When I tell people that I was still a teenager the first time I set foot abroad on my own, I get all kinds of reactions, from amazement to disapproval. Some usually think that it’s great, as it ignites a much needed open-mindedness within one’s teenage-self, while others say it is too dangerous to travel on your own when you are still that young. When I told my parents about my American Dream at sixteen, I guess they had mixed feelings about it and were lost in between these two main points of view. We discussed it many times before finding a solution that would satisfy everyone: what about an exchange year abroad? I would get to experience the American lifestyle while still having some kind of support if I ever got in trouble.


Saying that this exchange program changed the course of my life is an understatement.  I got to experience a different culture for the first time and I found my passion for discovering how people live in other parts of the world. I enjoyed it so much, actually, that I decided to renew the experience at university. Since I wanted to improve my Spanish this time around, I moved to Mexico, where my father had lived when he was young. Exchange programs are, in my opinion, a great introduction to life abroad for young people. It allows them to immerse themselves in a new culture, open their minds and gives them the maturity and social skills they’ll need to, later on, go and explore the world.

So, for anyone tempted by the idea, here are five advices based on my own experiences:

Choose where to live and make the best of it


When I first applied to be a high-school exchange student in America, I was already picturing myself exploring New-York with my host-family or tanning on the beach in California. My exchange advisor soon brought me back to reality, letting me know that the only thing I got to choose was the country. I would then be chosen, based on my application file, by a host-family. And I would commit to share my life with them, wherever they might live. A few months later, I was selected by a host-family from Kansas, who lived in a small town called Tonganoxie. In their first letter, they were telling me about their house, their dogs, their cats, theirs cows and their donkeys and I felt like I would never survive there for a year. Having always lived in big cities before, I cried and told my parents I didn’t want to leave anymore, being both a brat and a total drama-queen. They told me that I made a decision and had to commit to it, and they also promised me that everything would be fine and that I shouldn’t worry.


Getting to Tonganoxie was a big change for me and I really did not enjoy the first weeks. I felt lonely, far from everything and, on top of it, I didn’t really get along with my host-family. So a few months later, when I decided to move out, I had the opportunity to live with an amazing couple in San Diego… and I said… NO. As crazy as it sounds, I decided to stay in Tonganoxie for the full year. I moved in with a friend and her (great) family and didn’t regret a thing. Living in a small town was definitely a different experience but it has its advantages. As an exchange student, everybody knows you and invites you to parties. You soon make tons of friends and really feel like you’re part of a community. My point is: the place you’ll end up in might not be what you first expected but it is your decision and role to make it all worth it. See it as an opportunity to experience something else and tell yourself it won’t last forever. The hospitality, attention and fun you’ll get in a small town might bring you much more than an experience in a big city, where you could be just one more exchange student and might have trouble to fit in.


The situation was completely different, a few years later, when I decided to do another exchange program, while at university. My college had tons of partnerships with other universities around the world and I got to choose not only the country but also the city and the campus I would study in. I chose Cuernavaca, a town not too far from Mexico’s capital. I moved in an apartment that I shared with three other French exchange students and though the city and university were awesome, deciding to live with them was certainly not a good decision. They were constantly speaking French and just didn’t seem to care that much about the country. Like a lot of other university/Erasmus exchange students, I felt like they had come there mostly to socialize with other foreigners and party.


I soon chose to move out and decided to live with a Mexican girl that I knew from university. Not only was the rent much (MUCH) cheaper, we were also only speaking Spanish and I had finally the feeling to actually learn something. She introduced me to all of her friends and became one of my besties. I even taught her some French and she loved it so much that, as unexpected as it was at the time, she decided, a few years later, to go study in my country. Getting to choose the city you’ll live in during your exchange program is great, but it is nothing compared to choosing your roommate(s). The best decision I have made during that semester was definitely to move in with this girl and it completely changed the course of my experience there.  And this brings me to my second advice…

Make as many (local) friends as you can


In Tonganoxie, we were only three exchange students: two French and one Brazilian. We met on the first day of school and soon became great friends. We hung out a lot but my Brazilian friend got frustrated because the other French and I kept on speaking our language whenever together, which she would not understand. It was just weird for us to speak English but we soon decided we’d have to commit to it, just as a mark of respect. Not only did it help us both to improve our English level, it also expanded tremendously our friend circles. We soon socialized with our American counterparts and it allowed us to live a true American high school experience, made of football games, bonfires, homecoming dances, other parties and gatherings.



In Cuernavaca, I arrived on a huge university campus with thousands of students. We were a few dozens, just for the “exchange” ones. All of us, foreigners, soon socialized at “introduction week” and decided to share accommodations at it seemed the simplest solution. As some of us barely spoke any Spanish, we would switch very quickly to English. After a few weeks, I realized that it was not what I had come for and decided to turn the situation around. I moved in with my Mexican friend and, as I said before, she introduced me to a completely different side of Mexico. Getting to know her friends, her family, her past and every day habits helped me understand the country I was living in. Interacting with local people is so much more fulfilling and you should definitely try to take advantage of this experience as it is not something that will happen again. I am not saying there’s something wrong with being friends with other exchange students, but just don’t limit yourself to that one experience.


Practice the language as much as you can


My first week in an American high-school was painful. My English level was pretty bad when I got there and I had to focus a lot to understand everything that I was told. Every night, I would come home with a big headache and the feeling that this exchange program was maybe a mistake. But everything started changing very soon, as I realized that I was improving. Making friends helped me a lot with the process and challenged me daily. The fact that they didn’t know French was also a great opportunity. I learned English very quickly and it just took me a few months to acquire some kind of fluency in my speech. My English skills improving, my confidence also grew accordingly. With my Brazilian friend, we joined the Forensics club and got to prepare a duet, all in English. After a few competitions, we won the state trophy and we were pretty proud of it. Once you let your fear go, amazing things happen, like winning a drama competition in a language that’s not even your own.



At University, apart from making local friends, I decided to take all my classes in Spanish. I could have chosen to take my seminars in English; it would have certainly made everything simple and easy. But challenging yourself is so much more rewarding. With some basic knowledge of Spanish at my arrival, I succeeded in acquiring a pretty good level in just a few months. And this is only because I decided to really push myself. Just like when you travel, it is your role to step out of your comfort zone. You’ll always find people who speak your language, classes that fit your skills. But choosing the easy way won’t teach you many things. Nothing comes easy and making an experience worth it can only be your decision so choose everything wisely.

Explore your host-country on week-ends and vacations


An exchange year is also a great opportunity to explore a new country. While in America, my host-family took me on vacations with them and that’s how I got to experience jet-skiing on a lake in Missouri or spending Thanksgiving in California. Whenever possible, I took trips on my own and went to spend Christmas and New Year with friends on the East Coast and Spring Break on the West Coast. Living in Kansas also gave me the opportunity to discover a place I would have probably (let’s be honest) never traveled to and introduced me to another side of the United States.

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I always felt on vacation when I was in Mexico. I only had a few classes a week as the education system was way different than the one I knew from home. This gave me the opportunity to travel a lot within the country. The cheap airline fares also allowed me enjoy the best that Mexico had to offer. From Baja California to Merida, from Puerto Escondido to Acapulco… my life really felt like an endless summer for a whole semester. Everywhere I traveled; I tried as much local food as possible and experience some very old (and odd) rituals. Whether you’re in high school or at university, exploring helps you understand that there’s no such thing as just one way of life within a same country. Traveling within its borders exposes you to a nation’s diversity and its complexity.


Don’t act like you’re at home and embrace the difference

My last advice is probably the most important, no matter if it’s in high school or at university that you want to be an exchange student. Keep in mind that, wherever you end up, things will be different. You’ll have to accept that and more importantly, respect that difference. Remember that you will be the guest and therefore, you’ll have to be the one making the most efforts. Understand the local rules and practices; accept this other way of life. I am not telling you that you should change your values or all your daily habits, but life there certainly won’t be like in your home-country and you’ll have to be ready. The four previous advices will help you reach this last step and understand how, whether through an exchange program or any other future experience abroad, traveling is only fully enjoyable when you commit to a certain level of open-mindedness and overall respect.

Photo credit: Elisa Fourt

Except for Head photo (Jazmin Quaynor), 1st photo (Michael Doran) and 7th Photo (Huffington Post). 


This post was written by Elisa Fourt.
Elisa Fourt was part of the Travelettes team from 2015 to 2017.  Elisa usually describes herself as a world citizen. She has lived, studied, worked and travelled in more than 60 countries throughout her life and she loves to share her passion for the world with others. When she is not planning her next trip or writing about the last one, Elisa likes to help people in need and get involved in various not-for-profit projects. She currently works for a NGO in the Middle-East. Follow her on Instagram @lisou.me