5 Most Common Regrets of Study Abroad Alumni

Studying abroad is a dream of any student. New country, new friends, new people! But are there some things you might regret about studying abroad? I have interviewed students who have studied abroad and asked them what they think about studying abroad now. They shared their experience and told me what they regret the most. If you plan to study abroad, learn from their mistakes and return from your trip satisfied and full of new experiences!

Regret #1: I should have done it earlier

Almost all students told me that they regret about the time they’ve lost. They felt that if they had known that studying abroad would reveal such opportunities, they would have decided to make the trip earlier. They learned that going abroad is an effective way of going outside one’s comfort zone to find those opportunities and learn about one’s own strengths and weaknesses. It has additional benefits: a student not only learns about a new environment, but also has a unique chance to understand the essence of one’s life and find out how to deal with problems in a new and unfamiliar setting.

Regret #2: I made no friends

When students do a study abroad program, they might think that they do not need friends to feel comfortable. You can chat with your friends from home, after all. But not paying attention to new people who are around you is a gross mistake. Meet new people when you are abroad! An additional suggestion that applies to college level students is to take classes with local students, not just with students from your own country. If you study in an international class, you have more opportunities to discover different cultures and find out how people from different countries live.

Many students think that a short-term exchange or study abroad program is not long enough to find friends. But when you go abroad you find out a strange thing: it seems that time slows down. Routine is no longer a part of your life. You can start to spend time with other students and continue your communication using social networks. Today everyone has access to the Internet, so you can stay connected as long as you want.

Regret #3: I didn’t study the language

For some study abroad students, it will be necessary to know the host language ahead of time. For some college level students, however, it is possible to go to your host country and take classes in your own language. Most of the students I interviewed felt this was a mistake. Studying abroad is the perfect opportunity to master a foreign language. When you go to your host country with at least basic knowledge of the language, you will feel more comfortable.

Regret #4: I regret I didn’t travel more

Some study abroad students will have time and opportunity to travel.. College level students should try to use weekends to go to some other city, go to museums, and visit main attractions in the city or town where you live. High school students should travel with their host family if it is at all possible; if it isn’t, see if your exchange program has opportunities you can take advantage of.

Regret #5: I wish I could have stayed longer

No one told me that he wished he had gone home sooner. Everyone would like to study abroad for a longer time. If you have such an opportunity and can afford it, use it. You will change your attitude to studying, your feelings about yourself, and learn more about the way you should live your life. You will grow as a person. Widen your horizons with the opportunities life gives you!

Sophia Clark is a creative writer from New York who loves to share her thoughts with readers. In her free time, she enjoys writing fiction as well as reading it. Her big dream is to publish a novel one day. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo credit: Hieu Vu Minh, Unsplash.com.

 

Is Culture Shock A Good Thing?

We’ve written before (see here and here, for example) about the impacts of culture shock as our students arrive on our shores thinking exchange student life will be easy and then realizing — rather suddenly — that life is harder than they thought. We’ve also shared thoughts (see here and here) on what it’s like when our students return home.

We recently came across the infographic below, which argues that we should not only anticipate culture shock, we should embrace it. We agree! Culture shock isn’t a bad thing or a good thing. It’s a neutral term, used to describe how people feel when they arrive in a place far different from the place they are used to. “Shock” probably isn’t the best word to use, since it implies something negative has happened. The experience is more “culture engagement” than “culture shock,” whether we’re talking about landing in a foreign place for the first time or returning home feeling like a stranger.

world connected
Becoming connected is a process that takes time and effort

As the infographic notes, this transition experience is “entirely normal, usually unavoidable, and is nothing to feel embarrassed about.” Embrace the differences you see and keep yourself busy as you get used to new things. Think about the idea that the confusion and anxiety starts even before you leave home; we reported a few weeks ago about students who were already nervous about their new host family and whether they would be able to adjust to their new life.

What can students and host families do?

Communicate (with each other!).

  • words share your storyStudents: Of course, you will want to communicate with your family back home. But think about the connections you are trying to make here in your host country. Start conversations with your host parents and host siblings. If you won’t have any host siblings, ask if there are ways to meet people of your own age before school starts.
  • Families: Help your student to get to know you and to open up by starting conversations. Conversations can be on issues as small as “what’s your normal dinner time? Let’s compare!” to political issues of the day. Want some conversation starter ideas? Find some suggestions here and here.

Do something with each other to help get past the initial awkwardness.

  • Students: Offer to cook some meals from your home country. Ask your mom or dad for a recipe. Ask your host sister/brother, host mom/dad if they can help. They will probably be excited about the idea of cooking something new. Go anywhere and everywhere you can with your host family. If your host parents ask if you want to run errands with them, say yes even if it doesn’t sound exciting — it might be more interesting than you think, since it will be new to you. Watch TV with them, even if you’ve never watched that show before or have some trouble understanding new voices.
  • Families: Do all of the above in reverse! Have a meal or two based on recipes from your student’s home country. Take your student grocery shopping and on other errands. Explain the plot of your favorite TV show when everyone sits down to watch. Involve your student in as much as possible.

Stay busy.

As a new exchange student, think about getting involved in something in your host country — a sport, drama, music, art. Take walks. Go for a run. Offer to take the dog for a walk. Take the bus into the downtown area. Ask your coordinator if you can meet other students in your area. Families can help with all of this; show your student local walking trails or where it’s OK to go for a run. Show your student local public transit. Call other host families and arrange movie nights or excursions.

Embrace culture shock; it’s why you’re here!

why culture shock is a good thingThe original infographic can be found at ExpatChild.com. Photo credits Pixabay.com and Thinkstock.com.

Our Exchange Student Needs to Register For Classes: What’s the Process?

Most exchange organizations will take care of making sure exchange students are properly enrolled at the local school. It’s quite likely, however, that the host family will help their student choose classes and sign up for school activities, much as they would help their own children. If you have never had a high school student, this process can be confusing.

So, here are some general tips for how to handle registration. Local guidelines and processes may differ, so host families should check with their local program representative and their own school.

Forecasting Classes in Advance

Some schools will send forms to host parents ahead of time and will ask that the student choose classes before he or she arrives. Returning students generally make these choices the previous Spring, listing classes they want as well as second/third choices.

In most cases, exchange students won’t be able to do this before they arrive. For one thing, they have a lot to do before they leave their home country; choosing classes for the Fall is not at the top of the list. In many cases, students will be in school until late June or early July, and may only have a few weeks after school ends before they leave for their exchange year. Also, they often do not understand what choosing classes means; in many countries, the idea of electives at the high school level does not exist. The concept of choosing photography, marketing, weight lifting, or band as a class is difficult to understand if you have not dealt with this before, and it can be a challenge for host families to describe it long distance.

I dont knowNew host parents may be anxious about their student not being able to choose classes until shortly before school starts. Will their student be locked out of classes? The answer is maybe, maybe not. No one can guarantee that any exchange student will be able to take all the classes he or she wants to take. That will depend on the demand for any given class by resident students as well as local school policies. However, J-1 students are not here only for educational purposes. They’re also here for cultural exchange and learning. We want them to have a full sampling of classes, even though we can’t guarantee what those classes will be.

Registration

Registration includes signing up for classes, getting a photo taken for school ID, and getting a locker. It may include being “cleared” to join a sports team and signing up for clubs or other school activities. Registration generally will be on designated days a week or two before the scheduled first day of school. There may also be a “make-up” or “late” registration date, or a separate date for new students.

If you are on vacation during the assigned registration days, just talk to your school and see what can be worked out.

Some suggestions for host families

Call your school ahead of time to see about setting up an appointment with your student’s guidance counselor for shortly after he or she arrives. Some schools have a designated counselor who manages exchange students. Some will assign counselors by alphabet and some will assign according to a family’s existing counselor if you have high school students already.

high school curriculum guide cover pageSend your student the school’s curriculum guide. Some students will look at this before they get here. Some won’t. Do not assume your student doesn’t care just because he/she doesn’t think about it before arrival. They really are busy in the several weeks before they come to the U.S. Just try to have them do it when they arrive so that when you go to meet the counselor, you have a list of possible classes.

Forms and Contact Information: School usually ask host parents to fill out a registration contact form and will probably ask for a utilities bill or some other document confirming a host family’s address. We have found this to be common even though the exchange organizations provide schools with the host family’s address and contact information; it’s just how schools process new students. We recommend marking yourselves as “other” if that is an option, and write in “host parents.” This just helps make sure that the relationship is clear. Host parents are not legal guardians, and there certainly are things that a student’s parents must approve or be notified about, but host parents can make day-to-day decisions.

Where forms ask for the student’s doctor and dentist, put “not available” or your own children’s doctor if you have one. Schools generally understand that an exchange student, as someone new to the community, will not have an established physician.

Emergency contact: We suggest that you put your exchange organization local contact as the #1 emergency contact. If you want to put host grandma or grandpa as a secondary emergency contact, that’s reasonable. But remember that the exchange organization needs to know immediately if there are any critical issues involving  your student, so it’s a good idea to have them listed first to ensure they will be notified.

Check with your program contact/coordinator: Your exchange organization may have its own guidelines you should follow, and your program representative may know what the school prefers.

In closing, there’s no need for host parents or students to worry about the registration process. It’s paperwork, to be sure, and there can be some confusion. But follow the basic recommendations and before you know it you’ll have your student signed up for English, US history, maybe math and science, some fun classes, yearbook, and more!

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

I’m an Exchange Student Headed for the U.S. — What Do I Need to Know?

Students will sometimes ask us this question: what’s the most important thing to know about the United States?

To some extent, the answer to this question will differ depending on where in the U.S. a student ends up living and studying. The United States is a big country, and there are definite regional differences. This is one of the (many) things we want exchange students coming to the U.S. to learn — that we are not just one single group of people who are all the same just because we share a particular citizenship.

There are some general things, however, that students can keep in mind which will help them to adjust to life in their host family and host community.

Politeness in ordinary conversation

Saying “please” and “thank you,” especially to adults, is important. This can feel strange if you come from a culture or community where appreciation may be implied and you don’t have to say this often.

Directness and “honesty”

Americans consider themselves to be “direct.” There are different degrees of “directness,” however. The graphic below, created by Erin Meyer, a professor at the global business school INSEAD, shows cultural differences in two key categories — degree of “directness” or being “confrontational” in normal everyday life and degree of emotional expressiveness. (Her 2015 Harvard Business Review a­­rticle, Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da, is worth reading for anyone who deals with other cultures in either a personal or professional setting.)

culture map
©2015 Erin Meyer and Harvard Business Review

Here in the U.S., we tend to mix some of that directness with the ordinary everyday politeness mentioned above; according to Erin Meyer, the U.S. is somewhere towards the middle of the different characteristics. We’ve heard students from expressive and “talkative” cultures say that Americans get to the point too quickly; we’ve also had students from “direct” cultures tell us that Americans never get to the point at all! This combination can be confusing to students from other cultures as they try to figure out what, exactly, does someone mean when they say something.

Here’s an example (and a hint…). When your U.S. host mom or dad asks, “Could you take out the garbage?,” that generally means “take out the garbage” (and sooner rather than later!). Students who are used to a more direct culture often interpret this language as meaning they have a choice. In return, those students tend to speak in a way that may come across as demanding rather than requesting. Those students might announce, “I am going out to see friends,” rather than phrasing it as a question: “Would it be OK if I went out to see my friends?” The question format would be preferred in many U.S. homes.

Small talk and social conversation

Social conversations are those in which one talks about what’s going on in the community, what movie is showing at the local theater, which teacher is annoying and which one is just fun to have a class with, and even the weather. Many students find these conversations difficult. “Why does the cashier at the grocery store ask me how I am doing?” asked one of my Austrian students last year. “Why would she care how my day is going? She doesn’t know me and I don’t know her.”

School system differences

U.S. high schools are quite different from schools in many other countries. High school students in the U.S. change classrooms for every class. Students usually receive grades not only on exams at the end of the term, but also on in-between quizzes, class participation, and homework assignments that must be turned in. Some of this may also apply at the college level. At both the high school and college level, teachers are more approachable than in many countries (although that doesn’t mean you call them by their first name). Students ask teachers questions, visit teachers during office hours before or after school, and generally are encouraged to have a dialogue with teachers.

Sports, music, and art activities are a key element of school life

In U.S. schools, students become involved in many activities beyond traditional academics, activities that in many countries have no connection to the school system. Some U.S. states and schools may have limits on activities in which exchange students can participate. But if it’s possible, participating in a sport, music, or art activity at your school is an excellent way to become part of the school and host community.

Sports are also a part of everyday life. Almost everyone will have a favorite sports team. This could be a nearby professional team (football, soccer, baseball, basketball), or it might be a college team. Rivalries exist between neighboring high schools, college teams within the state, and with professional teams in nearby cities. Here in Oregon, for example, we have a long-standing rivalry between the yellow-and-green University of Oregon Ducks and the orange-and-black Oregon State University Beavers. You’re either one or the other. On days when the two teams play each other, neighborhoods come alive with team colors plastered in windows, on flags and banners, and on cars. We also are quite proud of our professional soccer team, the Portland Timbers, who, of course, are better than the Seattle Sounders. (Darn straight!)

UO and OSU ice cream
You can even get ice cream honoring your favorite team!

Wherever you are going, you will find “your” team — not just your new favorite sports team, but also your host family team, your school friends and teachers team, and your program’s support team. Enjoy the experience!

Sending Your Teenager to Turkey on Exchange: This Family Says Yes

I wanted to share an article that appeared in our local paper, The Oregonian, today:

Exchange Student Heads to Turkey With Open Mind

The article has so many valid points about why international cultural exchanges are valuable, perhaps even more today than ever before. It’s not just about an American teenager learning about a culture outside our own borders, although it is about that. It’s not just about the value of a young American woman learning about a majority Muslim county’s culture, although it is about that.

blue mosque turkey
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

It’s about stepping outside our comfort zones and realizing that you need to be somewhere in order to really understand it. It’s about realizing that our own misconceptions about other cultures and countries are bouncing right back at us, when we have students coming in this direction who are asking whether the U.S. is a safe place. It’s about finding out the reality of who we all are.

Are YOU researching beyond the headlines?

 

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

What if I Don’t Like My Host Family?

airplane over Mt Rainier
Heading off to new adventures

I received an email from one of our new students who will arrive in mid-August:

Hi Laura,

I am very worried and don’t know what to do. When I first heard about my host family, I was excited. But now after talking to them and thinking about it I am worried. I don’t think my host family and I have anything in common. I won’t have any host siblings.

Do you have any ideas on how I can think differently? What can I do to get more excited?

Here’s what I told her:

You are not alone; what you are describing is more common than you think. I’m glad that you are able to recognize your feelings and talk about them. Once you arrive, you will hear me talking again and again about how important communication is, and how important it is to talk to your coordinator about things that bother you BEFORE they become big issues.

Everyone has this idea in their heads about what their host family will be like. Then the host family turns out to be something completely different and it makes students nervous. This may come as a surprise to you. But think about it … is it really a surprise that a family in another country is different from what you know?

Some students, like you, are nervous because their host parents don’t have children in the home. Some students worry about whether they will have enough privacy and personal time; some worry about having too much time alone. Some students are nervous because the family has young children in the home and the student worries that the young children will be annoying. Some students are nervous because their host family lives in a big city; some students are nervous because their host family lives in a small town or on a farm.

Everyone worries about some part of their host family that is different from their own family. The basic thing to remember is that you don’t know your host family yet. You haven’t met them. It takes time to get to know people, and it’s hard to do that before you get here. You can text, or email, or Skype — but you won’t really get to know your host family until you are living with them.

Remember that your host family is nervous, too. They want to be the best family possible for you, and they want to help you have a successful — and fun — experience. They are already thinking about ways to do that, and they will do their best to support you as you meet people and want to do things.

I think, perhaps, you are really worried about the whole adventure. Years ago, shortly before I left for my own study-abroad semester in Switzerland, I started to worry. I didn’t know French … maybe I shouldn’t go? I didn’t have a specific schedule since I was doing an independent study project … maybe I shouldn’t go? I went, of course. There were challenges, of course. But challenges are part of life, and I can’t imagine now not having gone.

Three years ago our son began asking similar questions shortly before he was scheduled to leave the U.S. for his six-month exchange program in Ghana. What if I don’t get along with my host family, he said; they don’t have teenagers. Maybe it’s too expensive, he said. Maybe I shouldn’t go, he said. He went. He values that experience and is glad we didn’t let him change his mind.

Being an exchange student is exciting, fascinating, an incredible adventure, and an amazing experience that you will remember forever. It also takes work. No one (if they’re honest) has a perfect fit into their host family and their host community from Day One. There’s no magic wand to build instant relationships.

family with exchange students
Family photo with our two exchange students, after 10 months of getting to know each other

It’s scary to get on an airplane and go off to an unknown place to live with unknown people, who someone else has told you that “they are a good family.” Try to remember that everything takes time. That’s one of the reasons we (your coordinators and the exchange program) are here — we want to help you build relationships and help you feel like a member of our community.

I know that’s a long answer to your question. I guess the short answer is — we will try to help you get used to life in the U.S. and in your new family here. We will help, your host parents will work to get to know you, and you will work to get to know them. It will be worth the effort.

Photo credits: Laura H. Kosloff and Pixabay.com

 

The Transition Back Home: Easier Said Than Done

The students from our 2015-2016 exchange student group have returned home to Austria, Germany, Italy, Thailand, Japan … countries the world over. Many think it will be easy to slide back into their old life.

For some, perhaps that will be true. Many students, however, are finding that their old life doesn’t exist. We’ve already heard from a few of them, students who have reached out to their host families or us, their coordinators, as the people who might understand. I don’t know that we can truly understand unless we’ve been in that position. But we all try to help when our students reach out to us.

Here’s our recent letter to one of our students.

writing with fountain penYour host mom told us that things are tough for you right now. We wanted to follow up with some thoughts.

The first thing to know is that you are NOT alone. What you are feeling is very, very normal. A lot of people have gone through this kind of transition. We know that may not make you feel better right away…but we hope it helps.

Here a few suggestions about what might work for you to get used to life back home.

  1. Spend time with your friends back home. It will take time to get used to your friends again. We know that may not make sense to you at first. You’re thinking you’ve known them for years, what’s there to get used to? Think about this: you’ve had a different life from them for almost a year! You have had experiences they have not had; share them with your friends. They have had experiences you haven’t; ask them to share some of those experiences with you.

Maybe the first time you hang out with your long-time friends it feels awkward or different. That’s not a reason to stop — one time, two times, three times aren’t enough to get back into the “swing” of things. Just hang out and be patient. Think about how you felt at the beginning of the year here in the U.S.; you didn’t feel comfortable with people at school and you felt it was hard to make friends. We’re asking to you to remember that it took time. It’s going to take time again back home. In a way, you are getting to know your friends all over again.

  1. Spend time with your family (and maybe especially your parents!). This is kind of the same as with your friends. Try to remember that you’ve changed. When we told you the last time we talked before you went home that you had grown up during this past year, that you seemed a lot more confident — we weren’t just saying that to make you feel better. It’s 100% true. The thing is — your parents don’t quite know that yet. Of course you talked to them during the year and of course they can see some of it. Try to remember they’re your parents — and you are their child. For parents, our children are always our “kids.” They are never our “adults.”

So spend time with your mom and with your dad. Go for a hike with them, go to the grocery store with them, go on a bike ride. Even more importantly, talk to them about how you feel, including how you are feeling now. They need to hear from you about how your life here went. They also do need to hear how you feel you have changed. Start having those hard conversations — the ones we made you have with your host parents and with us all the time!

  1. Stay busy! Go for a run, take a walk, read a book. (Sounds like the same thing we suggested to you at the beginning of your exchange year, when you were just getting used to life here, doesn’t it?) Try to do things you normally used to do, but maybe not all at once. Maybe easing back into your “old” life would be less of a shock if you do it gradually.
  1. Stay in touch with friends and family from your exchange year. This isn’t a period of your life that suddenly ends just because you got on a plane. You have developed new friendships and relationships. Keep them. It might not make sense to contact everyone every day, but think about reaching out several times a month, once a month, or whenever the thought pops into your head. Post occasional comments on friends and host family Facebook pages. Send messages on WhatsApp. Did you and your host brother watch soccer games together? Text him when your favorite team is playing and ask if he is going to watch the game. Text your host mom periodically to just say hi. Text us sometimes, too!

Sending good thoughts and hugs,

Laura and Mark

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Additional posts on this issue from our blog:

*Re-entry for the Parents Back Home
*Reverse Culture Shock: What Language Do You Dream In?
*Culture Shock Revisited

Photo credit: Aaron Burden