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Writer's Block: It was a very good year
Chrolli, Verbotene Liebe, Olli, Christian
Which year would you consider the best of your life so far?

This is one question I can answer with a fairly small degree of hesitation. I spent a year as an exchange student in the States (2004/2005), and it was just fantastic. I lived with a wonderful host family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and got to spend a very interesting year at an American high school. Though I had already lived in the States as a child, it was a very different perspective seeing it as a teenager.

The thing about an exchange year is that you learn a lot about yourself. You have to learn to be independent, because, though you live with a family, you stand on your own, you represent your country, your exchange organisation and any other cause you might be affiliated with. You also learn loads about a new culture, and new people. You get to make new friends, you get to have a second family. The truly interesting bit is that, when you spend a year abroad, you discover a lot about your own country as well. You see your own culture at a distance, which can be immensely useful in so many ways.

I went abroad with the organisation AFS, which I can heartily recommend to anyone. Easily the largest and most popular exchange organisation, it is based almost solely on volunteer work (the exception being a few executive jobs, which require a full work week, and therefore a salary). AFS does not pay its host families, so you don't have to worry about situations (which have been known to arise with other profit-oriented exchange organisations, such as EF) where you're sent to a family that has only taken you in for the extra cash. AFS is also extremely thorough in their research of potential host families and students, meaning that they require both them and you to sit for interviews, and submit thorough applications. This does not mean that they are in any way elitist. It just means that they want to avoid sending out students who won't do the work, or students who aren't ready for a year abroad, and that they want to avoid sending students to families that are not equipped to receive them. It makes you feel very safe, going out.

AFS, in most countries, also has orientation camps during the course of the year, where you meet other students in your area, and talk about and process your experiences, learn ways to adjust, avoid major culture-shock, adapt to your host family, language, etc.

A year as an exchange student is a year one never forgets. You make friends from all over the world, you get to go be your own person and experience something that is unique. And witnessing another way of working, going to school, eating, thinking, acting, another set of social standards, rules, taboos, etiquette, different religions, everything, makes you more open to differences between people, nationalities, religious views, orientations, which, in turn, makes it easier for you to understand how other people think.

AFS's goal? World peace. Seems a stretch, and it is, of course, but the idea is that you don't wage war on your friends, and if you have friends and understandings all over the world, well, it makes it a lot more difficult to kill each other. It teaches you to accept the fact that we are all different, and that there is something outside of what you know, what you see, every day. It's as AFS'ers say it: "It's not good, it's not bad, it's just different."

So spend a year abroad! I did, and it was one of the very best decisions of my life.


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