering.

When I decided to do the program I was already a senior in high school. I was able to take the SAT and TOFEL right away. If you are an upcoming senior you can still do it – and if you do not want to stay in the States afterwards, you can always go back to your home country with your English skills greatly improved.

2. Long term or short term? Exchange programs differ in length as well. They can be three months, half a year or a whole year.

Some of my friends from Brazil told me once that the start date in their school terms are different than the ones used in the U.S., and that their credits in America are generally not accepted back home. In that case, a short-term exchange may not disrupt their general schedule as much as a long-term one.

3. Public or private school? In most situations, you don’t need to pay your host families extra for food and housing, but you may end up with extra costs if you enroll in a private high school.

Some private high schools in America enjoy better reputations than public ones, but generally charge tuition. That can bump your budget up a few thousand dollars.

4. What support is available? What if you don’t get along with your host family or your school? That happened to one of my friends, and she was rather miserable throughout her first three months in America.

Luckily, she had a representative of her program located nearby, so she was able to transfer to another family without having to change schools. When choosing a certain exchange program, you should always take into account the support available.

I was more fortunate; my American parents had already hosted several foreign students and they were very supportive and caring. We were constantly on road trips and through them I gained a rather comprehensive understanding of how American families work.

We still talk occasionally through Facebook and my host mom has been sweet enough to send me a box full of Christmas gifts every year. It is a relationship I will treasure for my entire life.

By participating in high school exchange programs, prospective international students can get a sense of whether pursuing college in the States is a good next step. However, remember to choose wisely, as it is an important part of having a long-lasting, positive impact on your life.