When I talk about my one-year exchange in the US, many people seem doubtful.
“But how come you left so far and for so long? You weren’t even of legal age! ”
“And your parents let you go?”
“What about school?”
“Where did you get the money for all of this?”
My wish is to respond with a link to this article when somebody asks me that again!
How did that happen?
I was 17 when I insisted that I will graduate from high school in the US. I was a little sick of Polish education and a little tempted to try something new. The first reason made me terribly tired and the second one just didn’t want to wait. I was not satisfied with the answers: “after education there will be time to travel”. Nothing accepted by society has ever satisfied me. Without going into details, I can say that the idea dawned on me and its implementation turned out being simpler than I expected.
I’m off! Wait, how?
The first step is to choose the organization. There would be a lot more work to do if you were to go on your own. It’s feasible for determined people but today I won’t talk about free-movers.
Firstly, you have to decide on the organization to go with on your exchange. In Poland, there are organizations such as Rotary, AFS, YFU. You would have to take a look at the organizations at your country. They all offer a very similar program, i.e. a year of exchange in high school. The United States is a very popular destination for Europeans, but the choice is much wider. Rotary Club and YFU offer as many as 30 countries for long-term exchange. In the case of AFS, this number is closer to 20 countries. Recruitment, program selection, costs – it all slightly differs for each of these organizations.
My exchange took place thanks to Rotary and this will be leading organization in the article. Rotary is a club that sent me to the US for a year as well as gave my parents an unforgettable time with worldwide inbound students.
An exchange does’t have to be like a winning lottery ticket
If I could go back in time, I’d think about my decision to go abroad more thoroughly. Despite the orientation camp, which took place a few months before the exchange, there were questions that I should have asked myself much faster.
Along with the excitement and the upcoming adventure, there was no room for a worst-case scenario. Many of us, while thinking about the exchange, think about a one-year idyll. About the American dream (in the case of the USA). About fun, traveling, a pause from responsibilities.
However, it is difficult to predict the exact course of the exchange. Each is different. This experience depends on you, on the destination and on the sending organization.
So it’s worth asking yourself questions such as:
– Am I able to sacrifice some relationships that I will not be able to take care of during my trip?
(You won’t be able to talk to your boyfriend every day or report to your parents – aside from a different time zone, there is a lot of experiences and new relationships involved.)
– Am I independent enough to take care of myself for a year, whether others will be able to support me or not?
(The sending organization and your host family will look after you but no one will treat you like a teenager. Nobody will remind you of homework or scold you when behave inappropriate.)
– What would have to happen for me to get home early?
(Believe me, such cases do happen. And although the idea is to spend a whole year abroad, some people can’t do it. Accidents also do happen. Imagine one of your relatives being in a hospital. Maybe it’s worth defining your borders from the beginning.)
– Am I able to finance trips that will be offered? Do I have saved money intended for travel?
And the last, most important question:
– Do I still want to leave, even if the exchange destination turns out to be far from the dream one?
(The country you want to go to is an important decision. However, what if the country is the size of the continent (like USA)? You can go to Texas, Alaska or the Mormon capital. Will I still want to spend the whole year there?
If the answers are yes, yes, nothing, yes and yes – you can keep going
Once you have answered the questions, you can go ahead with the next step: recruitment.
It looks different depending on the organization. Most often it’s based on a conversation with a decision-making person and filling out a several-page form. The goal of the recruitment is to asses what kind of person you are. Whether you are open, curious, representative, etc.
You’re not the only beneficiary.
The ones benefiting from you exchange are also your host families. Your host club. All the people you will meet on your way. Imagine that for many you can be the first and last Pole they will meet in their lives. The pressure is enormous. Not only you, but also your organization, care about the impression you will make.
Usually people who decide to go on the exchange automatically go in a set with all the expected features. So there is nothing to worry about. If you are at the stage of thinking about such a cultural trip then you must have sorted out your mind. Often this conversation is simply a formality. It’s worth taking care of it as soon as possible, because the form will be also completed by a doctor, parents, teachers etc. Holidays are the perfect time to go about it. The trip then takes place in the next school year.
What costs do I have to consider?
I will answer as real economist: it depends. It depends on the organization with which you decide to leave and the destination. Organizations usually charge fees for your trip. In the case of Rotary, the fee was PLN 1,000 ($250). Rotary is a thriving club (only after you actually get involved that you realize that they are literally everywhere). They finance projects, fight polio, support education and many others. Exchange programs that promote culture learning are just one of many activities. So this is not an exorbitant price.
The next cost is the price of airline tickets. Most people choose to go on the exchange on another continent, so the costs are significant. Usually you also need to buy an open ticket – the one without a fixed return date. The reason is to prevent a troublesome situation of sending somebody home right away. Why would people be sent back home? For example in case of breaking the rules of the exchange. Apart from the worst prudence, it also increases flexibility. Holiday trips are announced at the end of your exchange. In this way, you are sure that no attraction will pass you by.
You won’t leave without an insurance
Insurance is another expensive aspect. Absolute necessity. Apart from the reference to jokes about the health system in the USA – this is simply one of the formalities. I bought my insurance from CISI. For a period of 10 months, it costed me around $800 (PLN 3,500). The quote is of course personal and depends on age and destination. I used it once (I suffered from a very popular in the US concussion). Unfortunately I had to pay anyways (as it was my first use of the insurance). My mother argues that all together it costed $4,000, but I don’t trust her a little. I believe it was not that much. But she is an accountant and I am just an economics student, so you have to choose who you trust.
The exchange student does not live of flights and insurance alone
After the basic expenses come others, smaller ones.
You should definitaly think about gifts for host families (I had three of them, so expenses accumulated). In the case of Rotary, there is also a tradition of exchanging pins, which then proudly decorate our Rotarian jacket. In addition, you must have business cards. You should also think about potential trips. In my case it was a two-week trip to California. These expenses added up to $2000.
Fortunately, my exchange was not just a great, continuous expense. I managed to earn some extra money by tutoring math or babysitting. I was also receiving pocket-money from the host club. It was $100 a month but it is a matter of country, place and Rotarian club.
Many people ask how I could afford it financially.
Well, a job.
I managed to save up some money by putting up with constantly unsatisfied and demanding customers by serving them food and smiling even when they were the biggest rubes. Aside from that, I also had a lot of my savings.
I must admit that I owe my parents a lot. However I do not define myself as a spoiled child because I sacrificed a lot so that this trip could take place. Since I can remember, all the holidays I always spent at work. And since I was not qualified enough, I worked physically. I was saving. No brand clothes. No festivals. I can’t remember the last concert I went to for entertainment. Every trip, including this one, required many sacrifices. And I believe that my parents knew and appreciated that.
Can you be financially independent on your exchange?
Let’s be serious – you don’t have enough money to be able to go on a one-year exchange when you’re 17. To sum up the expenses I wrote about earlier, we are talking about almost 25,000PLN ($6,000). Our Holy Communion’s savings would not grow to such an amount even at the best interest rate. When thinking about exchange, you need to consider parental support. The question is how to get it? What do you need to prove to your parents that they believe this is the best investment possible?
It will be different
The exchange itself is an emotional rollercoaster. From excitement to disappointment and loneliness, ending with a sense of fulfillment. One day can be fantastic, and the other one you search for the return tickets. This is well shown in the figure below.
In retrospect, I see that it was an extremely important event in my life. From the perspective of all travels that took place after the exchange, this was the most important. Although it was hard for me. Although sometimes I thought it was not worth it. There were times when I stood out. When, despite the fact that I wanted to fit in, it was not quite possible.
This was an important lesson in which I experienced being a minority. Since I was born I have had the privilege of a white woman. Heterosexual one. The one with fairly normal life views. Being in an exchange taught me what it’s like to be different. What is it like to stick out.
After coming back, nothing is the same
From the exchange you come back different.
Regardless of any circumstances.
Exchange teaches independence. It teaches not only culture, but also understanding of otherness. Opening your eyes and understanding that not everyone is the same. Understanding that others may think differently and, at the same time, be as valuable individuals as we are. Exchange is learning about ourselves. About our limits, tolerance, endurance and determination.
Each day of such a trip is a day spent outside the comfort zone. If a person’s personality really shapes only when we leave the comfort zone, try to imagine the changes that await you this year. Relax, these are changes for the better. Even if loved ones may not perceive that in same way at first. They can be used to the person you’ve always been.
But you will come back changed. You will leave your old self at the airport, where you will welcome your loved ones a year later. You will welcome them in a slightly different setting.
From a veteran’s perspective
Many people have heard of my exchange experience. I wanted American sleep and I came to Idaho. To a small town, 3 hours from the American Mormon capital. People who have had the opportunity to meet me, know, that I am a 100% leftist. Mormons are more conservative. In my exchange, two different worlds collided. It was supposed to be an escape from overprotective parents and a feeling of freedom.
It turned out to be completely different from my expectations.
Despite the wonderful people who looked after me and my new friends, I felt lonely. At the beginning of every day I fought. Occasionally checking back home tickets. However, my stubbornness refused to accept any defeat. I am not from those who give up. And I know that as life throws logs at my feet, I have to jump over them as long as it doesn’t start to be downhill. Based on all the events related to my exchange, I am able to answer practically any behavioral recruitment question. There is no situation where you can learn more about yourself than during an exchange.
Do I regret?
Absolutely not. The harder the fights we have, the more lessons we learn. Although during the exchange I was practically all the time under someone’s care (Rotary, host family), at the emotional level I realized something extremely important. I realized that if I was able to successfully finish my one-year exchange in Idaho there isn’t anything I can’t do. Every time I thought I couldn’t do it, I managed to get out of bed the next day.
Maturation that I’m talking about takes place in our subconscious. It observes us, our decisions and actions every second. When we eat sweets, even though we were supposed to go on a diet, our brain notes “ohh, he’s weak and can’t resist temptations.” And the next time we go on a diet our subconscious tells us “you can’t do it anyway” because it knows the nature of our behavior. And the nature of our behavior is something we work on every day. If we do everything on 150% and keep moving forward – our brain is also noting that. But when we try to cheat on ourselves it also notes that dissociation between what we want and what we do. And it translates it into our later actions. But it does it with a bad habits as well as with these good ones. Like in the case of exchange.
Americans – a happy nation
It wasn’t just the exchange itself that affected me. American culture also did. From the outside, sometimes we think that life in the US is exaggerated. I thought so too until I experienced it from within. Now I would call this so called exaggeration either an unawareness or jealousy.
The Americans taught me gratitude.
Teamwork – a concept that I did not experienced through the years of education.
They taught me pride.
And understanding, not cramming. To this day, I remember the history lesson scheme in which we learned to understand both sides of a conflict more than assessing whether someone deserved to win or not. So often we assume something to be certain or normal while everything is questionable. We assume that there is only good and bad or only black and white. It’s not like it.
I remember the distribution of probability from my American high school more than I do remember it from my university. Because I think about this distribution whenever I make popcorn and measure the seconds to know when it enters the second deviation from the mean on the Gaussian curve. It seems comical, but it is so.
Americans taught me visualization and understanding. That’s why I remember everything up to this day.
The Americans taught me tolerance. Although I was so different from them, nobody treated me like that. Nobody criticized my religion or my life. Because everyone had theirs and nobody wanted to convert me.
I learned how to enjoy the smallest things.
I learned what a family is and I understood why everyone is so smiley in the pictures.
These people are simply happy. Happy with what they have. And I absolutely envy them.
Feel free to ask me any questions in comments section!
More about my travels here.