Most people are shocked to learn that I studied abroad as a high school student for an entire year. Studying abroad is not limited to college students! Although several high school exchange programs are available, I studied abroad with Rotary International. I am a huge advocate for Rotary Youth Exchange and personally believe it is the best study abroad program available, for all of the reasons described below. If you are interested in studying abroad, there is possibly one hundred questions whirling through your head; allow me to help answer those. Although these questions are in reference to a year abroad with RYE, many of the responses — including why you should study abroad, cost, and how to save money — can be applicable to other programs as well.

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Why should I study abroad?

Do you really need to be convinced that studying abroad is a wonderful opportunity?

Everyone’s study abroad experience is different, but opportunities include learning a foreign language, building your resume or college application, traveling, developing new friendships, immersing into a new culture, enjoying a distinguishing high school experience, and maturing through a year of independence. Oh yeah, and studying abroad makes for a great dinner conversation and beautiful photos for Instagram.

Where will I live while I’m abroad?

You will 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 having multiple host families. These host families are all within the same area, so you won’t have to change schools.

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, host school, and home school. Sometimes people will say flat out no. If this is the case, I encourage you to push harder while also respecting their decision.

Most students study abroad during a gap year during high school or after high school graduation.

Another possibility is to take a couple 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.

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, like 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 is preparing to return to their home country or 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.

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Are there any eligibility requirements?

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”

What’s involved in the application process?

It’s dependent on your local Rotary club’s process, but a formal interview and application are usually included. You absolutely must apply 6-12 months, depending on the local club, before you want to leave. Start early!!

How much does it cost?

Cost largely depends on you, the country, and your host family.

Exchange students receive room and board from their host family, which is organized by the host club. Host clubs also give a small monthly stipend. You are responsible for round-trip airfare, insurance, travel documents (passport, visas), spending money, additional travel, and tour fees.

If your host family goes out to eat, they’re expected to pay for you (just try to be polite and not order the lobster). If you go out with friends, your host family may expect you to pay for yourself. Or they may give you a few bucks.

If you buy the entire mall, then your exchange will cost more than another exchange student’s. Also, some countries are more expensive than others.

My airfare to Germany cost around $2,500. My insurance cost around $1,500. I spent about $3,000 on tours. I spent about $1,200 more on clothes, eating out, train tickets, horseback riding lessons, and other stuff. My entire year abroad cost less than $10,000. The monthly stipend received by my host Rotary club helped a lot, making my costs closer to $9,000. (THANK YOU!!)

What is Rotary?

Rotary is a non-profit organization dedicated towards service above self. I encourage you to learn more on their website. Some service projects I participated in while with Rotary included Shelter Box and Stop Hunger Now.

What is it like to go to a foreign school?

Like going to regular school, except you don’t understand anything. Eventually you will understand what your peers and teachers are saying, but it’s a struggle 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.

What is it like to live with a different family?

It can be strange at first, but if you and your host family get along well then they’ll 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. They each introduced me to new and exciting opportunities in Germany and showed me they really cared about me.

Can I keep horseback riding, playing piano, etc. abroad?

Yes! Most communities have the same extracurricular opportunities as your home country.

Why should I study abroad with Rotary?

They don’t charge program fees, the members care about you, and it’s an extremely well-respected organization. As my parents put it, even though I was thousands of miles away and out of their direct care, they knew I was safe.

Are there Rotary-hosted 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 assist you in finding a new host family and moving you.

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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 culture shock by staying busy, focusing on the good, recognizing and accepting cultural differences, and trying to become as German as possible.

Is reverse culture shock a thing?

Absolutely. 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. You will grow during your year abroad, so it can be difficult to return home as a new person and realizing things haven’t really changed. My experience with 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?

An amazing navy blue (and occasionally a different color, depending on your home country) covered with pins. Each exchange student has a customized pin. Exchange students exchange these pins when they meet another exchange student.

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.

I have to pay for an exchange year myself. Any advice?

You can do it. Pick up some work and other side-jobs. Dedicate yourself to saving money. Seriously, don’t spend your money. I spent maybe $1,000 over two years by being resourceful, finding free ways to stay entertained, and constantly reminding myself of my goals. If studying abroad is really what you want, find a way or make one.

Are you ready to study abroad or know someone who should? 

You don't have to wait until college to study abroad! I studied with RYE in 2013 and loved it so much I am telling the world about my experience

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