Being a Foreign Exchange Student – More Than Just Fun

When I was in 5th grade I heard somebody talk about foreign exchange students in the USA. I never knew that you could do such a thing and became interested. After talking to my English teacher I decided to ask my parents what they thought about the idea of me living in a different country and going to school there for one year.

Naturally they were not thrilled and quickly dismissed it, thinking I was young, I would change my mind soon. I didn’t. Year after year I bugged them about it and finally, they agreed to talk to my teacher. With new information they once again decided not to talk about it anymore but I was persistent.

Eventually, in 10th grade they went to an informative event with me and after a few more months agreed to let me go. Things were very hectic then. I didn’t have much time to get all my transcripts, notes from teachers, essays, letters of recommendation and shots in order but only a few months later I found myself on a flight to California.

I was supposed to stay with a young family, he was a teacher, she worked at a fast food restaurant, and they had a little daughter. I was super excited, they seemed very nice but soon I found out that they were told I would only stay for two weeks, while we were told I would stay for the entire year. There were a lot of issues within a very short amount of time.


The area representative my exchange company had set me up with wasn’t doing a very good job. She simply lied to families about the circumstances of the students’ stay in order to get her money. The family of course did not get paid.

I was told I would move to another family for two days until my “real” family came back from vacation. My host-father drove me to school, all my luggage packed and ready to be picked up by my area rep before she would come to pick me up from school and take me to the temporary family.

I waited. And waited. And waited. With no cell phone at that time, no idea how to reach my area rep and knowing that my first family had left to go on vacation after dropping me off at school I was scared, sitting in the parking lot of my school. All of my belongings were God knows where. All my money, my passport, everything.

Finally, after five agonizing hours my area rep showed up, telling me that one of her eight children had been pitching a fit. She quickly took me to the temporary family, unloaded my luggage and was gone again.

Two days past. Then two weeks. Nobody had heard from her or that supposed family that had been waiting for me. The family I was with was struggling. The mother had just gotten divorced and lived alone with her two youngest children, two teenage boys.

I will never forget my first meal with that family: macaroni with mayo and black olives. It was all they had. The mother even offered me her bedroom while she took the couch in the living room. They didn’t have much but what they had they were more than happy to share with me and I quickly got attached to such a loving family. And they to me.

We finally figured out that there was no other family, my area rep was fired and I now had nobody who was in charge of me. As if there really had been somebody to begin with. I contacted my parents who agreed to send me more money so I could help out the family that had welcomed me into their lives – against company policy.

I didn’t care. They hadn’t done their part by providing a competent area representative for me or a family who actually wanted an exchange student, so why should we not take matters into our own hands now? And so we did.

I officially moved in with my “new” family in late October and continued to stay there for the remainder of my year in June as a foreign exchange student in California. The entire time my “mom” slept on the couch.

Even with all the ups and downs I encountered, that year was one of the best years of my life and I am forever grateful to my parents for making it happen as well as for my loving host-family, who took me in as a daughter – a family I am still in touch with 12 years later.

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