Participating in a foreign exchange program offers teens a once-in-a-lifetime chance to immerse themselves in a new culture, get to know a new family, and experience a different part of the world. Choose the wrong program, however, and what should be an amazing experience can become a major disappointment. The best foreign exchange student programs connect teens with high-quality families and provide them with opportunities to fully experience the country they've chosen to visit.
Great Student Exchange Programs
If you're looking for an exchange program, you'll want to consider whether a particular program operates in the country you'd like to visit and how much it costs. Beyond those basics, you'll also want to consider factors such as how the program finds the family you'll stay with, what special activities you get to participate in while you're there, and most importantly, what past participants say about their experiences with the program. Many of the top exchange programs have spent decades helping teens make memories through their programs.
For over 65 years, AFS Intercultural Programs has been giving teens the opportunity to participate in their foreign exchange programs. The organization has programs in over 50 countries including Canada, New Zealand, France, and Japan. Teens have the option to participate in a variety of programs ranging from those that last the entire school year to those that last a few months during the summer.
To participate in a program, teens must submit an application which includes a letter of recommendation and a doctor's form. They must also complete an in-home interview with an AFS volunteer. To even apply for the program, teens must have at least a 2.8 GPA, and depending on the country, may need to have language fluency.
AFS has a four out of five star rating from Rate My Study Abroad where participants note that the large size of the company results in a large network of support and resources. Unlike many study abroad companies, AFS actually has employees and offices in every country students travel to, making it easier for them to get the support they need.
Youth for Understanding
Youth for Understanding (YFU) was named one of Lexiophiles' Top 10 Study Abroad Programs: English and has an A-rating on RateMyStudyAbroad.com. Advertised as a life-changing program, not just an exchange program, YFU offers students ages 15-18 the opportunity to study abroad for a year, a semester, a summer, or through another specialty program like a sports, nature, or theater-focused program. Through the program, students can participate in an exchange in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, and 35 other countries throughout the world. Most destinations don't require the student speaks the language, and in some cases, students may even get the opportunity to stay with a host family that speaks English.
A program through YFU ranges from $6,495 to $15,495 and includes:
- Airfare to and from the destination
- Local and regional trips
- 24-hour emergency assistance
- Tutoring, counseling, or other support
- A carefully screened host family
- Enrollment in school
- Help obtaining a visa or residence permit
To help cut down on the cost of the programs, YFU also offers 300 government and corporate scholarships for students. Students can find out about those scholarships by attending a virtual information night or creating an account on the organization's website.
Since 1947, CIEE has been offering programs to allow students to study abroad. The organization places students in 11 different countries, including Germany, Chile, France, Ireland, Japan, Spain, and New Zealand. All of its programs, both for high school and beyond, have received four and a half out of five stars from Abroad101.
CIEE focuses on providing students with plenty of information to make their trips successful. This includes requiring students to attend pre-trip orientation sessions and hosting an in-country orientation once students arrive. The company also tries to book students traveling to the same country on the same flight to help them enjoy the experience together and make it less stressful. Once abroad, students connect with local coordinators who make regular visits and help during emergencies.
Experiment in International Living
The Experiment in International Living has received rave reviews from parents and students for its three to five week programs abroad. Programs typically take place during the summer and range from $4,000-$6,000 in cost. Unlike other study abroad programs, The Experiment in International Living focuses on providing students with themed experiences. For example, students may travel to France to learn about food or Brazil to learn about environmental stability. Along with the thematic experience, students get to participate in a home stay.
Students spend most of their time with an experiment group, a group of 10-15 other students and two adult leaders. During the day students are always in groups of three or more and after dark are always with a program leader or their host family. The typical three to five week program follows the following schedule:
- A cross-cultural orientation that lasts three to four days
- A home stay
- A thematic experience
- A time for reflection and evaluation
Those interested in studying abroad with The Experiment in International Living can create an online account to gain access to more information, as well as a Parent Portal.
Rotary Youth Exchange
Rotary International offers the Rotary Youth Exchange, an opportunity for around 8,000 students a year to experience another culture. Since it's a smaller program sponsored by individual rotary clubs, it does not offer as many amenities as larger study abroad programs, but it does offer students the opportunity to study in around 85 different countries. The structure of the program has students spending an entire year studying abroad, during which time they may live with multiple host families. Due to the nature of the program, students can select a list of top destinations or a general region, but the final destination will vary based on the availability of host families. Despite the inability to pick exactly where you go, many students have posted favorable reviews of the program online.
To apply to be part of a Rotary Youth Exchange, students must reach out to a local rotary club. Those clubs hand-pick students based on qualities such as:
- School and community leadership experience
- Openness to cultural differences
- Willingness to try new things
- Ability to serve as an ambassador for the United States
Many of SPI's high school study abroad programs have received stellar ratings from past participants. While the program has only been around since 1996, it has become a popular choice for students, allowing them to study in France, Spain, Costa Rica, Italy, China, or through a custom experience. Through the program, students get the opportunity to experience the following:
- A total immersion home stay in a small local city where they build language skills while interacting with the town
- Courses at a language institute or foreign language university
- Volunteer and community service activities in their host country
- Special side trips or activities with a teacher guide
Programs typically take place during the summer and range from $3,500 - $7,000 in cost, which does not include airfare or spending money.
Sol Education Abroad
Sol Education Abroad is one of the highest rated companies on AbroadReviews.com where students praise it for its value, quality of host families, and overall ability to create an amazing study abroad experience. The company offers study abroad programs in four different countries: Costa Rica, Argentina, Mexico, and Spain. Students can opt to study abroad during four different summer sessions, for a semester, or even for an entire year. Costs for the program range from $2,500 for a two-week summer program to around $18,000 for a full year program.
Students participating in Sol Education Abroad's programs are given a language assessment to help assess their knowledge of the language and place them with a host family and school environment that will best fit their language needs. Students must also have a letter of recommendation and a GPA in good-standing to apply. Once students are accepted to the program and travel to their host country they will get to experience:
- Living with a carefully screened host family
- Opportunities for group excursions to local sights
- Volunteer opportunities in the host country
- Weekly cultural activities
- Receptions with other program participants
Greenhart Travel offers study abroad opportunities in over 15 different countries including Australia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and China. The company has been certified by the Council on Standards for International Education Travel (CSIET) and has received positive reviews from past participants.
To participate in its programs, Greenhart Travel requires that participants:
- Have a GPA of at least 2.75
- Be physically and mentally healthy
- Willing to become part of a host family and community
The company also requires that those traveling to Argentina, Spain, France, and Japan have at least two years of language study.
Participation in one of Greenhart's programs also gives students the opportunity to meet high school community service requirements through the Greenhart Club which connects them with volunteer opportunities in their host country and in their home town.
Making the Most of Your Experience
If thinking about traveling abroad, have an open mind when looking for programs. While programs that offer home stays in small towns may not seem as exciting, they could offer a more authentic experience than a program in a large city. The main features of a program are how safe you'll be while overseas and how much support they offer to make your experience a success. Beyond that, whether or not the experience proves to be a good one is largely based on your attitude and willingness to fully embrace your new culture.