Virtually every international student comes to the United States with some idea of their goals academically. After all, studying abroad is still very much that — spending time in an American classroom, learning alongside other teens and receiving grades just like a normal high-schooler. But for cultural exchange students, the lessons learned during a semester or year abroad are much more profound than those learned within a classroom. In fact, studying overseas as a teen or young adult can equip a student with a range of “soft skills” and experiences that will better prepare them for future academic and professional success.
But for many prospective exchange students and their biological families, there’s still quite a bit of mystery around exactly what types of learning they might experience while studying and living overseas. How truly different can life in the United States really be, and are these lessons that are worth the emotional and mental challenges of cultural exchange?
If you or your child is considering becoming an exchange student, consider these incredible lessons they’ll learn while living abroad — from the host families that witnessed it!
Exchange students’ academic experience in the US is often more well-rounded.
International students often bring an exceptional level of academic skill and accomplishment to their classrooms in the United States. That said, what many students have not experienced before is the opportunity take a number of “elective” classes in subjects as wide-ranging as music, theatre, sports, woodwork, and even speech and debate.
For students used to more “straightforward” academic classes in school, this offers a unique opportunity to go far outside of their comfort zone. Rather than being confined to textbooks and in-class discussions alone, cultural exchange students often count the social elements of elective classes as their favorite part of studying in the US!
Just take it from Christie, a two-time host mom: “Over the last two years, I have noticed that, yes, our students might be better in math or science — but they have not learned other key social skills that our [own children] get from taking [elective] classes,” she says.
“I think the one recent connect [my family] as discovered is that in some countries, schools are all academic and don’t [provide] the opportunities for more social-type [classes].”
“Over the last two years, I have noticed that, yes, our students might be better in math or science — but they have not learned other key social skills that our [own children] get from taking [elective] classes.”
Exchange students learn self-reliance and emotional independence.
While studying overseas, many teens experience taking care of both their emotional and physical needs independently for the first time. This could be as simple as making themselves breakfast before morning classes or navigating their way home on the bus. While these experiences may seem insignificant on the surface, it’s these responsibilities that often have the greatest impact on students in the long-run.
For Debbie, a host mom from Iowa who recently hosted a student from China attests to these small victories as major milestones for young students. “The one thing that [our exchange son] was most proud of as his program concluded was his ability to wake up each morning on his own with the help of an old-fashioned alarm clock,” she says. “It meant a lot to show his mom he was capable of being responsible for himself even after his program ended.”
Research into the benefits of international study support Debbie’s experience with her student. In fact, one study of German college students found that those who spent either a semester or year abroad rated higher in openness to new experiences, agreeableness and emotional stability than those who did not. Simply put, students that study abroad will be much better prepared to tackle the emotional and mental challenges that come with building a career.
“The one thing that [our exchange son] was most proud of as his program concluded was his ability to wake up each morning on his own with the help of an old-fashioned alarm clock. It meant a lot to show his mom he was capable of being responsible for himself even after his program ended.”
Only children that live with “host siblings” learn to better interact and share space with others.
Many students that study abroad are only children themselves — but are matched with a host family that has one or more children already. This gives only children a unique opportunity to have “bonus” sisters and brothers with which they can learn to interact.
Host mom Sara from Washington attests to her experiences with a Spanish exchange son as one of the most profound lessons she and her student learned during his time abroad. “Our Spanish son, who was an only child at home but one of five here, learned how to be a part of a family and be responsible for others as well as himself,” she says. “He learned that his actions affect others, even if he didn’t immediately realize they did.”
In fact, one study of only children and those with siblings found that kids who grew up with brothers or sisters were more sympathetic to others’ needs, which is often a trait linked with stronger “prosocial” skills in later life like helping and sharing. While every student has a unique experience with their host families and siblings, having the opportunity to experience a different family structure could benefit a student for many years into the future.
“Our Spanish son, who was an only child at home but one of five here, learned how to be a part of a family and be responsible for others as well as himself. He learned that his actions affect others, even if he didn’t immediately realize they did.”
Exchange students gain perspective on their traditions, values, and beliefs in relation to others.
Students that study overseas are very unlikely to end up in a host family that operates just like their own biological families at home. More often than not, even the most “compatible” host families have very different traditions, values, and beliefs than that of their exchange student.
When a student lives with a host family, they are often encouraged to not only learn about other ways of doing things but to actively embrace them. After all, teens living with American host families are expected to take part in family traditions just like their host siblings and often are exposed to positive experiences they might not have had if they stay firmly within their cultural comfort zones.
Lisa, a host family to two students back-to-back, attests to both of her students find the experience of eating dinner as a family as novel and unique. “[They] both marveled at us eating dinner as a family each night,” she laughs. “It apparently wasn’t something they experienced back home very often!”
Of course, it’s not just the experience in and of itself that proves a major benefit to studying overseas. According to research into the impact of novel experiences on the brain, people that regularly step outside of their comfort zone are more likely to reach what researchers call “optimal anxiety” — or, more simply, when slightly elevated levels of stress help our brains develop new neural pathways and boost productivity.
For young people, these experiences are often found right at home with their host families, where environments are comfortable and safe enough to venture outside of their comfort zones without overloading on stress.
“[They] both marveled at us eating dinner as a family each night. It apparently wasn’t something they experienced back home very often!”
Studying abroad can open students’ eyes to the future they truly want.
Rarely do young people just graduating from high school truly understand what they want from their future, both academically and professionally. For many, it’s much easier to follow a set route of study or default to the hopes of their parents.
That said, studying overseas permits a student to see different environments, opportunities, and possibilities than what was readily available to explore when living in their home countries. Many exchange students have never left their home city for a substantial amount of time before studying abroad, and may not truly grasp how vast their choices really are.
Take one student from China who had, for many years, assumed they would study at Stanford University in college — a choice influenced by his parents. After studying in a small town in the United States, he quickly recognized his preference for smaller liberal arts institutions and the cultural charms of the Midwest. Today he studies within the same general area in which he studied in high school, and is well on his way to graduating with his college degree!
It goes without saying: international education goes far beyond the classroom. Cultural exchange is a wonderful way for young people to become more open-minded, worldly, mature and socially confident. If you’re still searching for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for your child to learn and grow in more ways than one, consider cultural exchange. It’s the learning opportunity and adventure of a lifetime!
We invite you to read more about hosting a foreign exchange student. If you have specific questions about hosting, check out our host family FAQ page. You can also read testimonials from our past and current host families. When you feel ready, complete our host family interest form and our area representative will get in touch with you.
You can also get involved by joining our team of Area Representatives! Help match host families and exchange students and bring the world closer together, while making a supplemental income.