Being An Exchange Student: It's Not Like The Movies

Sarita Nieminen

You’re in the airplane. You can still feel your dad’s strong hug and your mom’s tear drops on your skin. In your ears, you hear your sibling’s laugh. Fun memories made with your friends come to your mind and suddenly you wonder: what are you doing? But then, you feel the butterflies in your stomach and the adrenaline wipes away your fears.
You’re going to a new country. You’re going to live with total strangers. You don’t know the language. You don’t know what will happen when the plane lands. Still, you can only smile and nervously await your new adventure. For the first time in your life you have the chance to do things for yourself, by yourself.
Every year, high school students ages 15-19 from all around the world make the huge decision to change their entire life and go far from home to another country to study for up to a year. Adapting to the new culture is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Exchange years are known as a time when new experiences educate people about a different way of life. Sometimes there will be difficulties and bad moments, but those are the moments when the students grow the most.                   
“Exchange isn’t a year in your life; it’s a life in a year,” said Jasmina Einnolf.
Einnolf is a 16 year old girl from Germany. She has been living in Coloma, Michigan this year. Einnolf was encouraged to become an exchange student by her sister, who was an exchange student last year. Einnolf also loves traveling, meeting new people, learning new languages and making new friends. Her year hasn’t been exactly what she expected.
“I thought America would be like in the movies and it’s totally not like in the movies.” Einnolf continued, “There is lot of different people. Schools are different and, for me, the entire culture was little bit strange.”
Einnolf has changed her host family four times during the year. She has lived with a single mom, an older couple, a widow and is now in a family where she has a brother and sister. Moving from home to home has been a difficult, but has offered rich experience. Einnolf has seen more ways to live in U.S. than many other exchange students ever will. Einnolf has enjoyed her year, but even when you’re having the best time of your life, homesickness hits everybody at some point.
“It hits hard, really hard. I just wanted to cry. I always ate something and talked with my host family. They hugged me. I went to bed pretty early that day and, normally, the next day I was fine,” said Einnolf.
While studying abroad, it’s important to talk to the people and start bonding with them. Without communicating, meaningful and lifelong relationships can’t be made. While studying abroad, students have to get out of their comfort zone and be independent.
“My dad used to say ‘sadness is just a break between two happinesses, you need to break the shell to let the flower grow,’” said Isabela Seixas, an 18 year old exchange student from Brazil.
Seixas has been living in Saint Joseph this year. Her year didn’t start exactly the way she was hoping. The first four months were the hardest in her whole life. Seixas had troubles making friends and she didn’t connect with her host family.
“I had the worst and the best time here. The beginning was horrible, I was alone and no one was open. I didn’t open myself and no one talked to me. I was ready to go home early,” Seixas said.
When the year 2017 started, Seixas changed her family and gave the U.S. one more chance. She changed her host family and attitude. Now she has a great relationship with her host parents, she has a lot of friends and she’s enjoying her time.
“I love all the seasons, watching the change and the change in me. I have learned how to do things for me without my parents and how to change my mood alone,” said Seixas.
Seixas had never experienced winter and snow before. In Brazil, the weather is always hot and humid.
Going for an exchange year is not only one year thing. Everything the students experience will stay with them forever. Is also important to start planning the exchange year early enough. Before you can get to the plane, you need to do lot of paperwork and visit the doctor. Students need to start preparing for their upcoming year months before it happens.
The best way to find information about exchange years is online. Looking for different kinds of organizations and reading other exchange students stories is a good resource. While reading and hearing what has happened to exchange students, it’s important to remember that everyone’s year is going to be different, but exchange year is always worth doing.  
“I searched online for a long time to look for different programs, places and experiences that many exchange students have had,” said Elle Davis.
Davis is a 17 year old American from Delton, Michigan. She will spend her next year in Thailand as an exchange student. After a few phone calls, emails and filling out long applications in the fall, Davis is getting to know her new home country and has been attending a few exchange meetings during the year of 2017.
“I’m beyond excited to become an exchange student. We have had many exchange students at our school.” Davis continued, “I always thought it was super cool how kids my age were already gaining so many new life experiences and I decided to do the same for myself.”
Even though Davis is excited about her upcoming year, she’s been nervously trying to study the new language. She will miss watching football, hanging with her friends and going to dances. She still believes that her year in Thailand will make up for all the things she’s leaving behind.
“Overall I’m just eager to hop on a plane and say hello to a fresh start in a new place,” said Davis.
Everyone’s year is going to be different. Everybody has their own background and students go to live in different countries with families. While being exchange students, supporting each other is more important than comparing the experience. Exchange students grow a lot during their exchange year and they see the world in a new way. They will have difficulties they need to overcome by themselves. They will go back to their home countries more mature and independent.
“You will have bad days, but if you open your mind and heart to people, you will have the best time of your life,” said Seixas.
To find information about exchange programs:

  • Rotary Youth Exchange
  • Lions Club Youth Exchange
  • AFS Intercultural programs USA
  • EF Foreign Exchange
  • ISEP-International Students Exchange Programs
  • ECA-International Exchange Alumni
  • ASSE-International Student Exchange Programs
  • CIEE-International programs around the world
  • Summer Exchange Programme
  • Exchange Year Blog