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Updated on Feb 11, 2013

Many teens dream of living in a place different from where they grew up. And each year thousands embark on this dream by living abroad, whether for a whole school year or a few weeks during the summer. Living abroad teaches students how to speak a new language and navigate a new culture, new family and new community. The experience forces them to become more mature and independent.

When students come back from living overseas – especially if they've been gone for several months – they're not the same people they were when they left. "These kids are not kids anymore," says Woody Angst, who is president of the North American Youth Exchange Network and has been involved with Rotary Youth Exchange for more than two decades. "They're young adults with a global perspective." Often, he says, students who spend a year as Rotary exchange students adopt their host nations and families as their own. Has your teen told you that she's interested in living in another country? The two of you have a lot to talk about. Being an exchange student is a fun, life-changing adventure, but it's not right for everyone.

Types of Programs

Almost 1,400 American teens lived overseas for a semester or full academic year during the 2011-12 school year, according to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel. The council doesn't count high school students who took part in shorter study-abroad programs, an option a growing number of teens are choosing. That's mainly because they want to stay in their home schools for Advanced Placement classes and college entrance tests, says Debra Woolley, marketing director for cultural exchange program AFS-USA.

Despite some students' fears about a foreign experience getting in the way of their college preparation, she says, teens who live abroad are in demand at colleges. "These students have proven themselves of living away from home, of making sound decisions," Woolley says. Each organization that runs study-abroad experiences offers programs that last for different lengths of time. Each has its own application process, which will include questions meant to assess whether your teen is ready to spend a long time in a new country.

The Right Kind of Teen

Deciding whether a teen is ready to spend part of his high school career away from home and family isn't an exact science. But there are certain traits students need to be successful.

  • Flexible. Being an exchange student isn't just about living thousands of miles from home. These teens have to move in with a new family, are probably going to have to learn a new language, and will have to find their way around a new town, figure out how to survive in a new school and make new friends.
  • Curious and open-minded. Being an exchange student is all about trying new things, Angst says. Teens who study abroad need to be eager to explore their new surroundings and learn more about the people they meet. "To seek to understand, rather than to judge, becomes the bottom line," Angst says.
  • Hardworking in school. Imagine how hard it is for an English-speaking teen to learn calculus in Arabic or Japanese! The extra difficulty that comes with taking classes taught in a new language, at a new kind of school, means students have to work much harder than they would at home. That's why Joe Roma, director of study abroad for Ayusa Global Youth Exchange, says it's best for teens to study abroad if their grades are in the middle of the pack. "The students who are at the high end of the range tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves," he explains. "An A student is probably going to get Ds on program."
  • Able to overcome obstacles. Students who apply to AFS-USA programs can expect to answer questions like, "Give us a situation in which you've failed and how you worked through that."
  • Self-confident. Teens who believe in themselves can handle the difficulties they'll encounter as exchange students.
  • Going for the right reasons. Some teens see a study-abroad adventure as a way to escape from problems with family or friends. They're not likely to have a good experience. Ayusa likes to see students who see overseas living as a way to become more independent and broaden how they see the world. "I really want a student who understands that they're going overseas as a cultural ambassador," Roma says.

Deciding to study overseas is a big step for you and your teen to make, but many can handle the challenge. "A student who expresses that they're interested in this is probably ready for it," Woolley says. It's hard to lend your child to a family in a new country for weeks or months at a time. But foreign exchange experiences turn teens into young adults who are more independent, adaptable and mature.  

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