Is being a Foreign Exchange Student right for me?

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Ever considered becoming a FES – a Foreign Exchange Student (FES, for viewers of “That 70’s Show”)?  You may have had one or a few at your school, but what is it like when you are the student abroad?

First, why even do it?  Well, each FES has his or her own reasons.  For me, I had dreamed of traveling to Europe ever since my mom read me bedtime fairy tales of castles, bridges, trolls, and princesses.  As much as I enjoyed the stories and wished to adventure abroad, it was never in the family budget.  When I happened upon a Rotary International brochure on my French teacher’s desk one day at high school, my journey literally and figuratively began.  My application was soon approved by the local Rotary club, and the school principal okayed my appeal to spend my senior year abroad!

Only one hiccup stood in the way of my dreams.  Europe, it turned out, was not in the cards as a possibility.  I could have pulled the plug at this time but I was too excited about the future studying in a new locale.  I was offered a shortlist of non-European countries to study in; due to my frequent past travels to, and love of, the American southwest, it seemed like a no-brainer to select Mexico as my FES country.

I won’t go into much more detail at this point about my schoolyear abroad. I did want to share, however, what qualities of an individual would make one an ideal FES, more or less in order of importance:

  • Adaptability. Staying strong in the face of change is far and away the most important quality for a potential FES.  Have you ever had to move houses, cities, and/or schools?   Did your parents divorce and remarry, so you had to adapt to a new stepfamily?  Even a minor change, like having to move seat assignments suddenly in Biology, can at times cause distress.  You may feel apprehensive about changes like these, and this is entirely normal.  However, were you able to see yourself enjoying new possibilities?  If you could indeed maintain a positive frame of mind despite not knowing for certain what lay ahead, you can definitely say you’re adaptable.
  • Openmindedness. Keeping an open mind to possibilities you cannot initially see yourself understanding will help you make the most of your studies abroad.  As an example, when I lived in Mexico, I went to a bull fight with my host family.  Now, animal cruelty is an awful thing.  It was no fun for me to witness an animal suffering in the guise of entertainment.  I could have complained and stayed home.  However, I tried hard to keep an “open mind” and reminded myself this was a unique experience that is (or was, anyway) enjoyed by millions around the world.  I felt my task was to make the proverbial lemonades out of lemons; I loved the intricate design of the bullfighters’ costumes and so concentrated on that.  This ability to log on to new interpretations, which first manifest itself to me at this young age, still serves me today.
  • Curiosity. Why does Pedro celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead? How can Simone stand to eat snails and stinky cheeses?  Is there any meaning behind the beautiful garment Zhang Min sometimes wears to school?  Young people who nurture a healthy curiosity about other cultures and peoples encountered at home will experience the greatest joy in their studies abroad.  People, places and events overseas will, I promise, constantly amaze, startle and even frighten you.  It’s healthy to wonder why.
  • Empathy. You may find yourself studying abroad in an industrialized country similar in many respects to the USA.  Others of you will encounter folks in your host country who suffer constant, grinding poverty.   It’s heartbreaking, and it’s easy to feel powerless to help.  Empathy, or putting yourself in others’ shoes, is the quality that will make it easier to deal with this tragic condition.  I was lucky enough to be invited to join Rotaract, the Rotary service club for youth.  We held activities to alleviate poverty where and when we could.  I still remember very fondly the hours we collected and distributed secondhand clothes to our impoverished neighbors.   The upshot here: corral your inner empathy and participate in charitable action while you study abroad.  Words cannot describe the power of the inner joy you will feel!
  • Friendliness. Cultures have differing ideas about how outgoing and upbeat an individual should be.  I was lucky that in Mexico, my typically reserved self was welcomed with smiles and kindness by some of the most openhearted people on earth.  Being shy didn’t help things but I still managed to get to know my classmates and neighbors and have a lot of fun.   Be aware that some cultures aren’t so open to new folks, at least at first.   FES candidates should be prepared to befriend the youth in the country they will be visiting.  Take the initiative!  Ask how you can meet some future classmates ahead of time, virtually, online.  Above all, be the kind of friend you would like to have yourself.


Finally, and most importantly – you may have read all through the above (yay, you!) and found it disturbing that some animals are harmed for fun, or some people don’t get enough to eat on a daily basis, or some people can be downright rude upon first meeting.  I know where you’re coming from and I find it all disheartening, too.

However – and this is the overarching theme of the life of a FES – peoples around the world are not exactly like you.  They celebrate their own unique histories, religions, societies, and cultural mindsets.  Accordingly, they have differing standards, tolerances, and motivations to those you grew up with yourself.   The more you can understand that and accept it, the happier you will be in your studies abroad.  You truly serve as an ambassador of the United States to the people you live with overseas.  By evidencing the qualities elaborated upon above, you can capably show the world the principles you stand for and be proud of it!

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5 thoughts on “Is being a Foreign Exchange Student right for me?

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    1. Being a “FES” isn’t right for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. 😉 It wasn’t easy sometimes. Okay, it wasn’t easy a LOT, but the rewards were incredible!

  1. Great article! I have a niece who just returned from studying abroad as a foreign exchange student and she loved it! Some good points about needing to be adaptable, open-minded, and empathetic. 🙂

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