We’ve all seen the movie: a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student packs up his/her bag, soars off in a plane into a clear blue sky, and arrives in a brand new country, alone but ready for the adventure of a lifetime. What comes next is one and half to two hours of quirky characters, international faux pas, and– inevitably– a dramatic makeover montage. A classic tale of high school student exchange programs.
We know what studying abroad looks like on the silver screen, but we’re here to tell you just how much better high school exchange programs are in real life, compared to the silly expectations the movies have given us (Darn you, Disney Channel Originals!).
The truth about high school exchange programs
1. Myth: Your classmates will resemble The Breakfast Club 🚫
In reality: Your friends will be much more dynamic and interesting.
One of the classic stereotypes of high school exchange programs are the people you’ll be studying with. From the hot Polish girl, to the nerdy Chinese student and the charming British rugby player, almost every travel movie creates stereotypes about how to be a foreign exchange student.
The truth is, you probably won’t be hanging out with the jocks, geeks, and goths of study abroad. You’ll meet a lot of different, complex, and fascinating students on your high school exchange program—from your home country, your host country, and abroad—and they will most likely not fit into those typecast roles you’re expecting. Be sure to approach your exchange program and the people in it with an open mind. Getting to know people from diverse backgrounds is a great way to break down cultural barriers and make lifelong friends!
2. Myth: All Play and No Work 🚫
In reality: You have to put the study in study abroad.
If we were to believe all the movies, a summer foreign exchange for high school students involves no learning and an endless number of afternoons on the beach. The truth is, you’ve gone abroad to expand your worldview and explore another culture, so you will, inevitably, spend some time learning— that’s a good thing! You should want your time abroad to be worthwhile, and to help you grow not just personally, but intellectually as well.
The good news is that high school exchange programs know that sticking you in a classroom while you’re abroad isn’t going to cut it. Most programs incorporate experiential learning into their curriculums, meaning that you’ll be learning out on the streets of your host country in addition to hitting the books.
What better way to improve your Japanese than to join in a conversation group of local students during high school exchange programs in Japan? And how else will you really understand the importance of environmental conservation without visiting turtle nests on the beaches of the Galapagos Islands? Learning while abroad is an all-five-senses experience – not just an excuse to eat croissants along the Seine – so be ready to dive in headfirst!
3. Myth: You'll definitely meet your soulmate 🚫
In reality: You might find a nice person to date, but it's unlike they're *the one.*
Okay, confession: At some point in our lives, we have all daydreamed of hopping on a train, meeting a beautiful stranger, and falling in love while backpacking through 10 different countries. If you watched “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and were immediately inspired to start applying for Greek high school exchange programs, don’t worry: you are not alone.
While always remembering to stay safe and make smart choices, you can absolutely date while on high school student exchange programs. However, you might find that your time is better spent not just dating the locals, but becoming friends with them as well! The last thing anyone needs is a Paolo from “The Lizzie McGuire Movie”-level heartbreak at the end of their trip, and realizing that they spent their entire time abroad with only one person who actually turned out to be lip-syncing the entire time while trying to destroy Isabella’s singing career. Fool us once, Paolo.
If you do decide to date while abroad, just be sure to balance your time with your other friends, work, and adventuring on your own too! At the end of your exchange program, you’ll have created memories with lots of different people and places, and not just on spaghetti dinner dates (but spaghetti is always a good idea).
4. Myth: Your spending money is limitless 🚫
In reality: Keep an eye on your budget or you might go broke!
How is it that in almost every travel or study abroad movie, money is never an issue? The characters glide from one café to the next, indulging in endless amounts of coffees, pastries, and full, four course dinners. The reality is, traveling and studying abroad can be pricey depending on your financial situation and where you decide to go. Not all students can afford an extravagant lifestyle abroad, with trips to other cities and countries every weekend.
Psst: that’s totally okay. There are plenty of high school exchange scholarship programs to help line your pockets while abroad. Sure, having to budget while you’re abroad is tough, but it teaches you invaluable lessons on prioritizing your time and being careful with money. Most students don’t have to really think about budgeting until college (or even after college!), meaning that in a few years, you’ll be way ahead of the curve when it comes to figuring out how much money you can spend on rent and ramen.
Plus, think of all the cool thrift shops and flea markets you can take advantage of while abroad! You’ll find more hidden treasures in your local mercatos than in any designer shoe store.
5. Drinking is allowed 🚫
In reality: Your time is better spent doing other more fun, culturally immersive things.
For many high school foreign exchange students, a somewhat exciting part of their trip abroad is the fact that they might be able to legally drink alcohol in the country they are studying in. You may find that the drinking age and laws in your chosen host country are different from back home, and you are suddenly able to purchase your own drinks. In the movies, high school student exchange programs = a lot of wild nights in European clubs or South American cantinas, but you might be surprised to find that this is not always the case—and it shouldn’t be. In fact, you’ll find most programs will have rules against drinking even if you are technically of age in your host country.
Although yes, some countries have drinking ages as low as 16 and bars and clubs do exist, many cultures– especially in Europe– do not encourage excessive drinking. For these countries, drinking alcohol is a much more social act to be shared among friends, over an evening of tapas or aperitivi. If you do decide to drink while abroad, always remember to be safe, responsible, and respect the drinking culture of your host country and the rules laid out by your high school programs. The last thing you want is to be a stereotype of your own country and put yourself at risk by over-drinking!
6. You have to be cat walk ready all day, every day 🚫
In reality: You will continue to live in your yoga pants or basketball jerseys.
Everyone’s favorite part of a travel or study abroad movie: the fashion montage. You know, the moment where our main character is led through a series of hip boutiques or outdoor markets, trying on thousands of different outfits to the tune of some upbeat pop music, paired with some flashy editing. Watching Amanda Bynes get glamour-ready in “What a Girl Wants” might have you searching for high school exchange programs in England and totally convinced that you need to blow all your money on a brand new wardrobe, both before you get on the plane and once you arrive in your host country, but that can’t be further from the truth.
While you should absolutely invest in a few key pieces (comfortable shoes, a versatile scarf), while packing for your exchange program abroad, you should mostly be looking for clothing that will make you blend in, not stand out. Do some research before you leave on how people in your host country typically dress, and invest in some dark jeans for your summer in Milan. Blending in with the local fashion scene is good for those foreign exchange students who really want to immerse themselves in their host country’s culture, and to not always be marked as different.
Of course, once you’re abroad, we’re not saying you shouldn’t buy that one soccer jersey or pair of killer boots. After all, you’re going to need some souvenirs! Just make sure that your desire to look #InstaReady doesn’t dominate your time abroad.
7. You won't learn a thing 🚫
In reality: Get ready to combat global stereotypes, learn a ton about world cultures, and learn a ton about yourself.
It can be easy to believe everything you read on the internet or see on television. After all, Italy is just full of smooth-talking romantics, everyone in Bali rides elephants to school, and Mexican students only eat tacos, right? Not so much.
The great thing about high school exchange programs is that you are given the opportunity to see a world beyond these stereotypes. It’s almost impossible to accurately portray an entire country’s complex history and traditions in just a two hour movie, Buzzfeed listicle, or TV show. That's why travel is so important for teens—it will open your eyes (in a really fun and exciting way) to all the nuances, complexities, and not-so-easy answers to what makes this world a beautiful, yet complicated place.
Next steps to high school exchange programs
Now that you know the expectation vs. reality when it comes to high school exchange programs (no thanks to you, Hollywood!), it's time to start your program search and get this travel-party started!
Decide where to go. Figuring out where to study abroad in high school isn’t easy. Somewhere you can practice your Spanish? Somewhere with lots of sunshine? Somewhere with both (*cough* Spain *cough*). Be picky (!) and choose a place that's right for you—not your friends, not your classmates, not your mom (well, maybe your mom) but mostly YOU.
Community service oriented or something more language-focused and experiential? There are lots of different types of high school study abroad programs around the world, like language immersion, volunteering, and of course, high school exchange. What do you want your program focus to be?
Choose from the best high school study abroad programs in the world. Pay attention to past participants’ reviews, program/university reputation, location, and your ease of getting credits. Some schools or providers may even provide contact info for student ambassadors or past international students if you want the REAL dirt. Here’s our guide to choosing between high school abroad programs.
Plan your finances/ask mom & dad really nicely for a fat chunk of change. Sort out funding before you go to afford daily essentials and splurge in travel (in addition to program costs and airfare). Do your research to have an idea of how much your study abroad program will cost.
Talk to your guidance counselor. Getting all your ducks in a row is largely dependent on what your high school administrators require—don't leave this to the last minute! Keep them in the loop on your plans and they might even point you in the direction of some high school travel scholarships.
You're ready for high school exchange programs!
By studying abroad, you get to dig deeper and get to know another country’s culture in a much more personal way— through living there and interacting with its people on a daily basis. You’ll leave your high school student exchange program with a much more global mindset, having seen how people on the other side of the world live and think! Now that’s way better than in the movies!