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Updated on Mar 5, 2009

Has your child been bitten by the travel bug? If your son or daughter expresses interest in a foreign exchange program, it’s natural to feel intrigued. And it’s natural to feel nervous, too. After all, it’s one thing to let your teenager sleep at a friend’s house, another to let them travel halfway across the world to live with strangers.

While your fears are natural, so is your child’s desire to study abroad. “Studying abroad was a transformative experience,” says Catherine Marciano, who spent an academic year in Rome. “It is so easy to operate with a narrow world view… because your community is so insular. Leaving the country for those nine months afforded me a chance to expand that world view through travel and physically spend extended time in communities that were so different from mine.”

Of course, program directors agree. “Not only do they gain important foreign language skills and knowledge about a new culture, they end up thinking differently about themselves, their culture, and their country,” says Michael Liberty, public relations coordinator for American Institute for Foreign Study. And it doesn’t look too shabby on a college application, either.

Don’t worry: you won’t be putting Junior on a plane and sending him off blindly. Most students find host families through formal programs. The best way to find a good one? Ask teachers and friends for recommendations. Any company you choose should have a proven track record, provide lots of detail about what’s included, be staffed by people with first-hand experience, and provide references from students who have recently used their services. Host families should be well-screened, and your child can expect to jump through some hoops, too – interviews, references, essays, and a minimum GPA are standard requirements.

Although costs will vary depending on where your child goes and for how long, you shouldn’t be liable for much beyond plane fare and spending money. According to Terry Cumes, managing director of Outbound Programs for Intrax Study Abroad, English-speaking countries tend to be the most expensive (and popular); South America and South Africa are relative bargains.

While you may not be ready for your child to study abroad, mature teenagers often are. Think about sending them off for a few short summer weeks, to get their feet wet. They'll gain valuable skills for the next time around. And most likely, there will be a next time. High school students who have studied abroad often choose to repeat the experience during college. As Cumes says, “Once you do it, you’re hooked.”

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