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Youth For Understanding: An Australian High School Exchange

Australia ocean road
The 12 Apostles along Great Ocean Road. Photo by Lauren Fitzpatrick.

Growing up in suburbia U.S.A., I always wanted to experience another culture. The opportunity came when I was 15. After a few months of planning and preparing, I was ready to spend the second semester of my first year of high school as an exchange student in Australia.

I knew it would be a challenge to convince my parents that it was a good idea to send their 15-year-old daughter across the world, so I figured the best thing to do would be to plan out piece by piece every element that would go into this experience. How much would it cost? Where would the money come from? How long would I be abroad? When would I go? What would I miss back at home? Would I still graduate on time? I took all the facts to my parents and told them, "I won't take no for an answer." And they did not say no.

As a team, my parents and I then went to my school's counselor to seek help on which organization might be best suited for me. It boiled down to Youth For Understanding, which offered a wonderful scholarship that paid for half of my program.


Landing in Perth was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I realized then that there was no turning back. The family I would live with was waiting for me, and the new school year would start in only five days.

For the first time ever I had a younger sister. It took some time for us to get used to each other and to work out a healthy relationship, but it was definitely worth our effort. My host sister and I became close friends in a very short time.

The Catholic school I attended was also very different from my public school back in the States. The uniforms code was very strict. We were only allowed to wear one bracelet, which had to be a watch, and one necklace, which had to have a Holy Cross. I was quite intimidated at first, especially never having been to a new school—even in the U.S. Everything went smoothly, though. The teachers were welcoming and the students were friendly.


The most memorable time of my semester abroad was with 41 other international exchange students traveling around Australia during our semester break. Our destinations were almost as extensive as our nationalities: we traveled to Sydney, Canberra, Mildura, Coober Pedy, Uluru, Kings Canyon, Alice Springs, Mount Isa, Airlie Beach, and the Gold Coast.

The few weeks we enjoyed together were jam-packed with activities. We took a day-cruise on Darling Harbour and visited the Sydney Opera House. We slept in an "underground town" and went opal mining. We visited an aboriginal reservation and walked around the famous Ayers Rock. We went sailing on the Pacific Ocean and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef.


At the end of our stay in Australia, we had three weeks of traveling time to share our stories and help each other cope with leaving. It was only natural that our last day together was filled with tears. We packed our camp, exchanged email addresses, and gathered together for a final good-bye.

Returning Home

Upon coming home, an open mind and flexibility were again important. The transition was at times trying, since it was difficult to convey the magnitude of my experience and for others to understand it. Resettling home took time and effort, but eventually I made the adjustment. All the while, I was attentive to letting my family and friends know how happy I was to be home and how much I missed them—though the experience is still vividly with me.

For more information on Youth for Understanding, go to

CHELSEA FOSSE is a senior at North Muskegon High School in Michigan. She spent the second semester of her freshman year of high school as an exchange student in Perth, Australia. Next year she plans to attend the Univ. of Texas to study biology.

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