The experience of being an exchange student combines rewarding moments of celebrating new cultures with the challenges of assimilation. Several exchange students commented on the learning curves and cultural rifts that came with going to school in a faraway place.

Since 2016, exchange programs have experienced a 2.3 percent increase, with the United States annually welcoming over 30,000 high school exchange students from diverse global backgrounds, as reported by the STS Foundation. According to NBC News, the majority of international students studying in the United States are from China, South Korea and Vietnam.

Emma Zhang, an exchange student from Kazakhstan studying at Rocky Mountain High School in North Carolina, shared her thoughts on what was surprising to her in the American education system. 

I didn’t know that sports play such a significant role in American society. I had no clue that competitions would be that serious,” Zhang said, emphasizing an invigorated sense of school spirit that she had not witnessed before.  

Ivan Kozozoev, a current exchange student at University School of East Tennessee State University, spoke about his experience grappling with a new language. For him, heightened exposure to English and different cultures has actually helped him integrate his academic coursework into everyday life. 

“Every day, I learn more about English and acquire knowledge in natural sciences, business and U.S. history. It’s an incredible experience that not only provides me with knowledge but also helps to improve my English every day,” Kozozoev said. 

He also mentioned that among the more noticeable cultural differences he has encountered in America is in religion, even within Christianity. Upon arriving in the state of Tennessee, Ivan described the area as a Bible Belt, with various branches of Christianity vividly represented. 

Nargyz Bitimbay ’20, an alumna of Future Leaders Exchange program, which provides merit-based scholarships for high school students to spend one academic year in the U.S, shared her adventure by studying abroad as a period of personal growth. She said that her host family members were energetic people who enjoyed physical activity, community and the holiday seasons.

“Long walks, hiking up to the mountains, weekly ice skating, watching figure skating and rooting for my favorite sportsmen are a huge part of me now,” she said. 

For future exchange students, Nargyz has several pieces of advice: to not be scared to approach people, since making friends is a gigantic part of the exchange year. 

She sometimes regrets that she could not make more friends because she was too shy. It always seemed to her that there was a lot of time until the end of the exchange year — when in reality, time passed much more quickly.

“I was just stretching the time that I didn’t really have,” she said, stressing the importance of being open to new beginnings, friendships and even sometimes to short-term challenges.

Elizabeth Busch, a program coordinator in Michigan, talked about her responsibilities for exchange students. Her role involves making sure that the exchange students feel comfortable in their host community and are having an enriching experience.  

“Exchange students are some of the bravest people I know. When they are still young, they travel to the other side of the world, leaving everything familiar to them into the complete unknown,” she shared. 

On the other hand, welcoming an exchange student into one’s home and community extends benefits to individuals who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience such cultural differences, according to Damira Kassymbayeva ’15, alumna of Future Leaders Exchange Program and a staff member of American Councils. Exchange students often serve as excellent ambassadors, offering unique insights into their countries, she said.

In a world filled with misunderstandings and conflicts, exchange programs play a crucial role in improving intercultural communication and understanding, contributing to a more harmonious global environment,” Kassymbayeva said.

Moreover, Kassymbayeva added that cultural exchange programs help individuals from across cultural backgrounds to cultivate international relationships and break down stereotypes.

“Students can be both introverts or extroverts, but as long as they are willing to open their minds to changes, they can be good exchange students,” she said.

The stories of these exchange students weave a tapestry of growth, resilience and cultural enrichment.