Over the years, I have met probably a thousand exchange students. 90% of them have been amazing young people, but some really should not have been sent abroad. Some of them had a really horrible exchange year, and they were thrilled to leave their new country and go home. Some chose to leave voluntarily before the year was over. Some were sent home. Some of them managed to get through the challenges and salvage their year.
Here are some of the strategies these students employed to ensure they had a year they have been grumbling about ever since. Of course, most of these students blamed everyone but themselves for their horrible experience.
1. Go on exchange to escape troubles at home. Leave to escape SATs. Leave boyfriend problems. Leave to avoid college decisions or family problems. Believe it or not, your issues will just follow you. You can’t escape. Deal with your issues before you apply to go on exchange.
2. Go on exchange to become a celebrity. While it is true that you may be highly recognizable in your new town, you may not be admired. Your home and host countries might be in political dispute, as when Canada seized Spanish fishing boats they claimed were illegally fishing on The Grand Banks. Your religious background might be unpopular in your host country. Your ethnicity might make you a target, like it was for the Indo-Canadian student in Germany presumed to be a Turk and bullied in the streets and refused service in restaurants.
3. Be afraid of or be overwhelmed by your host culture. If you are not willing to face crowds, language, smells, religion, attitudes, and ideas that are different from your own, you’re not going to be able to handle the stress of being an exchange student.
4. Be shy. Avoid talking to people. Don’t make friends at school. Hide in your bedroom and don’t socialize with your host family. Don’t attend Rotary meetings. If you do, don’t talk to the Rotarians. Stare at the floor a lot.
5. Insult people. Take your nationalism to extreme. Make sure that everyone knows where you are from and that your home country is MUCH better than your host country. Explain how they are stupid, backward, or ignorant in your host country.
6. Borrow money. Whenever you go out, whether with host families, school friends, or other exchange students, make it a point to leave your wallet at home, and ask others to pay for you. Never pay them back. This is particularly effective when people learn that you are receiving several hundred dollars of spending money every month from home.
7. Lie. Pretend you are going to school when you aren’t. Claim you’re making lots of friends when you’re in your room on the computer all day. Tell your family you’re with friends, but go to a bush party, get drunk, and then get in a car accident. While in the hospital, keep telling people you weren’t drinking at a party… (These students were sent home , one with a broken neck and severe brain damage).
8. Moon over your boy/girlfriend back home. Spend all your time on the phone or sending email messages to your love back home. Neglect making friends and participating in events so you don’t miss chat/call opportunities. If you don’t believe either of you are mature enough to handle separation without daily contact, you are probably not mature enough to be on exchange.
9. Be a snob. Whether because of insecurity, inferiority or actual narcisism, some students behave as if they are much better than those in their new community. Show this by refusing to do chores your host family assigns, refusing to help in Rotary service projects, or refusing to attend functions. You can also show this with a bored or uninterested attitude when you do deign to attend an event or by talking about yourself and never showing any interest in others’ interests or opinions.
10. Never spend a night away from home before the exchange. The trauma of homesickness from kids from tightly emeshed homes almost always ensures the kids are home within a month of their arrival in the new country. Your mother will probably be thrilled to have you back, tied to her apron where you belong.
11. Be disrespectful to your host mom. The most important person for you to impress is your host mom. She is the power behind the home. If she likes you, you will be eating your favourite foods, going to special places, and receiving gifts for years. If she dislikes you, well, let’s just say that you will probably be very uncomfortable.
12. Whine a lot and complain about your treatment by school mates, family and other exchange students. If it seems to be a universal opinion, consider that perhaps you aren’t very likeable. Study points 1-10 above and determine what you need to change about yourself.
Be aware: If you aren’t usually so obnoxious in your home country, the manifestation of a few of the above points may indicate that you are suffering from culture shock. Please speak to your club exchange counselor. If s/he can’t help, speak to the district exchange officer. If you address the issues early enough, you can turn your horrendous time into a wonderful, enriching exchange. It’s not the host family, your club, or your circumstances that create a great year. Your attitude is the most important thing, so if you find yourself having problems, decide what YOU can change to improve the situation.
PS. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that more than a few of the points above applied to my own exchange year. I think I had a great year abroad, but like everyone, I had some things I could have done better in order to have had an even better experience.