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What is Exchange Really Like?

Maybe you have heard of the term "exchange" before... No not the type of exchange where you trade something for another, the exchange where you would leave the comfort of your home to go abroad, most of the time in a country with a different language that yours. It sounds kind of scary doesn't it? Well let me tell you, it's not, and once you're given the freedom during exchange, you'll realize how fun it is, and how quick time flies.


A photo with all Rotary Youth Exchange students in District 2160 during the 2022-2023 school year.


I was a Rotary Youth Exchange student in 2023, and I went to Belgium. It was such a fun journey, and it'll take me hours to recount that year abroad. Though I don't think you reading would want to read a very long post, so I'll just be summarizing exchange, and the experiences of my peers with you. To start, one of the most common phrases you'll hear about exchange is that it's "the best experience/year of my life", and yes, that is completely true, well for most people at least. In reality, the year abroad in this unfamiliar environment with host families who you've never met before isn't as miserable as it seems, especially with the help of other exchange friends. Though a quick note, the exchange described in this article will be more focused on exchange of students in high school. University exchanges are different, and it might vary a lot from university to university.


So what exactly is exchange, and what are the different forms or exchange?


Well high school exchange programs offer unique and transformative experiences for students. These programs, normally for students between the age of 15-19, allow you to study abroad for a semester, an academic year, or during shorter summer/winter sessions. Beyond the academic aspect, these exchanges are about cultural immersion, offering a firsthand understanding of different lifestyles, traditions, and values.


A photo of me with 2 other exchange students before leaving for Belgium.

Participating in a high school exchange program can be a pivotal moment in your educational journey. It enhances language skills and cultural awareness, crucial in our increasingly globalized world. You'll develop independence, adaptability, and problem-solving skills, which are highly valued in both higher education and the workplace. The friendships and connections you make can last a lifetime, providing a global network of contacts. It's an investment in your personal growth and future career, broadening your perspectives and potentially influencing your academic and professional choices.


Here are some types of exchanges you can choose from. Though not all types are offered by every organization, so it really depends, but here are the general types.


Academic Year Exchange

This is a long-term immersion where students attend a local high school in the host country for an entire academic year. Students live with a host family, fully integrating into the local community and educational system. This type of exchange fosters deep cultural understanding and language skills.


Semester Exchange

Similar to a year-long program but condensed into a single semester. It offers a balanced experience of academic and cultural immersion within a shorter tie frame.


Summer/Winter Exchange

These short-term programs, conducted during school breaks, focus on language learning, cultural activities, or specific subjects like arts or science. They are less academically intensive and offer a brief yet enriching cultural experience.


Cultural Exchange

Focused more on experiencing the daily life, traditions, and culture of the host country, these exchanges might include language courses, cultural tours, and homestays, but less formal schooling.



A photo with the passports of all my exchange friends in Athens

For me, I went on a cultural exchange with Rotary, but they were pretty focused on academics too. We were given tours of interesting attractions, went on trips to other countries such as Greece, and our host families also took us on trips. Even more, us as students, we had the freedom to travel by ourselves too, especially if it's just a day trip. Although a day trip may sound short, we actually got to explore a lot of cities, and we even took a train from Brussels to Paris Disneyland once and came back before midnight!


I'm not sure about the selection process for other organizations, but I can say for Rotary, they are very strict, so you can assure yourself that the people you're going with are all great people who aren't looking for any trouble. The process goes a little like this.


Interview

In this stage, after we've applied to our rotary club indicating that we want to go on exchange, they will interview you and the others who want to go. In the end, it depends on how many spots they have available, and they will pick based on the best overall person(I think it's based on grades, life skills, communication, etc. but it varies between clubs).


District Interview

The Rotary district you're going with will interview you to see if there are any red flags. Don't worry, they're not that harsh, it's more like a calm conversation where you'll just talk about yourself and how you envision yourself in that exchange country. As well, in this stage, you'll get to pick 3 countries you want to go to most, though some places won't give you the choice.


Information

Now that you're confirmed, here's the hard step. You're given a very large package that you have to fill out. That's your basic information, academic histories, a paragraph for your host families to see, and some medical background about yourself.


Waiting

Now the most calm part, but also most stressful part... waiting to hear back about the country you'll be going to, with your host families and what language you'll have to learn.


Preparations

In this stage, you'll be given lessons about your new language, how to prepare for exchange, what to do and not to do, and how to deal with shocks. As well, you'll have to apply for your visa during this stage. As well, you can decide your date of departure and you'll receive your blazer (it's red for Canada, but mostly blue for other countries as you can see in the photo). Of course, by tradition with Rotary, you have to bring pins to exchange so you can keep track of people you've met. You can see here, at the beginning of the year, I had barely any. Though now that I'm back from exchange, I have a whole blazer filled with pins.



A comparison of pins from start of year to end of year



Have Fun

Now, just go and have fun and enjoy the freedom that will be gone in a year's time!!!


So yeah, that's pretty much exchange for you. Hopefully this helped you, and hopefully after reading and seeing all the fun photos, you're starting to want to go on exchange as well. Thank you for reading until here, and until next time!

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