Talk to many people who have been a high school exchange student and they will tell you the same thing: the experience was life changing. “It fostered my curiosity about the world and showed me the world is a bigger place than the suburbs where I grew up,” said Brandon Goeller, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Goeller spent time in Berlin through a private exchange facilitated by his high school German teacher. He remembers being “really stoked” about exploring Berlin and said many of the friendships he made in Germany have lasted until today.
That said, spending a year in a foreign country as a high school student takes a lot of courage. Teenagers must be ready to face the challenges of living outside their comfort zones. Mastering the German language, making friends, and getting to know host families takes time. But for those ready for the adventure, a year abroad can be one of the most formative experiences of their lives.
Goeller said after he was exposed to life in Berlin, he knew he had to go back to Germany. He went on to do another exchange in college, this time in Cologne. He also decided to pursue his master's degree in Germany through a DAAD fellowship and even worked at an ecological think tank in Berlin.
Who can do a high school exchange?
A few general guidelines apply to most high school exchange programs. Students are usually between the ages of 15 and 18, have a minimum 3.0 grade point average, are in good health, and can speak at least A1-level German.
The language requirement is important. If your German language skills aren't very good yet, a summer immersion program might be the best option. For students who want to spend the year at a German high school, or Gymnasium, having a good handle on German will help make the academically rigorous environment less daunting.
How to choose an exchange program?
Exchange programs do offer different types of experiences, so it is good idea to spend some time researching the fine print and finding out which one might be the best fit. When checking out the different programs, make sure to contact alumni to get their opinions.
Private placement agencies
The most numerous exchange programs are facilitated by private companies. These programs last from a summer to a full academic year and can cost between 3,000 and 13,000 euro. A handful do offer scholarships. You’ll find a few examples of private exchange programs below.
Cultural Homestay International or CHI has full-year immersion programs for high school students who want to be placed in Germany. The company's fee, which is not published on the website, covers airfare, insurances, orientation, and other necessities. CHI does have discounts for families who have hosted students through its Academic Year Program.
CIEE offers both full-year and semester-long programs. CIEE's fees, which run around 9,000 euro, cover round-trip airfare, orientation upon arrival, room and board with a host family, and other services. The company says it carefully screens all host families and tries to match students with families based on their interests.
Students who have at least two years of German language can apply for the Aspect Foundation's high school exchange program. The program lasts from a semester to a full academic year and roughly costs between 7,000 and 8,000 euro. Fees include a homestay with a German family, airfare, insurance, and admission to a German high school or Gymnasium.
Some public entities also run exchange programs. Be sure to check with your government to see if there are any existing exchange programs with Germany.
For instance, U.S. citizens can take part in 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. Former participants speak glowingly of the experience. Meghan Fatzinger, a Pennsylvania native who spent a year with a family in Sachsen-Anhalt, said her experience as an exchange student with CBYX “was the best time of my life and it has shaped the course of my career and my education.”
The application process for CBYX is competitive. Successful candidates show high academic achievement, motivation, curiosity, and flexibility. Students are not required to know German before applying. CBYX covers most major fees of the high school exchange year, including airfare, spending money, and the costs of securing a visa.
Doing it on your own
Students and their families can also try to coordinate exchanges on their own. Although this tends to be a less expensive option, the process can be challenging when it comes to navigating the visa process, finding a compatible host family, securing a place at a high school, finding health insurance, and getting in-country support if problems arise. However, some families do take this route and find the cost savings worth it. This is probably an easier option if the student has extended family in Germany or a previous connection to the host family.
What does it take?
Anyone prepared to leave their home country for a year to dive into the excitement and challenges of another culture must have an adventurous spirit and a sense of humor, say exchange alumni. Meghan Fatzinger remembers a saying she learned during her CBYX orientation: “It's not right, it's not wrong, it's just different.” She repeated this saying under her breath every time some new or strange thing happened. “When you are living abroad you are constantly bombarded by things you don't understand and it becomes frustrating. This saying helped put life into perspective,” Fatzinger said. “I still say it today.”
Adapting to life in a new country takes time, but those willing to take the leap will likely be rewarded with unforgettable experiences and lifelong friendships.