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Young adventurers – are you up for the challenge of studying abroad?

May 21, 2013
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A picture postcard view of Zurich, the commercial centre of Switzerland

Are you a senior high school student, or know someone who is, that would be keen to take up the challenge of living and studying in a foreign country?

I’ve previously written about taking a gap year to live and work overseas in a culturally unfamiliar environment. But there are also opportunities for high school students to go on a student exchange programme.

A cultural exchange can change your life

My team leader’s sister, Rachel McCarthy, had always wanted to go on an exchange, and says her experience in Switzerland “was the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life so far.”

Now living in Melbourne she says the course of her life changed significantly as a result of the exchange.

“I feel like my exchange equipped me with the maturity to make decisions on my study options, which resulted in me changing my career and study goals in a big way. I became more aware of the similarities between cultures, rather than the differences and this ultimately led me to doing a Master of Arts in Islamic Studies, and working in the community sector.”

Coming into contact with ‘fun’ exchange students inspires the dream

Rachel’s interest in doing an exchange was sparked off in Napier where she remembers the “fun exchange students from Europe and South America” that came to her high school. Determined to experience it for herself, in 1999 she made her application to AFS New Zealand, a not-for-profit volunteer-based organisation that sends 100s of young Kiwis overseas every year.

The AFS cultural exchange programme offers high school students a chance to study in a country of their choice for up to a year, and aims to create “peace through friendship and cultural understanding”.

“I was 17 years old and applied for an AFS exchange before heading to university. Switzerland was my first choice of country.It was at the centre of Europe, and the United Nations was there too, which I thought was pretty cool.”

Money doesn’t have to be a barrier

Working steadily at after-school jobs she grew her savings and, with help from her parents and assistance from the RSA and Rotary, she reached the $13,000 needed for the 12-month exchange.  Rachel says:

“Some people may think that money is a barrier. My parents certainly helped, but if you are willing to do an after-school job, or look into funding from organisations like Rotary, or apply for an AFS Scholarship, then I think it is accessible to everyone.”

From small town Napier to Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city

Relocating to the opposite side of the world to a country known for its snowy peaks, and where the trains run like clockwork, Rachel also discovered she was far removed from the small high school she had known.

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The magnificent Swiss Alps

“The difference between high school in Switzerland and New Zealand was huge. I came to a large, affluent music and arts school in the centre of Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city.”

“Based in a gymnasium (high school that prepares students for university) school sometimes started at 8am and in winter we had to go in on Saturdays. I did all the same subjects as in New Zealand – maths, English, history, science, but the school had a focus on art and music, so I also learned the guitar and to paint.”

Learning the language a challenge which takes confidence…and practise

One of the biggest challenges facing Rachel was the language. German is the official language spoken in Zurich and Rachel had studied German only in the third form.

“I made it my priority in the beginning to not be afraid of making mistakes when speaking, and asked people to always talk to me in German even if it seemed like I didn’t understand. So after about six months, I became reasonably fluent.”

Though the challenges kept coming valuable skills were learned

Rachel was faced with other challenges too. For example, three months into her stay she found herself in the unfortunate position of being “homeless”!

Despite AFS New Zealand taking care of the administration connected with the exchange, such as the insurance, airfares and finding a host family to live with, (and having good support from AFS Switzerland), Rachel says it didn’t stop the  unexpected  from happening.

“Things didn’t work out with my initial host family for various reasons, and I had to make the decision to tell AFS that I wasn’t happy.”

But in hindsight it was a good decision because it wasn’t long before AFS Switzerland found another family to take her in, one in which a special bond developed.“I now consider my host family my own family – they even came to my brother’s wedding nine years after I left Switzerland.”

Rachel says it was through difficulties like these that she learned the valuable skills of resilience, independence and confidence, as well as learning to trust in her own intuition.

Be prepared to “put yourself out there”

Living with a host family is usually the best part of an exchange, but Rachel says your classmates can also be a very supportive.However, if this is to happen, you need to “put yourself out there”.

“I made some life-long friendships with my Swiss school friends but they didn’t come easily, mostly due to the language barrier. I had to put in a lot of time and effort not to feel like an outsider.” The best way to do this she says is by not taking yourself too seriously, accepting invitations to events and taking the time to share your New Zealand experience with people who are interested. “A lot of people thought it was a tropical island until I told them otherwise!”

But there were also the English speaking friends. “I made some really great exchange student friends from NZ, Australia, USA and Latin America almost straight away, and we spoke English together. They provided great support because we were all going through the same thing.”

Tasting the best the Swiss have to offer!

With friends and host sisters Rachel had plenty of opportunity to experience Switzerland’s highlights, like the factories laden with mountains of the best creamy Swiss chocolate that melted away all sign of homesickness, and the quaint Italian-influenced Maggia Valley in the south…

“I was there in the spring and summer, and it was warm, and the hills were dotted with very old small churches, and grottos. One of the reasons I loved it so much was the food, the plentiful supply of pizza and pasta!”

Time to say her goodbyes

The time for Rachel to reflect on her year abroad (she’d also fitted in a number of short trips to Austria, the South of France and Paris in that time) and return to New Zealand came round all too quickly.

Heart wrenching goodbyes were exchanged at the airport but were considerably softened by her family’s parting gift.

“My host family gave me 4 kgs of Lindt to take home with me when I left making sure that I wouldn’t miss my favourite chocolate any time soon!”

The chocolate may be long gone, but 12 years on, the effects of the exchange look to remain a positive influence in Rachel’s life. “It wasn’t until I moved away from New Zealand three years ago that I realised my ability to adapt to change, and new and difficult situations.”

To find out more about heading off overseas on a student exchange, and how to fund your adventure, check out the following websites:

Postscript advice from Rachel

“Before making the decision to go on an exchange you need to recognise that there will be a time of readjustment when you return to NZ.

“Friends of mine who returned to high school in NZ after their exchange in Switzerland felt like they had grown and developed more maturity than some of their friends, and this made it difficult to “fit” back into their friend group. It’s something to consider, but the exchange does equip you with the skills to adapt to situations more easily.”

  • If you have any insights from your own student exchange experience that you would like to share with others it would be great to hear from you.
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