Are you, or do you know, a high school student who loves to travel and experience other cultures? Or maybe needs a long getaway to truly discover who they are before making big life decisions like career and job?
Nearly six years ago, I moved to Germany for my junior year of high school at only 16 years old. My experience abroad completely changed my “life plan” into something unimaginable, incredible, and more “me.” Many people were shocked to learn high school study abroad programs exist, thinking only college students are able to study abroad. I’m here today to share my high school study abroad experience with you and teach you how you can, too.
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 envious photos for Instagram.
Before studying abroad, I wanted to be a doctor. I realized after Germany this wasn’t the best choice for me and pursued an entirely new life path. The confidence stemmed from separating myself from familiarity to discover who I am. Looking back, I believe this was the ultimate gain from completing a high school study abroad program.
Which high school study abroad program did you use?
I studied abroad with Rotary International from August 2013-June 2014 in Germany.
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.
Rotary is unique in comparison to other study abroad programs because they are a non-profit organization, which means there are no service or application fees charged to study with them. This also means Rotary has expectations of their students to abide by, such as rules to follow and meetings to attend.
If you’re unwilling to commit to Rotary’s expectations, I encourage you to research other organizations. However, Rotary is the only high school study abroad program I recommend because of their servitude towards the international community, exceptional program standards, and personal attention.
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 placing exchange students with multiple host families. These host families are all within the same area, so you won’t have to change schools.
I stayed with my first family for nearly six months, my second for about three months, and my third family for about two months.
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 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?
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.
What’s involved in the application process?
The application is dependent on your local Rotary club’s process, but a formal interview and application are usually included. I recommend starting at least 6-12 months before the next academic year. Earlier is better.
How much does it cost?
Cost largely depends on you, the country, and your host family.
As mentioned earlier, Rotary charges no application or program fees (unlike other study abroad programs).
Exchange students receive free 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. Some host countries are also more expensive than others.
My airfare to Germany cost around $2,500. This is an absolutely ridiculous price and, from my understanding, Rotary has worked with their ticketing agency to reduce the cost.
My mandatory Rotary insurance cost around $1,500. I spent about $3,000 on tours and about $1,200 more on clothes, eating out, train tickets, horseback riding lessons, and other activities and stuff. My entire year abroad cost less than $10,000. Keep in mind the host Rotary club gives their inbound students a monthly stipend, so this amount was not completely out of my or my family’s pocket.
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.
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 and ambassadorial opportunity. This is important to understand because, while studying abroad is as an opportunity to travel the world and have freedom, you will also have many school and host family responsibilities while abroad.
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 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.
Again, a youth exchange is not a vacation. Your host families are not your maids and chefs. You are expected to participate in the family, whether that’s through chores, family outings, or whatever else is expected from a member of that family.
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.
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.
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 assist you in finding 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 a thing?
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, whether they were exchange student organized 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 spotted, and sparked a conversation with, a Rotary student en-route to his new home at the airport once.
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.
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