Globe-Trotting Before Graduation

Traveling abroad is an eye-opening, educational journey.

Colleges, flush with cash in the 1980s, seized on that idea and expanded their study abroad offerings. Now, with high school students passport-ready, foreign exchange programs and area high schools are providing options to broaden cultural horizons for classroom credit.

“A Life-Changing Experience”

AFS is the granddaddy of student foreign exchange programs. Founded in 1914, the program has a worldwide volunteer network. Locally, Wilmette resident Beth Drucker is exchange coordinator for New Trier.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” says Drucker, a former exchange student host whose son is currently living with a German family. “Kids who are interested in an academic-year exchange are adventurous, they’re open to all of the possibilities of life.”

Helen Sweitzer’s son Taylor, a New Trier junior, fits that description: He’s living and studying in Switzerland. “He wanted a different school experience,” Sweitzer explains.

Being a Host Family

Offering to host an exchange student shouldn’t be taken lightly, Drucker counsels, though she welcomes all interested. “There is a thorough screening process—background checks, interviews,” she says. “The U.S. government has requirements, too. Good exchange programs, like AFS, offer support and training to potential host families, too, because you’re expected to treat the child as your own.”

For the Ullrich family of Winnetka, hosting German Philipp Roth provided their young son with a “pseudo-big brother,” but adjusting to a teenager at home was eye-opening.

“Let’s just say we got a crash course in what to expect from high school,” Gene says with a laugh. “But it’s been a win-win for everyone. Philipp has become part of our family.”

Foreign Language Immersion Programs

In addition to AFS, New Trier’s Athena Arvanitis, director of student life, works with multiple exchange programs, including Rotary International, to select students to attend NTHS.

“We recommend foreign exchange agencies because of the support those agencies provide the students, their families, and the host families,” she counsels.

While full-year programs are rare, many schools provide international travel opportunities through foreign language departments. Evanston Township, Glenbrook North, Highland Park, New Trier, North Shore Country Day and Stevenson are among those offering language immersion trips.

“We have about 100 kids travel annually,” says Evanston’s Kathy Pino.

At Stevenson, which annually hosts a handful of exchange students, Dean of Students Paul Weil says about 85 kids will travel abroad through school-sponsored programs. “Our trips include a mix of hotel and home stay,” he says.


To learn more about being a host family and student foreign exchange programs, call your local high school. You can reach Beth Drucker, the New Trier exchange coordinator and an AFS volunteer, at Or contact Frannie Snediker, a local representative with Compass-USA, which is looking for families interested in hosting summer students. You can reach Frannie at or 847-668-9196.

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