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Becoming an Exchangee

My Experience

In June 1989 I went on a two-week "educational tour" to the UK and Ireland with EF. It was organized and chaperoned by the same teacher who had organized a trip to D.C. the year before (another trip, another story). We left the Sunday after school got out, flew from Boise to St. Louis, and then on to London. With five days in London, a few days in Edinburgh, plus a trip through the English country-side, hiking in Wales, a boat ride to Dublin, and the absolutely stunning beauty of Ireland, the trip was a roaring success to me.

That fall I entered the 9th grade, and sometime that year I received a brochure from EF advertising their study abroad programs for high school students. My first thought was I want to go to Sweden. Going the EF route would cost about $4000-$4500 US - I tried to convince my dad that he would save a good deal of money by not having me around to feed, clothe, etc. However, $4500 of savings were not in sight. At that time I didn't know much about AFS or any of the other programs.

The next fall I had to take P.E., as did all other 10th graders, and in the locker room was posted a notice about applying to become a Rotary Echange Student - the note told us to see our counsellors for more information. Needless to say, my school counsellor knew very little. At the same time, I was starting to learn German, and my German teacher mentioned the Congress-Bundestag Scholarship for a one-year exchange. I got the information and applied. After calling around a bit, I got in contact with the local Rotary club; unfortunately, they weren't interested in sponsoring anybody. Luckily, one of the vetrinarians with whom my mom worked was also the president of his Rotary club (about 30 minutes away), and I was told that they might be interested in sponsoring someone. So, I applied.

Later that fall my parents and I travelled to Twin Falls where our interviews took place. Shortly thereafter I learned I had been accepted, and by February I had already received a letter from my host-family-to-be! I called up the people in charge of the Congress-Bundestag scholarship and turned it down. I was going Rotary.

My high school usually hosted between 5 and 10 (or more) foreign exchange students a year, and so I had a chance to meet several before I applied to become one myself. I also spent a weekend at the house of the woman who coordinated the AFS exchangees in southern Idaho. While there, I got to meet exchangees from the former East Germany (actually, at the time, German Unification hadn't occurred yet) Finland, Sweden and Norway.

In the summer of 1991 we attended the Rotary district (5400) conference in Sun Vallery, Idaho, and I got to meet the other new exchangees, as well as a few rebounds. All-in-all, we had a great time. Then, on August 6th, 1991, I got on a plane in Boise and headed for Hannover, Germany.

A Few Notes

If I hadn't gone to Europe after the 8th grade - or, if I hadn't decided to go on the D.C. trip a year earlier! - I probably never would have become involved in Youth Exchange. Becoming and being an exchange student can be expensive, and it takes a bit of work to plan everything out, etc. However, it is all worth it, and if you take it seriously and plan ahead, everything will work out just fine.

If you are interested in becoming an exchange, get in touch with someone who can give you more information. School counsellors are a possibility, but if they are unable to aid you, just find someone else. High school language teachers can be a great source of information. For example, many of them take students on educational tours every few years, and such tours, as I can attest to, can be wonderful experiences. Sometimes there are already inter-school exchanges in place. For example, my high school German teacher would take a group of students to Germany every other year or so with GAPP (German American Partnership Program), and a group of German students would visit in the spring. There are also several ways to go on a full-year exchange to another country. As mentioned before, EF is a commercial service that arranges exchanges for high school students. AFS is one of the most well-known exchange organizations. It is a non-profit, non-government organization. YFU - Youth For Understanding - is another non-profit educational organization with which many high school students go abroad. Rotary International is an international service organization made of up business-people from across the globe. Through Rotary Youth Exchange thousands of high school age students (15-19) go abroad on exchange every year. Many of the host families are made up of Rotarians and/or families whose children are/were on exchange. There are doubtlessly other exchange programs available. Each will have its own requirements and benefits. If you are interested, contact the appropriate organization. For Rotary, feel free to contact your local Rotary club.

Once you have made the decision to become an exchangee, there is still a lot of work to do. No matter which organization you choose, you will probably have a long application to fill out and several essays to write. Be aware of deadlines. Once you get accepted your work has just begun. You will probably hear from your (first) host family; for me it occurred shortly after I was accepted, others don't hear about or from their host families until they actually leave for their exchange. There are also the financial aspects to take care of; who is paying for your plane ticket? who is taking care of your spending money? etc. Do you have a passport, and do you need a visa? What about language? Do you already speak the target language? If not, should you take a crash-course? If you are going with Rotary, you will want to collect some local lapel pins (in my case, Idaho potatoes...) and such to exchange with other exchangees, and you will also want to collect information for the (in)famous "Presentation."

Finally, there is your departure. Packing, and repacking is a big hurdle to cross. I didn't pack until the night before I left. Others pack weeks in advance. Should you take a gift for your new host family? And, of course, there are the more personal aspects of departure: you probably won't see your friends and family for a year.

Once there, you have to get over your jet lag, and if you are in a foreign-language environment, start speaking the language ASAP. If you are a foreign student coming to the U.S. this won't be a problem, since so few Americans speak second and third languages, but if you go to Europe, it's far to easy to just rely on English as a crutch. Furthermore, you must get involved. That means making friends at school (even if you skip school all the time, it's best to do it with people from school :), getting involved in extra-curricular activities, and perhaps even joining a few local clubs. This will lessen any home-sickness you feel, improve your language skills, and help you integrate more easily and quickly to your host environment. If you don't, what will you have to look back on after your year abroad?

If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line at hyperion47@excite.com, and I'll get back to you.