High School Student Exchange Programs Abroad

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A Guide to High School Student Exchange Programs Abroad

Did you know that not all school lunches are created equal? That instead of bouncy hot dogs and unidentified slush, you could be crunching down on fresh beetroot salads or slurping up authentic phở? And that’s not all. By skipping out on one dramatic high school year back home, you will also open your eyes to new cultures, grow into a leader, and come back with enough college resume material to make the valedictorian at your school weep in envy. Expand your learning outside of the classroom and jump on this latest trend: high school student exchange programs abroad.

Why Participate in an Exchange Program

Who said that you need to wait until college to be like the cool kids that hop across the pond to study abroad (and come back with enough gossip material to last for a couple of semesters)? One up them with a high school exchange program abroad, which will boost your maturity through the roof, put you at the forefront of college applications, and give you plenty of interesting stories to show off during freshman orientation.

By joining in a high school exchange program, you will not only leave the drama of the hallways for a semester (or two), but you will grow exponentially as a person. Rather than just focusing on which shade of purple is in style, you will go into the real world and experience relevant social and cultural issues on a daily basis (and, who knows, you might even bring back a few fashion tips from Milan). You can read all about the Egyptian pyramids or the Paris Syndrome in class, or you can get out there and experience it first-hand and have it be a lot more memorable. 

Another bonus: high school student exchange program might save you thousands of dollars and year of head-shaking later on in your academic career.

After a four-year grind of AP classes, extracurricular clubs, mandatory volunteer (huh?) projects, and locker crises, our view of the world is kinda limited to textbooks and the high school playground. You’ll see how other people think, partake in new hobbies, hear a new language, observe different lifestyles, and adopt new critical thinking skills. That translates to expanding your palette and tackling the college thing with a new light and focus. Maybe you realized that you’re interested in social justice issues in the Middle East, that you would like to study in a cold environment, or that your dream college is actually in Europe.

Upon returning home, your newfound self-confidence will allow you to stand up to any bully (after all, if you can figure out the metro lines in Madrid, you can probably handle Mister Throw-A-Spit-Bubble-In-My-Hair). Furthermore, you’ll be able to add a bullet point of initiative and self-motivation to your college resume that will set you apart from 99% of the other applicants. You decided to go study abroad before all of the brochures in college told you to; you’re ready to play with the big kids now.


High schools can be found all around the world. If you had a hard enough time picking your electives for sophomore year, how do you even begin to narrow down your student exchange program options abroad? Ultimately, it’s all about what you are most interested in, but here are some suggestions to start inspiring your search:

If you’re not too keen on crossing any oceans, don’t. One of the happiest and healthiest countries in the world, Canada and its geographic diversity can offer you anything from icy mountaintops to thriving cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver. If you would like to add a sprinkle of French to your lumberjacking experience, consider colorful Montreal, with its narrow cobblestoned streets and fantastic festivals. Wherever you end up, you’ll be treated with pristine nature to get the blood flowing between classes, no shortage of smiling faces, and maple syrup, eh?

Ready to jump a bit further, but still would like to keep classes in English? Try exchange programs in Australia. With a high standard of living, eternal sunshine, and a vast land rich in resources, the magical land of “Oz” will keep your pencils scribbling and your adrenaline flowing. Unless you’re tackling Tasmanian devils, the biggest safety concern you will have is the height of the waves. From Perth to Brisbane, expect after-school surfing classes and some epic evenings with shrimp on the barbie (er, prawns on the grill).

If you’d like to practice your foreign language skills, make your high school exchange program a good reason to ask Mom and Dad for that plane ticket to France you always wanted. Jump into iconic Paris, with its endless historical monuments, museums, and entertainment, or enjoy the Mediterranean Coast in Nice. Between the Pyrenees and the lavender fields, you’ll find the romanticism of pain au chocolat for breakfast and street-side cafés trés chouette.

Student Exchange Programs Abroad

High school exchange programs work in a variety of ways. Whether you are actually exchanging with a student for a year (this one might take some more persuasion with Mom), you tag-team exchange effort (where each of you spend some time in each country), or you just go study at a different high school (the most common option), there are some things to keep in mind. 

Most high school student exchange programs will place you in a homestay, which will become your family while away. This is a great way to get cultural and language immersion, as well as many home-cooked meals and potential temporary siblings. More often than not, these “siblings” will be attending the same school as you, so you’ll have someone that will show you the ropes and tell you with bathrooms to avoid.

Some international schools will house exchange students in their dormitories, where you will share spaces with other students. This is a great way to meet fellow travelers from all over the world, and will serve as a precursor to a college dorm (but nicer!).

Language knowledge will not likely be a precursor to any high school student exchange program, but language skills will certainly help. Some exchange programs focus on language immersion in all classes, while others just offer the language class as another elective; check specifics with your program to make sure you’re getting what you want out of the experience!

Also, do keep in mind that international schools and high schools partnered with your current school should give you a transcript that will be easy to take back with you. If you decide to attend an unaffiliated high school abroad, it might be more hassle with translation of the subjects and them counting as credit back home. Just be sure to do some research in advance and take charge of your paperwork!

Benefits & Challenges

Probably the most difficult part of a high school student exchange program will be signing up for it. Surrounded by four-year-plans and best friends, it might seem like a crazy idea to disappear for a year. However, once you unpack your suitcase and get your backpack ready for the other side of the world, you’ll realize that the world is filled with both similarities and differences.

Sure, class organization might be different and you’re going to school in an old, converted castle, but people and their needs are generally the same. Whether you’re at home or in Bosnia, you’ll still be going to the movies on the weekend, throwing surprise birthday parties, and giggling over that cutie; you’ll just be doing this in a new environment, with new accents and with a new friends.

Be prepared to gain a level of independence that no speech class curriculum can teach you. You’ll realize that even the smallest task (such as taking the bus or discussions instead of final  exams) might seem like foreign concepts or big challenges. That’s to be expected, and it’s a great way of growing up: realizing that your concept of “normal” is not a global definition.

So, instead of merely making sure that all of your pencils are sharpened at the start of the next academic year, pick up a supply shopping list in a foreign language, with an address that you are completely unfamiliar with. With a high school student exchange program abroad, you’ll have a high school year beyond the highlighter-filled agenda; you’ll learn valuable life lessons long after the school bell rings at the end of the day.

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