Student Exchange Programs – How to select the right one for you

There are dozens of exchange programs. In fact, there are probably hundreds if you count small exchange arrangements between schools, partner cities arrangements, and so forth. I have listed a number of the major exchange programs on the ‘Resources’ page.

Choosing the right exchange program can make a huge difference to the success or otherwise of your student exchange. Yet, the process which most students and their families employ to select a program seems incredibly casual. I surmise that most people just find a program that looks OK and allows them to exchange to the country they are interested in, and apply to that program. They seem to do very little research or critical thinking prior to applying. In fact, they probably put more critical thought into their choice of sneakers or cell phone.

Don’t be like them. Increase your chances of having a great exchange by putting some rigour into the process of selecting an exchange program.

Do-it-yourself assessment tool

The aim of this article is to help you select the best available exchange program.  I only have direct experience with one exchange student program – Rotary Youth Exchange. I thought that it was a well-run and organized program. However, there may well be other programs which are better organized, or which better suit your purposes.

An in-depth examination of all available exchange programs is beyond the scope of this website. I also do not intend to make a recommendation in this article about which program is the “best”. Instead, I will help you make your own assessment of which program is right for your circumstances. I will give you five rules to apply when assessing exchange programs. You should only select a program which meets all five of those rules.

Rule 1: The exchange program must have one or more mentors or counsellors to help exchange students having difficulties

Exchange student Singapore
Flickr / Les Haines

Things can and do go wrong during student exchanges. You need to choose an exchange organisation which gives you a safety net. In fact, ideally you’ll have several safety nets. The more the better.

Usually, when an exchange student encounters a problem, he gets help from his host family in the first instance. That works OK, until the exchange student’s host family is the problem. Thankfully, I never had issues with any of my host families. But a number of my exchange colleagues had problems with theirs. Some of these problems were mildly humorous, like only being permitted to shower at home twice per week. Some were potentially dangerous, like physical abuse of a host sibling.

Rotary had a mechanism in place for dealing with such issues. It appointed two “counsellors” for each student – one in the host Rotary club, and one in the sponsoring Rotary club back home. This meant that if a student was having problems with his host family, he could approach either Rotary counsellor for help. If the counsellor in the host Rotary club wasn’t helpful, or felt conflicted because he was friends with the host family in question, the student could contact the counsellor in his sponsoring Rotary club. The sponsor club counsellor would then sort things out. I thought it was a smart system.

I’m aware of other exchange organizations which have a co-ordinator or mentor for all students in a particular city or district. Students who have problems that their host families can’t solve can turn to the co-ordinator or mentor person for assistance. That also seems sensible, although I wonder what happens if the co-ordinator hears about the problem and sides with the host family, whom the co-ordinator most likely will have recruited. A two safety-net system like Rotary’s is preferable.

Rule 2: The exchange program must be large and well-established

New York
Flickr / Andrea

Size matters when it comes to exchange programs. The larger exchange organisations such as Rotary, AFS and YFU have been operating for decades and have probably each sent hundreds of thousands of students on exchange. All of that experience is reflected in their policies and administration, which are well-settled and robust. They are large enough to be able to employ full-time staff who can devote their time to looking after students and running their programs properly. If a student has a problem with his or her host family and needs to change – which happens relatively often – a large program will have the resources and capabilities to find a new host family quickly.

Smaller exchange programs – such as an arrangement between two schools in different countries – are unlikely to have the same amount of rigour. They largely rely upon volunteer labour and may struggle to find you a new family if things with your original host family go wrong.

Unless you find a small exchange program or arrangement which seems exceptionally well run, stick with one of the larger, established programs.

Rule 3: The exchange program must rigorously screen all host families and program administrators

Flickr / Arnaud DG
Flickr / Arnaud DG

Before you apply to any youth exchange organisation, be sure to check out its policies in relation to screening host families and program administrators.

At a minimum, the exchange organisation you choose should undertake police background checks on your host family or host families. It should also undertake such checks on any of its employees or officers who will have supervisory responsibilities towards you. Youth exchange students in a foreign country are young, vulnerable and very attractive targets for fraudsters, paedophiles, and others wanting to exploit them.

The exchange organisation should also interview and screen host families to ensure that they will offer you a good, stable home life. A girl from my high school went on exchange when she was 16 years old and was placed in a family where the father was a movie director. Anecdotally, there were always assorted movie and television stars, musicians and other celebrities hanging around the host family’s house. While she was on exchange, the girl ended up getting engaged to a hip-hop star who paid for her to have breast augmentation surgery. That was an unfortunate example of a young person being placed with a host family which couldn’t offer her a suitable home environment.

Rule 4: The exchange program must have a local office or representative

Make sure that the exchange program you choose has a local office or contact person in your home country.

It sounds like a small thing. However, virtually everything about your exchange program will be easier if you and your parents can deal with a person locally, instead of having to deal with people overseas. Applying for the program will be easier. Sorting out problems with your host families will be easier. Things like insurance claims will be far easier. There will be no language barrier and no time zone differences to worry about. If anything comes up during your exchange, your parents can just call the local person and let him sort things out with his overseas counterpart.

Rule 5: The exchange organisation must give you opportunities to socialise with other exchange students

Flickr / Marjaana Pato

On a lighter note, I recommend seeking out an exchange program which will give you opportunities to meet, and socialise with, other inbound exchange students.

Most exchange organisations really push the need for exchange students to spend the majority of their time associating with their host families, school mates and other natives of their host countries. I agree with that policy.

However, good exchange organisations also recognise that relationships between exchange students can be hugely beneficial, and encourage those relationships. During my exchange year in Switzerland, Rotary Switzerland did this by organising a two-week long European tour for all inbound exchange students, as well as weekend get-togethers every two months. Meeting other exchange students through these events helped me in the following ways:

  • Coming from the Southern Hemisphere, my exchange year started in January. There were a number of Northern Hemisphere students who had started their exchange years in the previous August. Those more experienced exchange students gave me a lot of good advice about what they had learned and really helped me find my feet in the early days of my exchange.
  • The other exchange students could relate to issues and frustrations I was experiencing with school, Swiss culture, language, homesickness, and were happy to discuss those.
  • I was able to meet and befriend the host families of several other exchange students, broadening my experience of Swiss life.
  • I had a circle of friends to spend time with on weekends when my host families were busy.
  • I enjoyed being able to travel with others who were experiencing things for the first time at the same time I was.
  • I was able to learn something about the cultures of the countries from which those other exchange students came.

I am still close friends with roughly half a dozen people I first met when we were exchange students in Switzerland. Although we have moved on and developed other common interests since then, the help, friendship and support we gave each other all those years ago is still the glue which binds our friendships together now.

Don’t miss out on the many benefits of spending time with other exchange students. Be sure to apply to an exchange program which will enable you to meet, and travel with, other exchange students.

Good luck,



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