What Is an Exchange Student?

Exchange student with a suit case

 martin-dm / Getty Images

An exchange student is a high school- or college-aged person who travels abroad to live in a new country as part of a scholarly exchange program. While they're in this program, exchange students typically stay with a local host family and attend classes at a local school, all while immersing themselves in a brand new culture, potentially learning a new language, and experiencing the world from a different viewpoint. Many universities and colleges have agreements with other schools in different countries that allow students to live abroad while studying for a short period of time, commonly known as "study abroad." It's a fantastic opportunity for students.

Length of Exchange Programs 

Exchanges can last anywhere from two weeks up to a year, depending on the program. Oftentimes high school programs run for shorter durations of a few weeks. College-aged exchange students typically spend a semester to a year abroad, but there are also short-term programs that last a few weeks during summer or winter breaks during the academic year.

Advantages of Being an Exchange Student

Exchange students get to experience a new place and learn about it on a local level in a manner that's quite different from taking a vacation. These programs are more about immersion than sightseeing, though you can easily combine both.

Students placed in a foreign country often improve their language skills greatly over the course of their program. Immersion is one of the best ways to learn a new language, so living with a host family, attending classes, and having to communicate most of the time in a different language can tremendously improve one's vocabulary. 

Exchange students also get to live like a local. Sure, you can get to know a place pretty well during a two-week holiday, but what about spending an entire year there living with a local family instead of staying at a hotel? Exchange students are given fascinating insight into an unfamiliar culture on a local level. Host families are usually everyday families who want to share their culture with foreign students, and they help exchange students practice the local language, learn local customs, and explore the town, city, or even country they're living in.

Being an exchange student can also build confidence. Students often learn how to communicate in a new language, overcome loneliness and homesickness, make new friends, and maybe even discover newfound independence. Taking classes in a foreign country also challenge students to approach learning differently, as education styles vary from country to country, which develops critical thinking skills. Thus, exchange students become better problem solvers, especially in the face of high-pressure challenges.

Finally, exchange students are offered an opportunity to develop a new perspective on the world, immerse themselves in global issues, and gain a deeper understanding of different cultures—all of which help the student to be a better global citizen. Many exchange students gain a new level of maturity after their programs, and they also develop lifelong international friendships. Beyond personal growth, the skills developed during an exchange program are also great selling points to prospective employers once the student graduates and enters the workforce.

Disadvantages of Being an Exchange Student

While each person has a different experience, homesickness is likely the most common struggle. Exchange students move to a foreign country, away from friends and family, for potentially a long period of time. It's quite natural to feel homesick from time to time.

Culture shock is something else exchange students have to deal with while they're on their program. Depending on the country they're transferred to, it can be a mild or extreme case. Moving to a country that's similar culturally—and where you speak the language—will likely be far easier than moving to a country that has vastly different customs and a different language. But the sense of achievement after completing an exchange program often outweighs the struggles for many students.

Exchange Student Expectations

Exchange students are expected to maintain decent grades, abide by the rules of host families, and follow the laws of host countries. Other than that, students are free to safely explore their new home, make friends, and travel to new places with or without their host families. 

Cost of Exchange Programs

Exchanges are facilitated by for-profit companies, charitable organizations, and high schools and universities. These programs are rarely free and can cost exchange students hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Exchange students, either through personal resources or through the entity facilitating the program, are usually expected to obtain travel insurance, spending money, and emergency funds, though this varies by program. If you are thinking of participating in an exchange program, be sure to find out the details from the organizer.

Host families are required to provide basic needs like food and shelter to their exchange students, but they are not generally compensated. Sometimes a small stipend may be offered to help them cover the costs of hosting an extra child.