F-1 Visas for High School Exchange Students: Flexibility in Study Abroad or an Unresolved Problem?

Copyright 2014 Thinkstock.com
Copyright 2014 Orla/Thinkstock.com

Last year I wrote a blog post on the differences between F-1 and J-1 visas for high school exchange students, intended as a summary of concrete information on the pros and cons of each visa. Since then, I have received many private messages through Exchangemom.com from host families asking for help with their F-1 visa student.  Occasionally, I receive questions from F-1 visa students themselves.  Comments from host families have ranged from concerns regarding relatively normal questions on teen issues or how to better integrate a student into the family (who can we talk to?) to major behavioral or communication difficulties; questions from students tend to be practical ones that suggest they do not understand the implications of choosing one kind of visa over another.

I thought I would share some questions from F-1 host parents here to help others understand the kinds of questions that can arise.  Examples:

“We have a boy from Korea . . . He is super girl-crazy, social and I am concerned about him and his girlfriend. … But he reminds us he is 18 doing what other 18 year olds do. He is on his cell all of the time and we are struggling. Do you have any advice?”

“We are currently host parents to a 16 year old Chinese female student.  I am at about my breaking point . . . [Tonight on the way home from dinner] she got into the back seat and I asked her to put her seatbelt on and she said she was busy with her cell phone in one hand and her coffee in the other.  I explained that it was a state law that she have her seatbelt on and I told her that I would get fined if I got stopped and that it was for her safety and protection that she needed to have the seatbelt on.  She said that she would pay the fine if we got stopped.  I told her that it was unacceptable.  . . . She finally put her belt on and we drove home.  This is only the latest confrontation that we have had.  She seems to think that we exist to cater to her every want.  I can’t continue like this for the next 5 1/2 months.  . . .”

“Our 10th grade Chinese teen moved into our home five weeks ago.  Prior to joining us, he was living with a family across town and he wasn’t happy with them.  . . . He is a stranger who lives in my home.  He gets annoyed if I ask questions.  He will not share anything about his home in China, his family, or the other American families. He spends as much time in his room behind closed doors as possible.  He will not experiment or try new foods.  He has declined participation in family activities. Have you any advice or suggestions on what I might try, or what we could be doing so wrong?”

A key difference between J-1 and F-1 programs, as I noted in my original blog post, is the lack of supervision and assistance in the F-1 programs.  Sometimes, the school sponsoring the student may provide such assistance; often, they do not.  Thus, if questions like those above come up, host parents may not have anyone they can turn to for advice.

I’ve also received questions from students who either are already here in the U.S. on an F-1 visa and feel completely on their own, or who are thinking about studying abroad and are deciding between an F-1 or J-1 visa program.  A couple of examples for illustration:

  • “Z” told me he is a junior at a private high school in New York state. “Z” feels the course selection at his current school is limited and wants to transfer for his senior year. He wants to attend a public high school for that senior year, but doesn’t know how to find public U.S. high schools that will accept F-1 visa students.
  • “C” is a 16-year-old girl from Austria who would like to attend school in the U.S. for a year.  She wants to find her own host family and doesn’t want to go through an exchange organization because “it´s so expensive.”

Z came across as relatively self-sufficient and knowledgeable – but as an F-1 student, he’s on his own with this issue.  He can find a list of schools that accept F-1 students through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but it’s up to him to find a school, apply, and find a family.  Moreover, he may not understand that even at a public high school he would almost certainly need to pay tuition. “C,” too, may not understand that she would need to pay tuition if she chooses to find her own host family and her own school, and that having the resources of an exchange organization might actually be a positive thing for her, her eventual host family, and her parents back home.

Copyright 2014 Thinkstock.com
Copyright 2014 ccartgraphics/Thinkstock.com

I’m the first to admit that my experience is anecdotal, and I don’t work with F-1 visas.  But based on my experience, I am even more convinced today than I was a year ago that the F-1 visa program is not a good choice for high school students or host families.  At the college level, it may be a different story.  But for 15-18 year old high school students, it’s more complicated; the pieces of the puzzle may not fit together seamlessly.  We’re talking about teens who may not be used to being away from home – much less 5-10,000 miles away — and who need help adjusting to a foreign way of life.  We’re talking about host families who are adding a teenager to their family dynamics; even if they receive a stipend (as some do in an F-1 visa program), they don’t sign up for this to be a hotel.  Finally, we’re talking about parents back home who worry about the safety, security, and well-being of their children.  It just doesn’t make sense to me.  I’d love to hear from folks who have a different perspective!