High school students opt to study abroad in Germany for many different reasons. Some want to improve their German. Others have a family connection or just an interest in German life. Byungjun Kim says his main motivation to attend high school in Germany comes down to a love for cars.
“I think German car technology is one of the best in the world. It made me want to study there,” he says.
Kim wants to improve his German language skills and to get to know the culture better so that someday he can work as an engineer for one of the big German car companies. So last year, the 15-year-old Kim left his home in the South Korean countryside and came to Germany through a program run by German Language School Berlin. GLS Berlin is one of many organizations that offer high school exchange programs in Germany. Some other agencies include: Partnership International, Experiment e.V., Open Door International, and Ayusa International e.V.. StudyAbroad.com also provides an extensive listing of exchange programs.
What to Expect
All programs are run individually so they will differ slightly in what services and support are provided. It's best to research the different options and to try and speak with some alumni before determining the best fit. Some programs include welcome meetings, language classes, mid-program check-ins and closing seminars. Placements can be made at public or private high schools. Program length can vary from a few months to a year. Most high school exchanges will offer home stays for high school students—a great way to improve German skills.
Kim spent a few months at a language school in southern Germany and then moved to Berlin to start classes at a local high school, or Gymnasium. He takes classes with the other students and spends time with his host family. Kim's host family includes a mother and her daughter, who is the same grade as a Kim and goes to the same high school.
In general, students who do high school exchanges in Germany are between the ages of 14 and 18, with strong grades, and at least an A2 level of German. Students will need to have the appropriate visas and insurances. Exchange agencies usually offer guidance regarding visa and insurance questions. GLS Berlin has a very helpful guide highlighting many high school exchange requirements.
Costs range between programs depending on what services are offered. Students may pay a few thousand euro to more than 10,000 euro depending on the length and type of program. High school placements at private schools and international schools will often be more expensive than state schools.
A few programs offer scholarships, like the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange or CBYX. CBYX was set up in 1983 by the German and U.S. governments to strengthen ties between the countries. The fully-funded, year-long program places U.S. high school students with host families in Germany as a way to build understanding between cultures. CBYX covers most major fees of the high school exchange year, including airfare, spending money, and the costs of securing a visa.
Navigating cultural differences at a new high school in a new country can be challenging. Kim says in South Korea students tend to listen more than speak. He had to get used to offering his ideas and opinions more during class. And it took him time to come out of his shell.
“At first I was very shy,” he says, “but then I tried to be more active and enthusiastic with my host family and friends. It made a big difference.”
Support Networks and Safety Nets
Traveling as a high school student takes a keen sense of adventure and a dash of courage. It's tough to leave the known for the unexpected. Luckily, many support resources are available for students abroad. Exchange agency coordinators provide students with contact numbers in case of daily concerns or emergencies. Kim says GLS Berlin is often in contact with him. When Kim has questions about anything in his daily life he can also turn to his host family.
He says “My host family are so kind to me. I can really rely on them.”
The support network for students helps relieve concerned families back home too. Kim says when his parents are worried about him because of stories they see on the news, he can assure them that he is not in a dangerous place, he has a good support network and that he feels safe.
Exchange programs are a great option for adventurous high school students who want to improve their German skills while being surrounded by their peers. These programs can give students the opportunity to form deep connections to a new place and people and to form memories that will last a lifetime.
For Kim, the high school exchange experience is already reaping benefits. His German is improving, he is making a lot of friends and feels more outgoing.
Kim says: “Now I have more clear motivations for my dreams. The experience has made me study harder and put in more effort to get better grades. I feel more mature than before and look forward to the next chapter in Germany.”