Recently, I was interviewed by the delightful Executive Director, Dottie Lipinski, of the Chicago HOST, a local high school exchange program which welcomes French exchange students for home stay visits and chaperones American teens for their own summer adventures in the south of France.

College Planning Expert Answers Tough Questions On The Real Value Of International Exchange

Mike McKinnon of College Planners of America has worked with over 1,300 young people and personally visited over 550 admissions offices over the last 25 years.

Dottie: How do Admissions Offices look at international travel?

Mike: Every Admissions Office weighs travel differently, but consider this: Every mid-level and top tier university in this country offers courses and semesters abroad. Many of them even have campuses overseas! Yes, the market demands it, but even more importantly, we live in a global economy and colleges know that international experience is foundational to a well-rounded, 21st-century education.

Dottie: What do you believe are the three most important benefits of international travel for teens?

1. Seeing another environment and how students from other countries value education (often much more than students do in the US) can result in the American teen really buckling down and focusing on their education once they’re home. Exchange experiences can be especially potent for the underachieving student who plans to attend college. Suddenly, they have a much broader view of why things matter and where their education could take them.

2. The teen starts to realize how education opens doors. They will meet young people their age who can speak English, German AND French. Fluently. Seemingly trivial experiences can rapidly expand a young person’s horizons. It becomes real that there’s a wonderful world out there, just waiting to be explored.

3. For a lot of young adults, living with a host family may be the first time they’ve ever had to share a room with anyone, much less a stranger! A one or two week stay not only makes a teen a better person; it can make them much better at coping with and adjusting to new situations in the future. This is eye opening stuff. And it can’t come from a textbook. It comes from living, working and playing in another part of the world, as a local.

Dottie: Why is international travel without parents important?
Mike: Going abroad for teens is huge, and particularly when done without Mom and Dad. The value is in growing up, seeing the world (often for the first time) with a this-is-MY-life perspective, and having to make some decisions for themselves (without a parent choosing or setting up everything for them). They’re forced to cope in unfamiliar situations. And going away for college gives the same experience to a lot of students. Traveling internationally without Mom and Dad just gives a teen a valuable head start!

Dottie: With the college resume, how does adding an exchange program differ from listing an overnight camp stay?
Mike: In my opinion, sending a young person away to camp in summer can give them a good foundation of personal skills and self-knowledge. International travel goes a substantial step further and equips teens with an excellent foundation. As a result, College Admissions offices give exchanges much more weight than local camp experiences. Here’s why. With international youth travel, the teen leaves the family cocoon, is forced to negotiate an unfamiliar environment and culture, and has to make important choices (vs. being told where to head for their next basket-weaving session). Colleges know that parts of the international adventure are not that much different than navigating a campus that first year.

-Mike McKinnon, College Planners of America, Downers Grove, IL, Collegecost.Org