Exchange students at West Ranch


Lucia Lehmann and Gillian Bui

   West Ranch is home to many diverse students looking to expand their knowledge on the world. 

Some students, currently at West Ranch, decided to leave their European home country to come to the U.S. for a year and familiarize themselves with the experience of being an exchange student.

   The organization Education First brought four exchange students to West Ranch last year: Lea Himmelbauer from Austria, Ilaria Ripa from Italy, and Amy Otto and I, Lucia Lehmann, from Germany. I arrived in the U.S. in July of 2021 and just a month later I was able to meet the other exchange students who I would later share my experience with.

   Education First, or EF, is an international travel company that was founded in 1965 in Sweden which specializes in language training, educational travel and cultural exchange. 

   A foreign exchange student program helps high school and college students travel to a new country to live and study. An exchange student typically stays in the host country for a period of 6-12 months with a host family; however, students have the option to stay for one semester at a time.

   There are many different reasons why students like us wanted to become exchange students. The idea of immersing myself in a different culture was charming, and living with a host family and seeing how the American lifestyle differs from my life in Germany was even more interesting. Moreover, my curiosity about going to a new school and taking new classes was rising. For Amy Otto, it was more of a self-growth aspect. She stated, “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, improve my English and become more independent. I was also looking forward to meeting new people and making new friends.”

Amy Otto and Lucia Lehmann at Halloween Spirit Week

   To become an exchange student and travel to a foreign country, we had to fulfill certain requirements and apply to the program. I was interested in the organization, so I had to undergo a meeting with EF ambassadors, participate in an interview to determine my English level and fill out dozens of documents and papers about myself. In addition, I had to go see a doctor in order to receive all of my required shots. My teachers from my German school were asked to write a recommendation and my grade point average had to be better than 2.0, which translates into an A/B average in the American education system.

   For Lea Himmelbauer, it was a similar experience. She explained, “I started with doing research and found the organization EF and liked it, so I decided to go with that. I attended a meeting and my parents liked it too so I started the application process, which took me about a month.”

Lea Himmelbauer

   Host families have to apply for the program as well. All participants in the exchange program are carefully screened by EF. They personally visit the host families at home and get to know all of the family members, making sure that they are genuinely interested in the cultural exchange. In the end, you can’t pick your host family, they pick you. Potential host families have access to all the students’ profiles and can filter them by sex, home country or duration of stay. For me, personally, I can say that my host family is a perfect match for me, it feels like I have always been a part of their family. This school year, from September to January, Ilaria Ripa from Italy  was also living with my host family. 

 Sometimes, exchange students don’t get along with their host family, and they are able to change it. Every student has an assigned local coordinator they have to contact for the change to be made.

Ilaria Ripa and Lucia Lehmann in Chicago

   Victoria Serragiotto, a junior at West Ranch, and her family were hosting Amy Otto from Germany for the last semester. She said, “My experience with hosting an exchange student was amazing, I’m really glad that we did it. It was not the way I expected it to be, I expected it to be a little different, but it turned out great and in the end, Amy is like our sister.” 

   Her family decided to host since Victoria’s mother was an exchange student herself when she was younger. They thought they would make the perfect host family because they are a family with two kids and do many things together. Serragiotto explained, “We are very involved in the school life and culture here so we can give the best for a foreign student. Amy was a great match, and we had a really good time.”

Amy Otto and Victoria Serragiotto at a football game


   When asked about how they like West Ranch, all of the exchange students agree on one point: the great variety and choice of classes, which is new to us since we can’t choose our classes in European schools. West Ranch makes it possible for students to choose the classes they like and are interested in, in order to prepare them for a future career. However, in Germany, I have to take every class every year in order to graduate. 

   Amy Otto, who was a part of the cheer team last semester, answered that cheer was by far the most exciting thing about West Ranch. Lea Himmelbauer added, “I also really like the school spirit and that there are so many activities like sports, extra curricular activities and school dances. Unfortunately, European schools don’t have any of that.”

   Leaving our home country and coming here to the U.S. allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in the culture and see the similarities and differences between the two. Both Himmelbauer and Otto noticed the differences in transportation between their home countries and the U.S. 

   “The U.S. is very different from living in Germany. The public transportation in Germany is so much better because you can literally go anywhere, and in the US, you can’t really go anywhere without a car,” Otto said. 

   For Himmelbauer, these differences presented themselves in the form of housing, one difference being that the U.S. has a land size and population significantly larger than that of Austria. “Here, everything is far more spread out and people own houses whereas in Austria, people live in apartments. What I really like though is that the people here are very friendly and easy to talk to,” she expressed. 

   For many of us, this is the longest time we have stayed away from our families, much less from our homes. Living in a different country presents its struggles, one being homesickness. 

“Yes, of course I miss my family, but I talk to them once a week,” Himmelbauer said. 

   The organization EF recommends exchange students to only talk to their family once a week, since they know that students struggle even more with homesickness when they call their parents more regularly.

   In the beginning of the year, I experienced so many new things, like traveling to other cities and states with my host family and making new friends at school that I sometimes forgot about my family at home. But from time to time, I missed them more. I have gained a different perspective on my lifestyle.

   Exchange students all over the world use their experience to gain a more worldly perspective and enhance their English skills. After studying abroad for a semester, Otto states that she is not sure yet if she wants to come back to study at a college, but she already knows that she will come back for Prom this spring. She didn’t want to miss out on this unique event with her new friends and her host sisters. As for Himmelbauer, she plans on going to college in Austria for physics or medicine, but might want to live in the U.S. someday. I personally think I will go to college in Germany, since it is free, but I will definitely regularly come back to visit my friends and host family. 

   As a final thought, I can say that the experience of being an exchange student has taught me so much, and I am glad that it is not over yet as I have a few months left. I grew as a person and became more independent. Living in the U.S. for a year and learning about American culture and life was and still is very exciting and interesting. I highly recommend going on an exchange year to anyone thinking about studying abroad for a while. It will bring you so much joy, and you will get to experience amazing things you don’t want to miss out on.