At this time of year, with school having started everywhere in the U.S., our exchange students are beginning to settle into the next phase of their exchange year. Most were looking forward to the start of the school year, even if they were a bit nervous at the same time. As teens, they think they know what to expect. Of course, one of the points of the exchange program is to show them that what they think they know may not necessarily be a correct understanding of the U.S. culture or school system. That understanding may not come all at once, and may be something of a surprise; indeed, even a shock.
What are the general expectations for an exchange student at school?
Exchange programs in the U.S. generally require their high school J-1 students to enroll in a standard curriculum. This usually means enrolling in accepted “core” classes such as a regular English class (i.e., not a class designed for English as a second language) and U.S. history or government, with many students also taking mathematics and science. The student can then choose elective classes to fill in the rest of the student’s class schedule such as other science or social science classes, art, music, drama, etc. The U.S. government requires J-1 visa students to maintain passing grades in all their classes; most exchange programs interpret this to mean students must maintain a grade of C or better in every class they attend. If students are not passing a class, they are responsible for taking steps to raise their grades.
As coordinators, we look to see what steps a student is taking: is she talking to the teacher about the problems she is having in class? Does she take notes in class? Is she turning in her homework assignments? How much time is she spending on those homework assignments or on general studying? If necessary, a student may be required to find a tutor. If problems persist, exchange programs have disciplinary processes in place; in rare circumstances, it may be determined that a student cannot meet the academic challenges and may need to return to his or her home country before the end of the exchange year.
I can’t talk to the teacher!
Asking an exchange student to talk to the teacher may be more of a challenge for the student than U.S. parents realize; in many countries, the relationship between high school students and teachers is very different. Host parents can help by repeating the message that yes, you really can and should talk to your teacher.
Why am I failing the class when I do OK on the tests?
Many new host parents have a negative reaction to the idea that they should ask their student if they have turned in their homework assignments. Shouldn’t a 16 or 17 year old know something this basic? But the idea that you do have to turn in your homework may seem completely foreign to your student; in many countries, “homework” is work you do at home, on your own time, at your own choosing – and that’s it. Host parents can help here by not hesitating to ask their student if they have completed homework, and students can help themselves by accepting what their coordinators and host parents tell them about the need to turn in homework assignments, and understand that these assignments must be turned in on time. Otherwise you might do very poorly in a class even if you’re passing the tests.
Exchange students may have to spend a significant amount of time studying to make sure that they succeed academically. This includes not just completing homework and class assignments. A difficult fact for exchange students to accept is that it is almost definitely going to take them longer – sometimes much longer – than their U.S. school friends to do most assignments. Even reading a chapter in the textbook may take an exchange student twice as long as it would take an average U.S. student. Exchange students may be selected based on meeting minimum English skills requirements – but they are not fluent when they arrive, and indeed, may be far from it. Even if their skills are on the high end, it’s unlikely they had vocabulary from U.S. history, math, or science in their English class back home.
For the students – some tips for success
Students can ask questions to make sure they understand what is expected of them regarding homework assignments. If you are not sure what you are supposed to do, ask your classmates or teacher for clarification. Ask your host parents or your coordinator for help. Don’t assume you know the answer – maybe take a look again at our blog post on the importance of communication!
Students should remember they are a representative of their home country. In our program, we consider our exchange students ambassadors who are here to show Americans what their own culture is like and to show the “best” from their home country. Host parents and teachers will not appreciate exchange students who are disruptive in class, act as though they are exempt from school work, do not try to spend enough time reading and trying to understand the material, or who don’t study for exams.