When I was 16 years old, I was a foreign exchange student in Germany while in high school. Many high schoolers don’t study abroad, but they should! Today I’m sharing the best high school study abroad program and answering all your questions so you can travel abroad confidently.
Updated June 15, 2020
How do I become a Foreign Exchange Student?
First, you have to pick your program.
There are several programs for you to become a foreign exchange student, including while you’re in high school, but the best one is through Rotary International.
Rotary is a non-profit organization dedicated to service above self, which you can learn more about on their website. Some service projects I participated in while with Rotary included Shelter Box and Stop Hunger Now.
Since Rotary is a non-profit, there are absolutely no service fees or application fees. You can apply for free! The application process includes their paper application, a personal statement, and an interview. You should submit your application before October the year prior to when you want to depart.
The application process may seem intimidating, but it really isn’t! Be honest and be yourself. The non-profit members simply want to get to know you and your intentions for studying abroad.
How does High School study abroad work?
At the beginning of your host country’s school year, you’ll arrive in your new host country and move in with your new host family.
You’ll live with at least one host family, but usually two or three. Rotary aims to expose exchange students to various lifestyles within one country by placing exchange students with multiple host families. These host families are all within the same area, so you won’t have to change schools.
For example, I stayed with my first family for nearly six months, my second for about three months, and my third family for about two months.
How Can I Study Abroad Cheap?
Rotary’s high school study abroad program is completely free! This means there are zero application fees, zero program costs, and zero hidden fees.
Your host family is expected to pay for your housing and food. Many of them also help out with basic school supplies, snacks, toiletries, and other basic supplies. They’re practically adopting you for a year!
Your costs include the round-trip flight, health insurance, visa fees, and spending money for any additional travel or shopping you may want to do. Host families aren’t obligated to give you spending money if you go out to eat with friends, for example.
I recommend every high schooler studying abroad with Rotary have a few thousand dollars to cover their additional expenses.
Why should I study abroad?
Traveling as a young person provides many unique opportunities.
It’s the only time in your life that you can truly immerse yourself in the new language and culture. I’ve lived abroad a few other times now to study a foreign language, but it was never the same experience as I had when I studied in Germany.
When you’re young, you’re still adaptable to different ways of living. It becomes harder to adjust to change as you grow older, so if you can successfully adapt to the biggest change any person can make–living in a foreign country–as a young person, then you’re unstoppable.
High school study abroad students are more responsible than their peers, and this is evident in many college and work programs that love to enroll and hire young travelers. You’ll become much more competitive in whatever field you choose to pursue!
Oh, and it makes for great dinner conversations and an envious Instagram feed.
For me, the most valuable thing I gained from studying abroad was self-confidence. I realized who I was and what I want in life without influence from friends and family. Separating myself from familiarity allowed me to discover who I truly am. After navigating foreign transportation systems and learning a new language from scratch, I also had the confidence to pursue who I was.
Will I get school credit for the classes I take abroad?
Most of the time the answer is no, but I came back with grades and graduated high school on time. It’s not impossible, but it’ll take a lot of initiative on your part and communication with your host district, home district, the host school, and your home school. Sometimes people will flat out say no. If this is the case, I encourage you to push harder while also respecting their decision.
Most students take a gap year to study abroad either during high school or after high school graduation.
Another possibility is to take extra classes each year before and after studying abroad allowing you to “skip a grade,” study abroad the year you should’ve skipped, and still graduate on time. This is what I did.
It’s best to discuss your graduation plan with your guidance counselor to learn about the possibilities.
What is the exchange student lingo?
Host country- the country the exchange student is spending the year abroad in (for me, Germany)
Home country- the country the exchange student originates from (for me, USA)
Host family- the family hosting the exchange student in the host country; students typically have two to three host families
Outbound student- an exchange student before leaving for their host country; this is usually a year-long process and consists of many trainings on various aspects of studying abroad, such as culture shock and living with a host family
Inbound student- an exchange student residing in their host country with a host family; they are typically there for ten to twelve months
Rebound student- an exchange student who has returned to their home country, but has yet to complete rebound training
Rotex- an exchange student who has completed their exchange year, has returned to their home country, and has completed rebound training. Maintaining Rotex status requires participation in a local Rotex club.
Are there any eligibility requirements for high school study abroad?
According to the Rotary website, “exchanges are for people ages 15-19 who:
- Have demonstrated leadership in their school and community
- Are flexible and willing to try new things
- Are open to cultural differences
- Can serve as an ambassador for their own country”
Personally, I believe applicants should love learning, be curious about the world, are willing to face fear, and have the personal initiative to try new things, learn the language, and socialize with peers and the host family. These are characteristics I believe allowed me to have a successful exchange year.
How will I afford to study abroad?
As I mentioned earlier, I recommend high school students save at least a few thousand before studying abroad. If possible, I suggest $5-10,000.
I’m privileged to have had parents who helped me afford my study abroad experience, but I also picked up a variety of odd jobs. Try out babysitting, tutoring, pet sitting, selling baked goods, and working on a farm.
Here are some estimated costs:
- Round trip airfare- $1,000 (this largely depends on where you’re going)
- Mandatory Insurance- $1,500
- Rotary-sponsored tours- $3,000 (these aren’t mandatory, but are great ways to continue traveling)
- Other- $2,000
If saving enough money to afford these costs seem impossible to you, don’t worry. Rotary gives their students a monthly stipend when they’re abroad worth around $100. This helps you afford eating out with friends, movie nights, a winter coat, and other fun things you might do. It’s totally possible to only spend your monthly allowance!
What is it like to go to a foreign school?
Like going to regular school, except you don’t understand anything. Eventually, you’ll understand what your peers and teachers are saying, but it’s a struggle for the first few months. Don’t let a lack of understanding discourage you though! Something about going to a foreign school makes school so much better.
As an exchange student with Rotary, you are expected to attend classes and attempt homework assignments. While most of the time I was just trying to figure out what was going on, everyone–my host club, host family, new school, and friends–appreciated that I was trying.
A youth exchange is not a vacation! It is an educational opportunity…that also happens to be super awesome. This is important to understand because, while studying abroad is an opportunity to travel the world and have freedom, you will also have some responsibilities in school and as a member of your host family.
What is it like to live with a different family?
It can be strange to live with a different family at first, but if you and your host family get along well then they’ll soon feel like your real family. I lived with my first host family for six months, allowing me to develop a deep relationship with them. I still think of them as family. My other two families were wonderful as well, but I wasn’t with them for as long so I couldn’t develop as deep of a connection. Nonetheless, I still remain in contact with them, think of them as family, and visit when I can.
You become a member of the family, which means you are expected to participate in the family. This could mean chores, family outings, or whatever else is expected from a member of that family. It varies!
Start off on a good foot by offering to help around the house. If you see your host mom in the kitchen cooking, offer to join. Sit with them in the living room. Be present. This is the only way you will form a relationship with them. Cooking beside my host mom or reading in the living room with my host dad are some of my simplest, yet memorable, study abroad moments.
Can I keep horseback riding, playing piano, etc. abroad?
Yes! Most communities have the same extracurricular opportunities as your home country.
Does Rotary host trips?
Usually, host clubs or districts will host several trips. These trips get you the most bang for your buck and are an amazing bonding experience. My district hosted a five-day Germany tour, one-week Austrian ski trip, one-week Bavaria tour, and a two-week Europe tour.
What if I don’t like my host family?
Part of an exchange student’s outbound training process is how to interact with your host family. In general, Rotary will strongly encourage you to respectfully communicate your feelings with your host family. If the problem persists or an unsafe situation arises, Rotary will find you a new host family and moving you.
Most of the time, students don’t experience problems. The families are usually members of the Rotary club, other well-respected community members, or a family whose child is studying abroad at the same time as you. Rotary clubs screen the families as well. However, each Rotary club’s process is unique and problems occasionally arise.
How do I deal with culture shock?
Everyone adjusts to new cultures differently. You’ll learn during outbound training what to expect and how to react to different emotions. I addressed my culture shock by staying busy, focusing on the good, recognizing and accepting cultural differences, and trying to become as ‘German’ as possible. I also journaled extensively in my host language.
Is reverse culture shock real?
Your return after your high school study abroad might actually be more difficult than leaving your home country.
Imagine building a life in one year and then leaving it all behind. Imagine experiencing the greatness of a foreign culture and now returning home to an old routine.
Your friends at home and you will grow during your year abroad, likely in different ways. It may be hard to find similarities with old friends.
After one year of discovering something new and extraordinary multiple times per day, you have to return home where things haven’t really changed.
My reverse culture shock lasted an entire year, but it allowed me to grow even more as a person. Reverse culture shock isn’t something to be scared of, rather something to be aware of.
What is the Rotary blazer?
A navy blue (and occasionally a different color, depending on your home country) covered with pins. Each exchange student has a customized pin. Rotary students exchange these pins when they meet another exchange student.
The exchange students wore our blazers to events, such as exchange student meet-ups, Rotary luncheons, or community speeches. The blazers collect a lot of memories throughout the year and become an extremely sentimental object. To this day, my blazer makes me smile from ear-to-ear. I look forward to framing and hanging mine in my apartment one day!
These blazers distinguish Rotary students from other high school study abroad programs. People have approached me when I’ve worn mine to compliment Rotary and I’ve chatted with Rotary students en-route to their new home at the airport several times.
Does my family have to accept an exchange student while I’m gone?
This depends on the host club. Mine didn’t, but other U.S. exchange students were required to have an exchange student at home while they were abroad. We opted to host an exchange student when I returned from Germany, though, for the experience…and because I didn’t want my exchange to end and this was the closest way to continue living the exchange life.
I have to pay for an exchange year myself. Any advice?
Here’s some encouragement: you can do it!
Pick up part-time work and other side-jobs, such as babysitting or mowing lawns.
Don’t spend your money unless you have to. Would you rather spend $20 going to the movies in the U.S. or on a train ticket to a new city in Europe?
Be resourceful, find creative solutions, participate in free ways to stay entertained, and constantly remind yourself of your goals. If studying abroad is really what you want, prioritize it.
Finally, ask for help. Be open about your financial situation to teachers, Rotary members, employers, and family at home and abroad. Explain to others your “why” for studying abroad. Ask for additional work or a raise.
Make studying abroad your priority in time and money.
Do you have any other high school study abroad questions? Comment below and I’ll get to them! Pin this post for later or share it with a friend who should do a high school study abroad!