High school exchange programs offer life-changing experiences

Senior Gavin Levine poses with Yue Lao, the Chinese matchmaker deity, at a temple by Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan. (Photo courtesy of Gavin Levine)

Since middle school, the idea of becoming an exchange student had been floating around in the back of my mind, but it always seemed so far off—like something that I, shy and introverted at the time, could never do. But my dream became reality sophomore year when I joined Rotary Youth Exchange, a volunteer-run exchange program through the service organization Rotary International, and attended monthly, weekend-long training meetings with Rotarians, inbound students and other prospective outbound students. 

After preparing throughout my sophomore year, I finally left for Taiwan to spend my junior year on exchange. The amazing experience I had was something not many high school students pursue, despite how available, flexible and even cheap such programs are. More students should participate in exchange because it is a life-changing experience that is especially valuable in today’s interconnected world.

Exchange offers a kind of cultural and language immersion that is unrivaled by any classroom or vacation. While on exchange, you are not a tourist; you are a student of your host country. You have the unique opportunity to live with local host families and study at local schools alongside local students. Exchange students are surrounded by their host language on all sides and learn to speak with as much nuance as native speakers. This level of immersion allows for amazing progress regardless of prior experience with the language. For example, I had only learned Mandarin for six months before leaving for Taiwan, but by my last few months of exchange, I was thinking, dreaming and living daily life all in Mandarin. 

Exchange students develop an understanding of their host country’s culture and language simply by living there and forming connections with its people—an understanding that deepens over time. Tourists spending a few weeks in Taiwan would easily notice the hospitality and friendliness of the Taiwanese, but only after countless conversations in Mandarin with many different Taiwanese people did I slowly start to understand Taiwan’s complex relationship with China. Figuring out how to use Taiwanese public transportation, where my three host houses were in relation to my host school, which 7-Eleven locations had a second floor for studying and how to order the perfectly-balanced bubble milk tea was like putting together a puzzle that could only be completed by living in Taiwan for a whole school year.

No matter the kind of person you are before you begin exchange, you will emerge more mature and adaptable. I learned a lot about myself and my life in the U.S. during exchange because it let me take a step outside of what I am used to here and adjust to a different structure of life. For example, I experienced a social structure much different than that of the US: Taiwanese students spend every period of every day with the same class of students, unlike American students who switch classes every period. Taiwanese students bond more closely amongst those in their individual class, as opposed to American students who typically form friend groups across classes. Through this adjustment, I learned that I don’t have to have a specific group of friends like in the U.S. to feel socially comfortable.

Exchange is challenging, but it is one of the most fun, rewarding and eye-opening challenges one can take on in high school. Rotary’s ultimate goal with their exchange program is world peace, one student at a time. I wholeheartedly believe in the attainability of that goal because with each person you meet on exchange, it is like tying a thread across the world. Our generation is the future of policy, so if we can begin weaving these threads in high school, our world will only grow more tolerant and interconnected as we take our friendships and realizations from exchange into the rest of our lives. 

High school is our time to explore ourselves and the world, and exchange is the perfect and surprisingly accessible opportunity. There’s not just one type of person who can find success as an exchange student. If you’ve ever had even the slightest dream of becoming one, go follow it—you’ll be led to something great.