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DIY High School Student Exchange

I have searched around the internet for some information on student exchanges without much luck and I am a longtime lurker here.

My son will be a high school sophomore next fall and through mutual friends in Germany found a family with a daughter looking to do an exchange to an English-speaking country, and thought the USA was acceptable anyways.<--insert laugh track here.

They want to do it DIY because she is a few months shy of exchange program cutoff age, it is this way for them or not happening.

I'm torn on the DIY method. Pro is it's $4000 to $15000 cheaper, depending on the exchange program. Con is if our son feels isolated, doesn't click with host family, struggles with school he will be mostly on his own. We found one that they cover the option that isn't just a random family.

The question is for folks in the know...been there and done an exchange program provide that level of support? Do American exchange students huddle up now and then to commiserate being strangers in a strange land and that sort of thing?

I guess another question that comes to mind is if being separated from your 15 year old for 9 months is worth it...that was a lot harder for me to type than I thought it would.

Posted by
337 posts

I would guess that the biggest con of a 'DIY student exchange' would be organizing two school enrollments for non-residents and two 9-month visas in two different jurisdictions all by yourself.

Posted by
9363 posts

My only personal experience is at the college level, with what was essentially an extension campus in Salzburg of my American university. We lived with families, but went to school with only each other every day (no Austrian students).

From my high school days, though, I know that only juniors or seniors were generally involved in exchange programs. Part of that could, I guess, be related to the maturity level of the students. I think established programs make an effort to make sure that the kids involved are ready to be away, and will handle it well. Doing it on your own, you have no way of knowing. But as the prior poster said, the logistics of arranging school enrollments, hosts, and visas for individual students in two countries are going to be formidable. That's why exchange programs exist - to make it easier/possible.

Posted by
5697 posts

My daughter did an exchange through AFS in 1998 (she was 17, doing a "gap year" between high school and college so getting high school credit for graduation was not a problem.) AFS arranged get-togethers between exchange students (not all of them American) in various towns in Finland and provided in-country coordinators in case students had problems. Health insurance was part of the program fees, as was a week of pre-trip orientation in departure city (NYC for her) and transportation from departure city to final destination and return trip at the end of the year.

Was it worth it ? I think it was. I had the security blanket of having her being watched over by another mother instead of being let on her loose in a college dorm ... knowing that the other community had made arrangements for her schooling and that AFS was there in case of problems. But it wasn't easy putting her on the plane in August knowing I wouldn't see her again until June.

Question for you -- are YOU ready to host a 14-year-old girl for a year ? What if your family and the girl don't "click" ? This could be a marvelous experience for all concerned ... or not.

Posted by
6792 posts

"I guess another question that comes to mind is if being separated from your 15 year old for 9 months is worth it..."

You will have a lot of concerns no matter what your kid's age - but since he's only 15, you will have a lot more than if he were 17 or 18 or older yet.

I did a year abroad at a German university at 20. My wife (who at the time was very mature in most every way for her age) went on an organized exchange right after high school at 17 and had a somewhat traumatic experience that had very little to do with missing her family but a whole lot to do with working within the family structure she joined. Some of the other participants had similar experiences; they were able to change families with varying degrees of success. If there's a poor student-family match for whatever reason, it is hard to imagine the 15-year-old who possesses the maturity and interpersonal skills to carve out a successful stay for such a long period of time. And organizations simply cannot guarantee good matches.

Academically... unless your child's German skills are VERY good, the year will create certain gaps - not that the cultural experience and language learning don't compensate or that those gaps can't be made up later on, but unless his current high school academic program is pathetic, there will surely be some impact on his academic growth.

I think you should be looking at a study abroad program of 3 months or fewer at that age, possibly in the summer, for everyone's sake. Or wait a couple of years. Even junior/community colleges have good exchange/study abroad program options nowadays.

Posted by
485 posts

Going with a program is safer because the fee you pay will include health insurance, cost of the school, and perhaps some activities. It also usually includes an on-site coordinator who meets with the student periodically and is available for any questions, concerns, changes in host family, etc...

We did the reverse: we hosted a student from Germany for the school year (10 months). She turned 17 while she was here. She came through Youth For Understanding ( It would have been more difficult to arrange everything for her ourselves as our school district only has a certain amount of openings available for exchange students (and they must be through an exchange organization). The same may be true the other way around: it may be difficult to arrange for a non-German student to attend a particular school without the benefit of a sponsored program.

I would suggest having your child to a semester homestay or perhaps a shorter 4-week stay over the summer. Other organizations that do these are CHI (Cultural Homestay International) and AFS (

Posted by
1003 posts

I guess another question that comes to mind is if being separated from your 15 year old for 9 months is worth it...that was a lot harder for me to type than I thought it would.

I think that before you go any further, you need to establish if he will even get a visa for the trip, if he is not on an official program. As to the best of my knowledge he is too young to get a visa in his own right.

Posted by
7551 posts

My wife had a wonderful experience with AFS, but that was over 30 years ago. She noted at the time that many of the other students happened to get placed with families that needed "family" farm or business labor. She was lucky enough to end up with a very professional-level family in Finland, with a weekend cottage in the forest. She remembers being homesick, but not located close to other AFS-ers. But the grandmother of her host family took good care of her unhappiness. Her own (that is, birth) mother would not have let her go without the structure of the well-known exchange plan.

However, the same mother was very worried about not having complete control of the placement (that is or was the official policy of AFS, perhaps its not marketable today!) , and (real or imaginary .... this was the early '70s) fear that a blonde American teenager would be vulnerable in a "place" like Greece or Italy. If you find this unbelievable (in this age of Helicopter Parents?), I knew young women who were denied the chance to study College or Graduate School Art History in Italy because their parents were certain they would be ravished by motor-scooter riding Italian Lotharios ...

Do you think you need to make a sort of Prenuptial Agreement with the other family in case one or both placements don't work out? Who would determine that the placement has failed? After what time delay?

Posted by
3392 posts

With a child this young you might want to consider a summer stay program first? An academic year is a very long time for you and your son. Even as an adult, culture shock can be very difficult when spending an extended period of time in another country and, as wonderful as the IDEA of a year abroad sounds, the REALITY of it can be very harsh and traumatic especially if the family match turns out not to be a good one or if your son doesn't make the cultural transition well. He will lose an academic year most likely - have you looked into the language support that will be offered at the school he will attend in Germany? This is critical or else he will simply be in a sink-or-swim environment - how frustrating and disheartening this could be for him.
I would first see if there is a teacher at his current school who offers a language/culture focused trip abroad during spring break or summer vacation - that way his first experience abroad will be one surrounded by other American kids and adults from his own community. There are lots of short-term programs in the summer where teens can get a taste of life abroad before diving in to a full academic year. Or maybe consider a family trip; rent an apartment for a month in Europe or do a home exchange to really get a feel for the place before sending him off on his own.
Having a high school sophmore myself I think that this age is a little young for such a thing. I don't know if it would be worth interrupting his high school education for this. Maybe have him wait until college and do a semester abroad instead? Just a thought......

Posted by
53 posts

Thanks for the input. Certainly gives me pause for thought.

A few folks commented about the difficulties of figuring out the enrollment and getting a visa. The host family has been carrying the ball for us by contacting a local school about enrollment, as well as being in contact with local officials about a residency permit. They were told my son can get a residency permit if he has a note from the parents indicating they are in care of a local guardian, is enrolled in school and has insurance. There is a local school with an international focus that sounds interested in our son exposing students to a foreign student. And they have been in contact with our local high school (and we have, too)

A few folks felt that 9 months (a whole school year) is too long and should consider a shorter stint. I had considered that, but researching it it seems like there is a learning curve on language and culture that takes about a month, so it seems like just when the pieces are falling into place he would have to leave.

I really appreciate the input and sharing your exchange experiences.

Posted by
2349 posts

Your son would not be eligible for this program, as it is only for Indiana residents. My daughter went to France the summer before her high school senior year with the Indiana University Honors Program for Foreign Languages. You might look at the website to see how a program should be run. It was terrific. They had great support for the students and had backup families if there was a problem with the initial placement. They also had funds to fly all students home immediately, or to house those students indefinitely if they couldn't fly home. (It was the year of the volcanic ash.) I felt very comfortable sending her off for 6 weeks at 17. I would not feel the same with a 15 year old with a makeshift program.


Keep in mind that this is not your son's only chance to travel. Universities have a lot of study abroad options now. But I do understand the temptation to send a 15 year old away!

Posted by
11507 posts

I hope your son is an A student and fluent in German. My nieces were born in Germany, lived there till they were 5 and 6, then moved here with German mother and Canadian father. 8 years later they moved back to Germany. The mother spoke German in the home, but girls German got rusty. Both were A++++ students here.. winning academic awards etc.

It took WAY LONGER then a month to adjust to school there.. and they already had basic German and a German mother and grandmother.. and were super smart.

School there is much harder and day is longer.

I personally would not send my child there in highschool for fear of setting him/her back academically.

I would send child for summer program .. and consider sending child for gap year between highschool and college.

Posted by
10345 posts

I don't think this is such a good idea unless your son is fluent in German, begging you to let him go, and eager to compete academically. The advantages here are more for the German girl who gets a lower-cost year in an English-speaking school. I agree with Pat and Karen that you should look at alternative overseas options.

I raised two boys to adulthood, bilingual dual nationals but it never crossed my mind to send them away to my sister-in-law or cousins in France or Austria for year, though we sent them alone for vacations from age nine onwards. Likewise, no one in our family ever asked me to take their kids for a year, though as Karen said I certainly remember moments I would have paid anything to ship those fifteen year olds an ocean away.

Posted by
12172 posts

My sister-in-law spent her senior year in high school at her Aunt's in Leichlingen, Germany. I'm not sure how much effort was involved. I imagine she/mom applied for her visa and Aunt Marg took care of the school enrollment. It wasn't an exchange as much as an extended visit. School was really hard for her. She had trouble passing even her English course. As far as I know it ended well, she graduated from high school and came home in one piece (if quite a bit heavier from eating too much German food).

Posted by
2297 posts

My daughters were not interested in an exchange even though they are bilingual English-German. However, I do have a number of friends who did this between Canada and Germany over the past 5-6 years, most of it privately organized.

There is no academic disadvantage if you simply repeat the year. That is what is highly recommended by German schools when they suggest to their students to do an exchange. As the school system has changed in Germany in the past years, the typical age of a German student doing a high school exchange is now 15 or 16 as they do the exchange in grade 10 (it used to be grade 11).

I have a friend who sent both her sons to Germany and one of them repeated the year, the other one didn't. With the repeated year, the student excelled in school once back in Canada (IB program with high marks). The student who didn't repeat the year struggled a lot to catch up and ended up with lower grades than before his exchange which effectively reduced his options for university enrolment. These boys were both absolutely fluent in German as that was the language spoken in their home in Canada.

My German friend who sent both her daughters to Canada did one exchange with an organization, the other one we organized privately within my Canadian side of the family. The girl who went with an exchange organization did not find compatible host families and moved to 3 different families throughout her school year. That's why we opted for a personal family connection for her younger sister. This girl had met her host family a year earlier during a summer vacation and they felt it was a good chance that they would click. It turned out great for both sides! The host family had never done an exchange before and this positive experience convinced them to do it again. Girl 1 spent a full year in Canada and repeated that school year in Germany. Girl 2 spent only half a school year in Canada and then completed the same school year in Germany. With a lot of work she did manage to catch up. Both girls were A students before and after the exchange.

If you do an exchange privately you have to have backup plans. My friend with the boys did both exchanges privately. The first time around, the host family experienced a serious illness where the host mother was hospitalized for a long time. They had to find an alternative placement for the boy really fast or fly him back home. There was another relative close by who took him in. So do be aware that things can happen even with the best of preparations.

Be aware that even with an exchange organization there is a lot of work you have to do yourself in order to get the visa. The organization is not allowed to do that for you! They can only point you in the right direction.

Posted by
33301 posts

This may not relate in any way to the question but it may shine some light...

I grew up on both sides of the Atlantic, in England and in New Jersey and (mostly) New York. I spoke the languages fluently (New Yawkese, West Country dialect of English English, Home Counties dialect of English English, and American English) but I was always behind after another crossing because the language always changes and regional variations - those bits that make you a local among your peers and strangers - get missed.

I excelled in school because I worked really hard and (said modestly) I'm fairly bright. by graduation I was close to the top of the class. But I was always playing catch-up. My parents got me tutors to help. I went to a comprehensive (they weren't called that then) in England and a private school in the states.

English was ahead in the States, Sciences in England. My Latin and Greek and German classes were ahead in the States, my French was miles ahead in England. History was comparable but completely different so completely incompatible. What that meant was that I always was behind in at least half my subjects. I enjoyed the challenge but it was very hard work. I never dropped a year, but I did get a few "F"s to mix in with the other very high grades.

I remember making slips, too. I was seriously embarrassed in 6th grade when I asked my New York teacher if I could go to the toilet. She made a point of telling me in front of the whole class how rude I was not to ask for the bathroom. 50 years later it still hurts.

I had support of parents and family at all times on both sides of the puddle. It might be harder for a young teen on their own. Especially if they haven't grown up with the language and customs.

OTOH - 0 - I would have loved to have done an exchange for a few months. I would have had a friend and maybe family of the friend who I could visit in later life.

(one of the consequences of growing up like I did with no steady home base is I grew up without much in the way of friends. Maybe its the same for Army brats but at least they all have the forces in common. It is something to consider for anyone thinking of living bi-coastal or internationally.)

for what its worth. I'm sure the lad is lovely and will profit no matter what. Kids are really resilient. They rise to challenges.

Posted by
28 posts

My family has hosted eight exchange students and one of our four children was an exchange student in Switzerland. I would never do the DIY plan. To dangerous for the student and the family. We went thought AFS which is the oldest exchange program around. They check out the family and the student with interviews etc prior to making any decisions. If you have a problem with the exchange student they have people you can talk to and that the student can talk to. They helped us a lot. Our son had a wonderful experience in Switzerland. I would recommend it for anyone as long as you have a program like AFS for support! It was really hard to have our son gone for 10 months but it was great for him and we knew it would be.

If you have any specific questions please let me know.


Posted by
1 posts

I am in the process of a DIY exchange right now. I'm arranging for two, of three, of my daughters to stay with a family in Spain. The family is that of a Spanish exchange student that stayed with us this year, through a program.

I think it is interesting that so many people comment on how health insurance is included in the exchange fee. Health insurance literally costs $330. It takes just a few minutes to apply and you get the coverage letter to take to the Visa office within 20 minutes. There are several companies online that sell the insurance.

One of the reasons we chose to go it on our own is that we were disappointed with the support our Spanish exchange student received through the well-known exchange program here. It just didn't seem worth the money. Even the kids in the program who didn't get along with their families were pushed into staying there. I'm sure if there was abuse or something dangerous, they would have removed them, but just not getting along wasn't enough of a reason for a student to prompt a change. On the other hand, we saw several situations where the family wanted out and that wish was granted. I'm sure these policies vary by company, but it is not a guarantee that you can switch families if you aren't getting along with the one you have.

I do think if you have a host family already lined up and a school that is willing to take the student, then DIY makes sense - if you are a DIY-kind of person. There are still a lot of steps to applying to the school for admission, then applying for the visa. I started in January and I am just completing the visa interview this week. It has been a significant amount of work, but on the other hand, the exhange programs require you get your own visa which is a substantial amount of the total work I did. I think the main work that would be saved by going through an exchange program is the process of getting admitted into a foreign school. We had to provide a certified passport (requested through a notarized letter) which took 8 weeks, three years of transcripts, translated by a translator certified by Spain (also found online). Applications were due April 30th and admission notification was May 15th. I just received the admission letter which is required as part of the visa. Visa appointment is this week and can take four weeks.

if you have any questions, let me know.