My name is June, and I come from Norway. I’m an Aspect Foundation exchange student living with a wonderful family in Illinois. I decided to put together a small, quick guide on how you should handle high school in the USA as an exchange student. Remember that there is no blueprint for such things, so this is all based on my experience of my school. However, I hope it helps whether you go to a big city school or a small village school!
Be nice, kind and honest
This is great advice in general, for all aspects of life. But as an exchange student, it is especially important. Be a person people like to talk to and hang out with. Some people ask if American high school is like the movies when it comes to the popular, bad, intimidating kids with expensive cars, big muscles or always perfect hair. No, it’s not like that. The “popular” students, if I can call them that, are the ones who are nice and kind to everyone. If you are nice, you get friends, and when you have many friends, you seem popular. They are just ordinary people that you can talk to even if you are a band geek or a nerd. I’m not saying that being popular in high school is all you should focus on, but being liked because you are kind and honest can not hurt!
Create variety in the weekdays
High school can become dull and boring unless YOU make it fun. Every day with the same subjects, the same places and the same people in the hallways. Try the best you can to create some variety. Try a new type of gum, vary your school lunch, take different routes to your classrooms. If you don’t have permanent seats, try sitting in different places and using different shoes (you will not believe how different your day will feel if you put on boots instead sneakers one day!)
Don’t be afraid of other high school students
Most people who start at a new school – especially in another country – think, “What should I do if I don’t make any friends!” But the simple fact is that people are curious to meet you when you are new – so strike while the iron is hot! You must take the initiative; say hello to people in the hallway, even if you only remember their face and not their name. It can be overwhelming with so many new people who know who you are, while you have no idea about them, but just smile, and say “Heeeey yooou!” Meanwhile, do not forget that it is easy for them to remember one new person (with a mini-celebrity status). In addition, you will gain a wider circle of potential friends if you are friendly with everybody. Don’t focus on one group of people only, but hang out with several different people. Also, remember that you don’t want to get in the wrong group of friends – if your host parents tell you to stop hanging out with certain circles of people, do what they say.
Join an after-school activity
You have no idea how sad I am that I didn’t have time to play football. But to be a member of show choir is one of the best decisions I have made. This is by far the easiest way to meet new people, acquire friends and feel comfortable in a new place. It helps to be in a group, because it makes it easier to avoid the feeling of being alone and the feeling of not being accepted. It keeps you busy, it’s fun and you become good friends with many people.
Choose fun subjects
As an exchange student, you may have only a few subjects you are required to take for your home country requirements and some other classes that you need to take, like English and American history. Other than that, choose fun subjects! As an exchange student you haven’t come to another country to sit at home doing homework. Ceramics, guitar, choir, speech and gym can be a wonderful break from the rest of the school day. In those hours you can socialize, get to know people and enjoy your time.
Rumors spread quickly
Think about what you say before you say it aloud! Rumors spread like wildfire, especially if you end up at a school with less than 600 students, but even at my school, with 1,500 students who seem like they don’t care, you have to think about what you say out loud. I would advise you to not ramble on about life in your home country, especially not about parties or how many boyfriends or girlfriends you’ve had in the past year. You don’t want to start your year (where you have very many social rules to learn) with rumors about you. Be careful who you share secrets with: it could be the person you thought was a good friend who does not feel the same. My advice is to not talk trash about anyone, at any time. Be genuine and kind, and not bust out with the first thing you think, and then you’ll probably be safe.
Don’t only hang out with the other exchange students
In my area, there are about 15 exchange students, including me. We are almost in the same situation, so it’s hard not to become well-known. Debbie from Belgium is one of my best friends here, but we try not to spend so much time together at school. If you do this, it is easy to get caught there and after a while it will be difficult to get away. I did not, after all, come to the U.S. to speak Norwegian with other Norwegians. You are coming here to be an American…so be with Americans, then!
If there is anything that exchange students dread, it is the first day at lunch. “Where should I sit? Who should I sit with? What if I’m sitting all alone in the corner of the gym while I eat a greasy cardboard slice of pizza!” Fortunately for me, I had show choir just before lunch, and they invited me with them to their lunch table, which I am extremely grateful for! If I had not been so lucky, I would have simply asked a nice person if I could sit with them. Don’t worry too much or be too shy, because you just have to reach out, and you will be taken in with open arms by the Americans. And by the way, just prepare yourself for the nasty, unhealthy and greasy school lunch. Maybe you should consider packing your own?
Nothing should stop you from having a great year!
This is the only opportunity you have to go to an American high school. Therefore it’s important to make the best of it. You will never get this opportunity again and I can promise you that you don’t want to go home and regret that you did not take the opportunities given to you. Do not let people, tough situations, and even yourself get in the way of you getting a year you will remember for the rest of your life – and the year you will look back on with a smile. Nothing is more important than that!
You have an exciting year ahead of you! I hope this blog post can be of help, and I wish all future exchange students lots of luck!
Written by June from Norway