While foreign exchange programs literally “exchange” students—sending U.S. kids abroad and bringing in students from around the world—the exchange involves way more than just the young people involved. These life-altering programs can bring about a change in school culture, attitudes, and perspectives.

The Chinese Club started by Jay Huang at Manitou Springs High School in Colorado brings a better appreciation of his country and its people. U.S. art students from across the country studying in Spoleto, Italy, gain inspiration from the city’s ancient roots. Jack Dudley’s host family in Germany now better understands Americans after their many discussions with the Lyons Township High School senior from La Grange, IL. Young Iraqi exchange students studying civic leadership throughout the U.S. can give our young people a better understanding of their struggling country. In return, they learn how democracy—with all its flaws—can thrive.

Jason Cary, principal at Greenfield-Central High School in Greenfield, IN, says student exchange programs like the one at his school can do all of these things. They can also have a bigger impact on a school than an administrator might think, whether students travel to the U.S. or American students travel abroad.

“The culture of our school changes with these exchange students enrolled,” Cary says. “It helps us think differently about others, and it affects more than individual students involved—it moves through the classrooms, the different departments, athletics, and other extracurricular activities.” 

And Greenfield-Central students who go abroad similarly benefit. “Kids have a very narrow view in high school,” he says. “This can open their eyes so they experience that great big world out there beyond Greenfield, with vastly different people than they see every day. It changes their perspective.”

Schools that sponsor foreign students notice an increased awareness and acceptance of others. 

“They introduce their culture, but also bring a set of fresh eyes to ours, so they remind us why we’re a great school, city, state, or country when they share why they love being here,” says Greenfield-Central’s Head of Counseling Kim Kile, who runs the school’s exchange program and often has up to 10 visiting students each year and a few studying abroad. 

Jason Schrock, principal at Howell High School in Michigan, where students from Youth For Understanding USA visit each year, says his students often travel to the homes of the foreign students who visit.

“They expose our students to cultures and countries from around the world,” he says. “While a student can learn about China or Switzerland from a book or video, they truly get a feel for what it is like to live and work in those countries while speaking with an individual who calls that country home.”

At Howell High School, a Global Outreach Club organizes events such as bowling, ice skating, or hayrides to provide opportunities for international students to interact with others beyond the school day. “We also feature our international exchange students on a bulletin board and display case in the school and host an exchange student luncheon each year,” Schrock says. “That sort of thing helps our students connect and learn from our exchange students and vice versa—and it helps create connections and learning opportunities among the exchange students themselves.”

Kile notes that exchange students can contribute a different, global perspective. “We’re hosting a student from Spain, and we were able to use the terrorist attack in Barcelona as a way to have a discussion on world events with someone who has a very different perspective. It has certainly allowed for some outstanding dialogue both at home and in the classroom,” she says.

AFS-USA, one of the best-known exchange organizations—which places nearly 1,000 students annually in about 100 countries and throughout the U.S.—notes that exchange students and their cultural background often become well-known in the community outside the school.

Finding the Right Fit

A federal study found that 73,000 high school exchange students came to the U.S. in 2014—triple the number just a decade earlier. Foreign students are driven by the prospect of attending college here, Kile says. Fewer students from the U.S. go abroad because tight high school graduation requirements can discourage teens who fear they’ll fall behind, she notes. The length of the “exchange” time can vary from a few weeks to a few years. Some schools invite one or two students; others may bring in a dozen. 

In some cases, the “exchange” takes the form of whole classes changing places or learning about each other through regular contact online or as pen pals.

Generally, schools work with organizations that screen the students, host families, and schools, in addition to handling the paperwork, says Christopher Page, executive director of The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), a body that establishes standards for organizations offering exchange programs and lists those that comply. CSIET provides a variety of school resources, including a checklist for starting an exchange program and a model school policy.

Page says schools should work with an organization that has a proven track record and expect them to recruit students through personal interviews, test their English and other academic skills, provide an orientation, and screen host families. The organization should also monitor the students through regular contact with them, as well as with their host families and family back home, troubleshooting any problems that arise. Exchange programs also assist with visas and required immunizations and can help with transportation.

Schools that accept exchange students should work out the courses the student will be placed in, credits they will receive, and how students will get support, although schools are generally not obligated to provide extra services or guarantee graduation or a diploma, according to CSIET. 

Schools are expected to “integrate international exchange students into the school’s social fabric,” the organization says, “and encourage students to participate enthusiastically in school activities, to make friends, to make a personal contribution to the school, and to help spread the word about their country and themselves—informally and by making presentations in classes and to community groups and the media.”

Promote and Encourage Student Interaction

Moving away from home, even temporarily, can be a big adjustment. That’s why interaction is key, says teacher Debbie Bjerke, who coordinates exchange programs at Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota. The school works with several organizations such as Youth For Understanding USA, AFS-USA, Rotary International, and Nacel. 

“I know how important it is to do everything we can to help [students] connect to other friendly faces before the first day of school,” Bjerke says. “The first two weeks after arrival are the most critical for helping them get through the culture shock. I always explain to the students that not just the move to a new home, but also the impact of a new language, new sights, smells, routines, and cultural norms can overwhelm them.” 

Page recommends administrators introduce exchange students to the student body and adults (perhaps at a staff meeting), provide their teachers with additional background, get updates on their progress, and immediately address any concerns. Administrators should also find ways to encourage their students to interact with the visitors, who ideally should comprise about 1 percent of the student population.

Bjerke sets up meetings where an athlete will come in to explain their sport or a student leader will describe an upcoming event or election. Students in the exchange club support the students and attend events with them.

Maximizing the Travel Experience

For American students studying or visiting abroad, school officials should establish a firm goal for the program initially and determine whether students will do preparatory work and have specific assignments related to work in a class or across disciplines before they go, says Matthew Redman, vice president of high school study abroad programs for the nonprofit Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE).

“The temptation is to think of travel experience as a once-in-a-lifetime trip and check off a bunch of bucket-list sites,” he says. “This is a challenging balance to make sure that learning goals are also met. Schools must delineate between travel and [ensuring that] study abroad stays educational.”

Administrators also must determine their tolerance for risk, he says. “Does the school or district want to organize the exchange or trip? Do they have the experience, expertise, and resources? If not, they need to identify the appropriate partner to meet their goals within their budget.”

Richard Dixon, a German teacher at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA, coordinates a program that brings about 10 students from Austria to his school each fall and takes 10 U.S. students to the European country for about two weeks in the spring. Two other programs, also based within foreign language departments in the school, have similar exchanges with France and Spain.

Dixon, who serves on the CSIET board of directors, recommends that administrators assign a staff person to direct the exchange program—and recognize that it requires time and involves a lot of responsibility.

“It behooves school administrators to realize that these programs are not junkets for teachers; they are not on vacation when they travel with students, but are working.” Paying them appropriately and giving them enough time and support ensures continuity, which is important in a program “with a lot of moving parts.” He also says the school should have very clear policies for its students abroad.

While international travel has been in the spotlight lately, exchange program sponsors report more interest than ever.

“In all honesty, we have not seen any issues in our community, even with recent world events,” Kile says. “High school students crave adventure, so they will continue to want to travel to America regardless of what is happening internationally.”

In fact, some programs, such as those through World Learning Inc., try to focus on exchanges that involve countries where there might be misunderstandings or where help building societal structures is needed. It offers a variety of different study-abroad programs, including inviting students from various regions of Iraq to spend time in the U.S., and bringing students from Mexico to the U.S. to learn about ways to improve their communities.

“Our world is increasingly interdependent, and these programs promote intercultural connections and understanding, which creates global citizens who make our world a better place,” says Scott Messing, president and CEO of Youth For Understanding USA, which has sponsored about 250,000 students in 70 countries in its 65 years. “They teach skills that cannot be learned in any other way.”  

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

School Exchange Programs: Key Points to Consider

  1. Does the school or district encourage U.S. students to participate in international exchange programs? How? 
  2. Does the school grant credit to U.S. students who participate in academic-semester or year exchanges? 
  3. How have you checked the reliability of the organization with which your school is working? 
  4. How is the grade level for a student coming to your school determined, and will academic credit be offered? 
  5. Who is the designated person in the school or district office who reviews applications of exchange students from other countries? How will you know they understand the process and requirements?
  6. What information must be submitted to the school official with exchange student applications? What paperwork is needed (e.g., medical records, academic records, emergency contact information, etc.), and who will verify, process, and store it? 
  7. How are visas being handled, and what type are they? Do school policies apply equally to students with F-1 and J-1 visas? 
  8. Is there a limit to the number of exchange students your school or school district can accept in a given year? Can exceptions be made, and if so, under what circumstances? 
  9. What are the policies regarding student participation in graduation ceremonies, receiving a diploma, driver’s education, or athletics and other school activities? 
  10. Who will be responsible, and what will the process be, for handling problems that might arise with the students’ physical or emotional health, behavior, or host families?

Benefits of Exchange Programs

Exchange programs help students thrive by promoting:

  • Improved communication and collaboration skills
  • Greater awareness and acceptance of other cultures, traditions, and customs
  • Improved problem-solving capabilities and openness to new ideas
  • Improved sense of self and confidence 
  • Improved critical-thinking skills and resourcefulness
  • Better school performance

Students who participate in exchange programs are also more likely to attend college, know their direction, and succeed.