Home away from home: Exchange students experience highs and lows overseas

Maja Caye on a snowy mountain range
Snow remained a familiar fixture to Maja Caye while living as an exchange student in Sweden.
Photo By: Submitted

You walk into a long, brick building you have never been to before. All around you, kids are slamming lockers and rushing to class. They reminisce about their summer together and smile at the familiar faces. Only you don’t know your way around, don’t know who to sit with. You don’t even know where to begin.

Exchange students experience all of this unknown in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home, in a language they don’t speak, a culture they don’t know, and with a family they have never met.

“The first day of school when you come up and you know nobody, that is really stressful,” said Julien Hainaut, an 18-year-old exchange student who has been at Minneapolis Washburn for six months. “And you don’t really speak the language and everybody asks you questions, and … the first lunch, you’re like, ‘OK, now what do I do?’”

Originally from Belgium, Hainaut always knew he wanted to travel to the United States.

Fellow Washburn junior Sydney Corbeil-Wild enjoys a meal with her host family in Tudela, Spain.
Photo By: Submitted

We talked with them as if they were part of the family. We were their host mom and dad, and the kids were their sister and brother. They were included as much as they absolutely wanted to be. — Erin Thompson

“I always dream of going to USA. Since I was 10, I told my mom, ‘Mom, I will go to USA,’” he said.

Not all students who study abroad held a childhood dream of traveling elsewhere. Sydney Corbeil-Wild, a 17-year-old junior at Washburn, decided to live abroad only four months before her departure date. She has been living in Tudela, Spain for the past five months.

Corbeil-Wild decided on Spain because she was tired of the “same old things at home” and wanted to step outside her comfort zone. Despite anticipating some adjustments, she didn’t expect everything in her life to be turned upside down.

“I miss laughing really hard at something, because I haven’t laughed really hard for a long time,” Corbeil-Wild said. “I miss mac and cheese and my dog. I miss being able to easily talk to people about how I’m feeling. Easy connections.”


For Corbeil-Wild, the largest difference is the social aspect.

“Kids my age go out until, like 6 in the morning. That would never happen (in the US). They have way more freedom (in Spain). There’s more trust in kids,” she said.

Maja Caye, also a junior at Washburn, had to re-adjust after spending the 2012-13 school year in Sweden. Now that she is back in the United States, she finds herself missing the versatility of life in Europe.

“When I first came back, I was super excited to be with my friends and family. I got back to doing all the normal things, like going to the beach with my friends,” Caye said.

“But as time goes on, it’s really hard, because every single day I think about my year away and what I would be doing right now in Sweden. Like, it would be me on the subway, or me on the train, or me hanging out with my best friend, Alice, who I really miss.”

According to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, 1,381 foreign students came to Minnesota during the 2012-13 school year. Data shows that the top countries sending students to the United States are Germany, China, Brazil, South Korea, Italy and Spain. That places Minnesota fourth in the country for number of students hosted. With 104 students traveling to other countries, Minnesota is also second in outbound students.

Caye said observing and talking about diversity with fellow classmates gave her a greater appreciation for cultures outside her own.

“My friend from Sudan, she was there because her dad is the ambassador for Sudan. Whenever I went over to her house after school, she would, at certain times, put on a full black headdress and pray right in front of me,” Caye said.

“I would just be sitting on my bed texting and she’d be praying. It was so cool. You learn to adapt to everyone’s cultures.”


Caye is originally from Sweden and lived with her extended family while she was there—
whereas most exchange students, including Hainaut and Corbeil-Wild, have no idea what their family will be like until they step off the plane.

Some are an immediate match, while others take awhile to get adjusted. A few even end up switching host families because of communication or personality problems.

Erin Thompson, a Minneapolis mother, has been hosting exchange students for the past four years. Her first exchange student, Balazs from Hungary, came to her home somewhat unexpectedly.

“We got a call in October (from the coordinator at her son’s school) that a guy from Hungary was here and it didn’t work out with the family he was staying with,” Thompson said. “The mother wasn’t feeding him much food and he needed a place right away. So we thought, yeah, let’s do it.”

After hosting Balazs for a year, Thompson and her family got hooked on the hosting experience. Since then, they’ve welcomed two more exchange students: Masha, 16, from Poland, and Yurong, 18, from China.

“We definitely make them feel really at home, loved, and part of our lives … We talked with them as if they were part of the family. We were their host mom and dad, and the kids were their sister and brother. They were included as much as they absolutely wanted to be,” Thompson said.

Hainaut and Corbeil-Wild will be in their new “homes” for the next four months. While they can’t predict the future, they both realize it will have a lasting impact on their lives.

“It’s good preparation for college next year. I think I will try to keep in touch with the friends I will have here,” Hainaut said. “It’s a pretty amazing experience to meet a lot of people, to learn about a different culture.”


Riding a big yellow school bus felt like a piece of the American dream to exchange student Ninis Widyaningrum. Yet despite the new experiences, life overseas can pose challenges. Read her personal essay.