Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Choosing an International Exchange Program

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Planning an international exchange program? Be sure you know what you’re getting into.

Exchange programs are like a living, breathing Wikipedia.

They are full of things that you can actually touch, taste, smell and hear as they happen in real life. And with the added bonus of getting high school or university credit while travelling to exotic locales for authentic, first-hand experience in your selected field of study, what’s not to love?

My own alma mater’s international exchange program is what sold me on the school in the first place. It ended up being the most educationally rich experience of my entire university career.

While there are several benefits of participating in an exchange program there are, as always, a few pitfalls to try to avoid. Here are some tips to help you set the course for a trip that’s right for you.

Some working exchange programs provide homestays

When choosing an exchange program, be sure to consider things like accommodations and length of stay in order to get the most out of your experience abroad. Many programs provide homestays, which offer the most bang for your buck if the point of your exchange is language acquisition and cultural immersion.

There is no doubt that staying with locals provides an authentic educational experience that you simply cannot find in any learning institution or supplementary resource.

Of course, the flip side of homestay accommodations is that you have very little control over many key aspects of your exchange. For example, I had a friend who went on exchange to Peru and shared a room with a 5-year-old and 2 chickens for 4 months.

If you are very particular about your personal space, food, sleeping arrangements, privacy, noise levels and proximity to farm animals, a homestay may not be the best option for you.

However, they tend to be less expensive than dorm-style accommodations or renting an apartment and, for some, the idea of staying with a family is less intimidating than having to navigate grocery stores and fend for yourself in a foreign land. The key, obviously, is to do your research and make an effort to find the scenario that best suits your needs.

Make the most of travel abroad opportunities

Some schools offer exchange programs from within their various faculties or departments. Once again, there are pros and cons of these sorts of trips. On the plus side, most of the organizing is done for you and the trip is guaranteed to complement your field of study. On the other hand, it can be a frustrating experience travelling en masse because you have limited options in terms of itinerary and can sometimes miss out on the true local flavour of a place if you stick with a group.

Having said that, it’s also important to ensure that your faculty or department will give you credit for your time spent abroad, if that’s what you’re after. I had friends who organized a semester in Fiji, only to find out upon their return that the humanities department wouldn’t recognize their exchange for credit. How do you say ‘bummer’ in Fijian?

For that reason, sometimes the sanctioned school trips are a bit of a safer bet. And there are those out there who do manage to offer a foreign exchange program that allows for autonomy and self-directed planning— while still ensuring credit for courses taken while abroad. This allows you to have your proverbial cake and eat it too.

The bottom line is this: Be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into; whether you’re considering doing biological fieldwork in the Galapagos Islands or spending a year learning Italian amidst the olive trees and vineyards of Tuscany. Cover your bases with your school before leaving.

You’ll learn far more than you bargained for and the experience will pay for itself in tales of adventure and clever little anecdotes for years to come.

Katie Marti
Author: Katie Marti
Katie Marti has been a teacher for 10 years and is currently teaching high school french in Vancouver.
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  1. Scott Says:

    Fantastic article Katie! Exchange programs are great for people who want to see the world.


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