My first major international experience (i.e. outside of North America) happened when I was in the 11th grade. I was 16 years old and headed to France. I had some ideas on what to expect as my sister had completed an exchange in France just one year prior and I was going to live with the family of a girl we had just hosted in Canada.
How I did it
My school was affiliated with a program called ISE Ontario that runs exchanges between students and schools in France, Switzerland, and Germany. As I was studying French at the time (we have to in Canada), I went with France.
The program sets you up with a match and gives you all the tools you need. This does come at a price though – roughly $3000. This includes round-trip airfare, insurance, administration fees, and orientation and activity days for the participants.
Is this expensive? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes. You typically can’t take a school aged child for a three-month adventure to be totally immersed in another culture.
Interested in doing an exchange?
- Make sure your grades are good and you have a good relationship with your teachers – you’ll be doing your credits via correspondence and may need approval from them.
- Plan ahead of time! Most schools only allow you to do the exchange in grades 10 or 11.
- Ensure everyone in the host home has a vulnerable sectors check
- Make sure your passport is up to date!
Not from Ontario?
Check out the Rotary Youth Exchange for programs all over the world.
So I had made it Paris!
Only to get on another flight to Lyon. Once I arrived I saw my exchange partner and her family waiting there for me. We drove back to their place and I got settled into my new room. The following week I had to start school and attend my exchange partner’s classes with her. For some reason at this school I couldn’t pick my classes like she had at mine. So, unfortunately, I had to go along to hers. While having to attend these classes it didn’t’ really matter whether or not I passed. I still had to complete my work from my home school via correspondence in the one spare period I had (thank goodness I took bird courses).
I met a lot of new people at once and felt like a shiny new toy that everyone was excited to see. Most people wanted to practice speaking English to me and my French was all but non-existent so I didn’t learn much French while there. I experienced a lot of other things though. There was a sense of freedom I had in France that I never had before. Everything was new. Having come from a tiny town to a city – just being able to get around by myself on the subway instead of having to be driven around was exciting.
My host parent allowed me to explore as I wished. She even let me and my exchange partner have a weekend in Paris ourselves! We went on a few family vacations as well. We visited Italy for a week and spent a long weekend in London – that little break of visiting an English speaking country was a warm welcome to me.
The Best Parts
Getting to visit new places of course! I also met some pretty fantastic people and moving to a new country opened my eyes to a lot of experiences I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Being from a small town it’s really easy to stay within your comfort zone or in a bubble. This exchange sparked an interest in me that has yet to die eight years later.
I feel I grew a lot during that time and became much more independent. I learned more than I ever could from simply studying in my home country and am thankful for that to this very day (thanks mom!).
The Worst Parts
There were some bouts of homesickness. Thankfully my host family had a good phone plan that allowed me to call home whenever I needed to. Also, there were some logistical things I was less than a fan of. For example, my host partner could choose her classes at my high school, other than a mandatory ESL class with nothing given to her from her home school. When I visited, there was no FSL class offered (or French lessons at all), I was expected to attend all of her class AND complete a full course load from my home school. I felt overloaded with classes sometimes and taking a French class intended for French speakers and multiple English courses of my exchange partner’s classes did nothing by way of helping me learn French.