So, you want to be an Exchange Student

It’s very important to ask serious questions of oneself before committing to an exchange program.

If you say yes to everything below, then you are probably prepared to be an exchange student.

If you say no to one or more items, it would be prudent for you to do some long reflection before continuing on in the exchange student process.


How Does Exchange Work?

The fundamental purpose of your exchange is to learn a new language and to experience a different culture.

This is the big fundamental. This is the point from where most everything about your exchange will succeed or falter. If you understand and believe this statement from the beginning, you will likely achieve positive results. If you dismiss or forget this statement you will likely find conflict and failure.

The purpose of exchange is not to provide you an escape from your natural parents or current life. It is not to provide you with an extended summer activities camp. It is not to provide you with a year of cheap travel. For certain, you will accomplish many other goals and have many other experiences, but you must let most of them find you rather than the other way around. That is the one of the great beauties of student exchange…there are new experiences out there waiting for you that you haven’t even imagined. Don’t block out these new experiences with prior expectations.

Ask yourself, “Is this my purpose?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise looking into a shorter program.

Don’t expect your exchange to change you in a particular way.

The purpose of exchange is not to change you or to change your life. Remember the fundamental purpose of your exchange.

To be sure, you will grow, mature, and develop on your exchange, but that change is unpredictable. If you are an overly shy person, don’t expect your exchange to magically transform you into an outgoing individual. Being an exchange student requires a certain personality, and the time to develop this personality is not whilst on exchange.

So, what is this personality? You need to be independent. You need to like people and like to socialize. You need to be willing to take responsibility for your actions. You need to be compliant with rules and regulation. You need to be willing to laugh at yourself. You need to be open-minded. You need perseverance. If you are a drama queen you may not have the personality to be a successful exchange student.

Ask yourself, “Do I have right now have the personality to be a successful exchange student?” If the answer is “no”, then perhaps wait a year or seek out another type of program.

Being an exchange student requires independence.

More specifically, this means independence from your parents, and in some cases, independence of your parents from you.

A large part of your success as an exchange student depends upon you developing a support group in your new country. In order to do this, you must be brave enough to break away from the support group, your natural family who you have known and relied upon your entire life. Make no mistake about it, it does require bravery.

You must be willing to allow your host family and community representative to take over most of the roles your natural parents have filled at home. You must be willing to build meaningful relationships with these people. If you do not do so, you will be isolating yourself in a place far from home.

Think of yourself in a boat on the ocean. You can call your natural parents and they can give emotional support, but they cannot be in the boat helping you row. That is the job of your host family and community representative. The big pay-off comes after your exchange when you have a whole new family you can call your own.

Ask yourself, “Am I ready to break away from my family and accept a new support group in my new country?” If the answer is “no”, then perhaps seek out a different type of program.

Be open-minded, and beware of expectations.

Most student exchange handbooks delve in length about expectations and for good reason. If you narrow your ideas about your new city, school, or host family, you are setting yourself for a major fall.

The fact of the matter is that student exchange is a big lottery. Some students get a big city or school, some get a small. Some students get the beach and some get the mountains.. Some students get a mansion, some get a modest home. What you should expect is a clean and safe home with suitable living arrangements.

Remember the fundamental purpose of your exchange. If you remember your fundamental purpose, you will realize that a wide variety of placements can help you achieve your goals.

Don’t go on exchange expecting to change host families after your arrival. Frankly, it’s an awful thing to do to a family who has committed up to ten months of their life, agreed to shoulder the expense of having you in their home, and may have been eagerly awaited your arrival for months.

Ask yourself, “Am I willing to accept any placement given to me assuming it is a clean and safe home?” If the answer is “no”, then seek out a different type of program.

You need to be willing to follow the rules of your program and your host family.

There are many rules in exchange organizations. There are rules about contact with home, travel to see relatives, independent travel, internet usage, and the list goes on. It does not matter if you or your family is accustomed to bending or breaking rules…whilst on exchange, not following rules will lead to conflict and possibly being sent home.

Read through your program rules and ask yourself, “Can I (and my parents) live with all these rules?” If the answer is “no”, then seek out a different type of program.

Food is a large part of culture.

Remember the fundamental purpose of your exchange. Food reflects both geography and culture.

If you are a picky eater and unwilling to try new food, then you are going to miss out on much of what a culture has to offer. This goes for everyone and not just exchange students.

Ask yourself, “Am I open to try new food?” If the answer is “no”, then you should reconsider cultural exchange or resign yourself to only a partial cultural experience.

You need to be honest on your application and profile.

Don’t let anyone tell you to put down that you are willing to accept any type of placement so that you will be chosen.

You will be chosen. If you indicate you are willing to live in a rural area, don’t be upset when you are placed in a home far from a major city. If you indicate you are willing to live with a childless couple, don’t get upset when you are placed in a home without children. There is nothing wrong with indicating these preferences, but you should know they also limit your opportunities for host families.

If you are unwilling to be completely open-minded about your exchange, then your profile is the place to get it all out in the open. If you absolutely must have a guitar class, then put it on your profile. If you absolutely must play sport, then put it in your profile. If you are a picky eater, put it in your profile.

You may or may not get your request as this is not how exchange programs work, but at least those host families who know they can’t meet your wishes can pass over your profile. Please keep in mind a couple of things. First, some activities and classes are offered at only a select number of schools and schools have limits on the number of exchange students they will accept.

Exchange students are usually divided up and sent to different geographic locations.

If you don’t want a family who plays chess every evening and twelve hours on Saturday, don’t list chess as one of your passions. Potential host families look at this part of the profiles very carefully.

If you list three or more activities in which you would like to participate and your host family can accommodate one or two, you should be very appreciative of your host family and grateful that things worked out well for your exchange.

Ask yourself, “Am I willing to accept the risks of limiting potential host families in exchange for a more ‘perfect’ placement? Do I understand that in student exchange programs, specific types of placements are not guaranteed?” If the answer is “no”, then seek out a different type of program.

You are an exchange student. You are not a border.

Your host family is devoting time and resources that are completely voluntary.

That is their part of the exchange. You also have a part. Your host family is expecting you to hold up your end of the bargain.

What is your part? Remember the fundamental purpose of your exchange. Your host family is expecting you to take language learning seriously and to actively take part in the culture of the country, the community, and the home. They are expecting a new member of the family who assumes all the duties and responsibilities of that position.

They are hoping to build a meaningful relationship that will last a lifetime and not a mere ten months. They do not want a student who acts like a boarder. If they wanted a boarder, they would find someone willing to pay for the room and food.

How do you act like a boarder? You stay on the internet all the time or in your room rather than spend time with the family. All meaningful communication is between you and your natural family and never with your host family. You spend too much time in your native language.

You expect to be driven everywhere with no regard for the needs of other family members. You show disrespect to written and unwritten household rules. You are resistant to participating in family activities. You expect things rather than be grateful when things are given.

Ask yourself, “Am I willing to hold up my end of student exchange?” If the answer is “no”, then seek out another type of program.

If you have problems, be patient and work through the system of your exchange organization.

This is where the perseverance comes in. So far, everything that has been discussed has dealt with what exchange students need to do and the questions they need to ask before attempting to go on exchange.

But, of course, there are many problems that occur that are outside of the control of the exchange student.

If a problem occurs, work within the system. Circumventing the system is not likely to achieve favourable results. Solve problems by first approaching your host family, then your representative, then the regional or national office if needed. If you can clearly articulate your problem, someone will listen…”I want a new host family” is not clearly articulating a problem. Be prepared to give facts and specifics. Be patient but persistent. Allow those in charge the time to gather all the details and work out a solution. Of course, if the problem is serious, you should expect your organization to move with due haste.

Going around the system and not giving your local exchange organization the chance at solving your problem is a very bad path to take and not likely to achieve success.

Ask yourself, “Am I and my parents willing to work through the system of my exchange organization to solve most problems I will encounter while on exchange?” If the answer is “no”, then you should seek out a different type of program.

An exchange student must be open and honest.

While you are on exchange, you must be open and honest with your natural parents, your host parents, and your community representative or another employee of your exchange organisation.

Never lie to any of these people, telling them “things are OK” when they are not. Your success as an exchange student depends largely on the communication you have with these three groups of people.

Never tell lies about your host family in the community or elsewhere. It won’t get you a new host family in the same school. It will get you sent to another community away from your friends or possibly home. It can also ruin the chances for future exchange students to have a wonderful exchange.

Ask yourself, “Am I an open and honest person? If I have a problem, am I the type of person to seek solutions through open communication and honest behaviour?” If the answer is “no”, then seek out a different type of program.

Start your application now!

9 Tips For A Successful Exchange

Spend time with your host family.

It’s easy to hide away in your room when you’re in a new environment stuck in a house with strangers. But take the courageous step and spend as much time as possible with them. If everyone is watching TV downstairs, go downstairs and watch TV. If your host mom asks if you want to go to the grocery store with her, go! You are in your host country to learn, and spending time with your host family is the best way to do it.

Avoid the computer.

Talking to your family and friends back home is fine, but not for hours a day. If you’re on the computer all day, you’re probably not speaking your host language or learning about the culture (which is why you are there!). It is too easy to feel inadequate or become jealous when you see friends back home posting photos together, or when other foreign exchange students are posting about their awesome new friends. Limit the time you spend on the computer and talking to your parents back home.

Ask about the house rules.

A common reason for tension between host parents and exchange students is poor communication about house rules and expectations. Even if your host parents don’t tell you the rules, ask them – What is the curfew on weekdays and weekends? How does the Wi-Fi work? Are there rules about the computer? What can I eat out of the refrigerator? Can I invite friends over to the house? These questions might seem silly, but it’s better to know the rules upfront than three months into the exchange after breaking the house rules and not knowing

Culture shock is real.

You might be the most accepting person on the planet until you’re three months into your exchange and turn into a racist bigot. Culture shock is a cycle, especially during a 10-month exchange. Everything will be exciting and new at first, then it loses its charm a few months later, then you hate everyone around you a few months later, and then there’s a moment where it finally hits: hey, this isn’t so bad… this is great! The hardest time for any exchange student is generally the first 3 -5 months. Remember this, remember it is normal, remember you can do it and it will totally pay off.

Be honest.

Don’t let anger or sadness wallow up inside of you. Open up to your host parents and tell them how you feel. If you usually spend an hour to yourself after school to relax, let them know you need that time. If you’re having a hard time in school, tell your teacher you’re struggling with the language–more times than not, they will make an exception for you. You come from a completely different culture. This is a learning experience for everyone.

Say yes to friend invites.

Especially at the beginning when you’re the cool, new, exchange student. Say yes to everything (except alcohol or drugs…)! Sightseeing birthday parties, study sessions–if you say no a lot at the beginning, they’re less likely to keep asking you later on. It might not always be as great as back home, but it’s all about experiencing a new culture and getting to know other people’s perspectives (and you need to get out of the house!).

You’re going to look stupid and that’s okay.

How can you not look stupid? You’re a 17-year-old speaking with an 8-year-old language proficiency. People will say to you, “He’s so cute,” or “Isn’t she adorable?” and you’ll want to throw a rock at them, but hey! You’re learning a different language! You are living in a different country! Be patient. Keep trying to speak the language. Let them laugh at you when you say “you taste good” instead of “you have good taste.” Be vulnerable and keep going. You’ve got this.

Say thank you. A lot.

We’re often as shy as foreign exchange students. We’re not fluent, we’re different to everyone else around, and sometimes our tongue just doesn’t want to speak the host language that day. But ALWAYS remember to say thank you to your host family. They’re doing a huge favour taking you in. Even if you’re shy, they need to know that you appreciate them or they will start to worry.

It’s normal to feel weird when you come home.

Culture shock keeps going, even when you’re back home. You might have a hard time speaking your native language or even articulating your experience. Your friends will ask, “How was Japan?” and you won’t know how to respond. “Good” doesn’t cover 10 months of anyone’s life. Your own country will give you culture shock, like your extremely loud friends, or the jokes people make. Give it a month of two and it will wear off. You are going to have so much fun!