Is Your Teen Begging to Study Abroad? Check Out This Affordable Option

Study abroad
Photo courtesy of Ellesse Farner

Ellesse Farner didn’t have a typical senior year of high school.

Instead, she moved to Brazil, attended a Portuguese school, lived with local families and traveled around the country.

And here’s the shocking part: Her year-long trip didn’t leave her family broke.

That’s because she traveled through the Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange Program.

The Rotary Club has a reputation for community service. The name might conjure images of picking up litter, hosting canned food drives or mentoring children — all classic Good Samaritan acts.

But Farner, now 19, took another route. She took advantage of the club’s international presence to support a trip abroad.

How the Rotary Youth Exchange Program Works

Farner heard about the program through her school and realized, as a high school student between 15 and 18.5 years old, she qualified.

She had two options: the three-week summer program or the year-long program.

Her district chairman, Doug Lobel of District 6950 in Florida, highly encourages the year-long program. Rather than just getting a taste of a country, students enjoy a more immersive experience during the longer exchange.

Farner opted for the year-long program. It seemed daunting at first, but after a string of interviews and free weekend orientations, she was accepted and assigned to spend the following year in Brazil.

Her parents, who were initially reluctant to send their daughter away for a year, were also interviewed for the program. As they learned more about the opportunity, they became more accepting of the idea of letting her live in another country for such a long period of time.

Before she left, Farner and her family hosted Andressa, a Brazilian student who became part of their family for six months. During her time with the family, she briefed Farner on the country, the language and the culture.

Then it was Farner’s turn to go abroad.

What Do Students Get Out of the Rotary Youth Exchange?

After nine months abroad, Farner had a lot to add to her life resume — and her work/college one, too.

She lived with multiple families, attended a Portuguese school and traveled around Brazil. She made friends from around the world and has newfound independence.

Because Farner is “young for her grade” — her birthday is in September — she was able to participate in the program after her high school graduation. Essentially, she received an extra year of high school — just in a different language.

Students who hadn’t yet graduated would return to the States right where they left off but with an extra year of international schooling.

And although they might be “behind” when it comes to graduation requirements, the benefits have the potential to make up for that — and then some.

Lobel described one student who graduated high school and wasn’t accepted into her college of choice. Because she was still within the exchange program’s age restrictions, she applied and spent a year abroad.

When she returned, she picked up the college application process again. This time, she was accepted into her top-choice school — on a full-ride scholarship.

How Much Does the Rotary Youth Exchange Cost?

The answer varies by club district and state.

One thing is for sure: Students are guaranteed free food, because host families are expected to feed their adopted exchange student.

For Lobel’s district, the three-week summer program costs $500. The year-long trip Ellesse took cost $5,200, plus a couple of extra fees.

How does that compare to other study abroad programs?

Lobel says there are about 30 other exchange programs for high school students in the States. These, however, are not two-way exchanges, meaning you don’t get be a host. And they’re not cheap, either — they can cost between $18,000 and $25,000.

Comparatively, the $5,200 Farner paid covered airfare, medical insurance and a spending allowance she received once she was abroad, though it didn’t cover everything.

It’s also worth considering the built-in travel advisor who works behind the scenes to match you with a country and family — and handles wrangling the cheapest flights.

Farner’s family was responsible for some fixed costs, such as an $80 passport and a $250 student visa.

Once abroad, Wanda Farner said her daughter didn’t ask for a lot of spending money at first.

“She didn’t have many friends at that point,” she said, laughing. “It got real expensive when she made friends” — and ate more meals out.

Farner also had the option to travel within the country. During her summer break, she took a month-long trip to northwest Brazil. The program, organized by Rotary, cost an additional $2,000 and included transportation, housing and some meals.

How to Save Money on the Rotary Youth Exchange

With sweet, sweet hindsight, Farner looks back and sees how she could have saved money during her time abroad. Although she doesn’t have any regrets, she can dole out some advice for future Rotary Youth Exchange participants.

1. Ask About a Scholarship

In some districts, students can receive a travel grant through the Rotary program.

Lobel says these scholarships are need-based and students are hand-selected on a case-by-case basis.

2. Hold a Fundraiser

Fundraisers are encouraged to help cover the program’s fees. Lobel takes it a step further and requires students in his district to hold one.

Farner held a small fundraiser where she raffled off a facial (courtesy of her mother, who is an esthetician) and brought in $100. Other students dive in, working full time to raise money before their trips.

3. Eat with Your Host Family

Although eating out is a social event and allows you to fully experience the culture, it’s not necessary.

Farner says she could have saved money on snacks and meals by eating with her homestay family, since they were obligated to feed her.

4. Travel with the Family

In addition to the month-long trip Farner took, she also traveled with her Brazilian family. They took day or weekend trips to show her different parts of the country.

In retrospect, she could have saved the extra $2,000 she laid out for her month-long trip to northwest Brazil and still had the opportunity to travel for less money.

5. Opt to Take the Three-Week Trip

The three-week summer program costs $500 — less than a tenth of the cost of the full year. If you’re interested in just a taste of life abroad, there’s nothing wrong with this option.

It’s also worth noting that when you have a student visa, you cannot get a job abroad. Lobel says it’s OK to babysit for the homestay family or perform odd jobs around the house to earn some cash, but holding another job is illegal.

Was the Youth Exchange Worth the Money?

Farner — and her parents — say yes, the trip was worth every penny.

After spending a year in a Brazilian high school, she’s fluent in Portuguese. She also has friends living across the world, and she’s gained a new sense of independence as she begins to apply for colleges.

That’s another perk: Farner is eligible to receive a college tuition stipend through the program. Who knows? Maybe she’ll get a full ride to her dream school!

And with a solid resume (companies love seeing study-abroad experiences), she was hired for a summer job to raise some funds to pay her parents back.

Want to Try Your Own Exchange?

Although students might hear about the opportunity through their high schools, like Farner did, the best way to get more information is to contact your local Rotary club.

The website encourages interested parties to apply six to 12 months before departure, but Farner says the sooner, the better. It took her nearly a year to sort out the details.

And then… boas viagens! (That’s “good travels” in Portuguese.)

Your turn: Did you study abroad? How did it benefit you?

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. After recently completing graduate school, she focuses on saving money — and surviving the move back in with her parents.