What’s the difference between a good student exchange and a great student exchange?
How can you have a great student exchange?
It’s a lot easier than you think. There are only a few key rules that you need to follow to make sure you have the best time possible. I’ve distilled these down to 20 rules, which are set out below. Follow these, and you’ll have a fantastic, rich and successful experience. And for even more tips about how to have a great exchange, check out my book.
1. Get used to making mistakes and forgive yourself for making them
People who play it safe in life never learn or achieve anything. That goes double for people on exchange. You have to put yourself out there. That means making a lot of mistakes. You’ll make mistakes when you try to speak the language. You may mispronounce people’s names. You’ll miss trains and buses. You may look foolish in front of your host family and school class. It’s no big deal and everyone will make allowances. Accept that you’ll make mistakes, and find a way to get over them quickly and move on.
2. Mix it up
You only get 6-12 months in your host country. In the context of your life, that’s an absurdly short time. You need to do new things every day in order to experience all the variety and richness of your host country. Talk to new people, try new sports, watch new TV shows, eat new foods. Not only does trying new things help you to discover your host country. It’s also one of the most effective ways of staving off boredom.
3. Search for good habits that you can adopt
Anyone who acts and thinks the same on the first and last days of his exchange has wasted a year. Being on exchange gives you the chance to observe other people and learn their good habits. This can be incredibly valuable. Look at how your host parents behave. What are their good habits that you can adopt yourself? Observe how the parents of your school friends act. What do they do which is different to what people at home do? Look at the population of your host country generally. What traits do they have that you can pick up and continue when you go home?
4. Be generous and kind
Many people are sacrificing and giving so much so that you can be on exchange. Don’t forget to repay this generosity. Be kind and helpful towards your host parents and host siblings. Be a good classmate to people at your school. Act as helpfully as you can towards other exchange students, especially those who’ve arrived more recently than you and who are struggling with homesickness and culture shock.
Writing is a healthy way to process the emotions you experience while you’re on exchange. Some of these emotions can feel overpowering at times. Keeping a diary, writing emails to friends and family, or writing a blog can help to keep things in perspective. Anything you write will also serve as a record of your time on exchange, which you and your family will enjoy revisiting in future.
6. When you learn a language, do the time
When it comes to language learning, you need to put in the time. There is simply no substitute for rote learning vocabulary and the rules of grammar. Do at least an hour a day. On the upside, you can usually walk outside and apply everything you’ve learned right away. Your efforts can pay off instantly. See my article on language learning here.
7. Suppress negativity
Everyone expects you to be homesick. They will make allowances for it. What people won’t appreciate is continuous complaining and negativity about your host country, school, classmates, and so on. You’re also not doing your mental health any good by dwelling on the bad things about your host country. Inevitably, some things about your host country will be worse than the equivalent things at home. The sooner you can make peace with that and move on, the better you’ll be.
8. Don’t fall into bad habits
Being on exchange can be hard. The easy path to dealing with those difficulties is to adopt bad habits – eating too much, drinking or doing drugs, spending too much time on social media, hanging out exclusively with other exchange students. Fight the temptation to do these things. The only good, effective way to meet the challenges of being on exchange is through hard work. No short-cuts.
9. Seek connections
Don’t retreat to your room and bury your head in your phone. Relying on social media to stay connected will only make you feel isolated. Instead, seek real connections with people in the real world. Spend some time every day interacting with your host family – even if it’s just sitting and watching sport on TV with them. Join a club or church group or other arrangement where people meet regularly in small groups. If your school offers after-school sport or band, do it. Surround yourself with people whom you can talk to and connect with.
10. Keep yourself fit and healthy
This is not up for discussion. For the sake of your physical and mental health, you must keep active and healthy while you’re on exchange. For the first half of my exchange, I did no sport. During the second half, I swam three times a week and rode mountain bike. The second half beat the first half hands down. I was happier, looked better, and was much more at peace with my situation. Whatever you do, make the time to stay active.
11. Remember that your reputation counts
Exchange students are minor celebrities. People notice and remember how they behave. For this reason, you need to cultivate a reputation as someone who is open, friendly and positive. Also, don’t forget that how you behave doesn’t just reflect on you personally. People will assume that everybody in your home country acts the way you do.
12. Don’t get too caught up in what’s going on back home
Want to know what’s going on back home while you’re on exchange? I’ll tell you: the same old people are doing the same old things and visiting the same old places. When you get home, you’ll be amazed at how little things have changed in your absence. While you may long for the familiarity of home, you’re usually not missing out on much. Focus on the here and now of your host country, rather than dwelling on the situation back home.
13. If you find it hard to be self-disciplined, use routines
You may find it hard to muster the energy you need to do everything. This is especially true at the start of your exchange. If so, try to automate as much as possible so that you don’t have to rely upon self-discipline to get things done. Set up a kind of timetable where you allocate time for language learning and time with your host family every day. Give yourself half an hour of phone time twice a day – maybe at the start and end of the day. Allocate time for exercise and writing. Like eating broccoli, schedule the boring or unpleasant things first, and then do the enjoyable stuff. Allocate time for the important things, and then make sure that those important things get done at the appointed times.
14. Build meaningful relationships with your host family
Things will go much better for you on exchange if you establish good and meaningful relationships with your host family. Don’t treat their house like a hotel. Respect and trust your host mother and father – they genuinely care about you and are invested in your happiness. Your host siblings want to get to know you and be your friend. Give them the satisfaction of attaining these things. Above all, make sure you spend time with your host family and play an active role in the life of the family.
15. Don’t give up unless you absolutely have to
The life of an exchange student is full of little struggles. Sometimes even getting out of bed in the morning to go to school can be a struggle. Whatever you do – whether it’s language learning or talking to strangers at school or saying no to another croissant – be as courageous and firm with yourself as you can. Aim to succeed in everything. If you give in and do what’s easy once, you are more likely to do it again. And because small surrenders add up, you’ll end up feeling demoralised and weak. Be firm and disciplined, and don’t give up unless you absolutely have to. You’ll be amazed at how strong you can be.
16. Aim big
Don’t settle for an average student exchange. The iPhone didn’t succeed because Steve Jobs wanted to make an average phone. It succeeded because he wanted to make a phone that would blow everything else away. You want to have the iPhone of exchanges. Learn the language until it’s as close to perfect as you can get it. Be the best exchange student which your school has ever hosted. Be on friendly terms with everyone – your classmates, every other exchange student in your program, your host family’s neighbours. Regularly examine every aspect of your life on exchange – especially the relationships you have – and improve things as much as you can.
17. Keep polarising opinions to yourself
Some things unite people. Other things divide people. The big divisive topics are politics and religion. If you have strong opinions about these topics, you need to keep them to yourself while you’re on exchange. Put bluntly, your host family and classmates don’t want to hear how about how much you do or don’t like Donald Trump. They don’t care about your views on Brexit. They don’t want to hear about how you do or don’t believe in God. When you make conversation with schoolmates and other people you meet, focus on things which bring people together – like music, food, travel, movies and sport. Keep it light and good-humoured.
18. Seek visceral experiences which activate your senses
The most pleasurable and memorable days of your exchange will be the ones you spend outside, in the sunshine. Swim in lakes. Spend a whole day riding your bike between villages. Go running in the woods without any headphones on. If your host family lives on a farm, help with chores like fencing, herding livestock or making hay. If your exchange is in a cold climate, spend plenty of time in the snow. In 20 years’ time, you’ll remember just one of those days with greater clarity than all of the 100 days you spent inside.
19. Let yourself be guided
One big objective of being on exchange is to learn how to think and solve problems independently. However, it’s necessary and also healthy to seek and act upon the advice of others. Regularly seek guidance and help from your host parents, school friends and other exchange students. Be humble enough to ask for their help when things go wrong. As well as helping you to have a better time, this will deepen your relationship with the people who help you.
20. Make plans for the future
Most people find the first year back at home following their student exchanges much more difficult than being on exchange. They get a kind of “reverse homesickness”. One tactic to avoid this is to spend some of your time on exchange planning your post-exchange life. Where do you want to live? What sort of career do you want to have? Do you want to start a business, and if yes, what kind of business? Do you want to have kids? Being overseas gives you the time and space to think about these really big issues with greater clarity and objectivity than if you were thinking about them at home. When you arrive home, having some clear ideas and plans about your future will give you something to work towards and keep you from missing your host country too much.