Direct Placements for Exchange Students: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

myths and facts - featured imageWe sometimes receive emails from parents asking us how they can find a host family for their child for his or her exchange year. We also sometimes hear from people who are seeking a host family in their area for a family friend or a niece or nephew. Direct placements such as these seem to be more popular with J-1 students than in the past, although statistics are hard to come by to prove one way or the other.

There are logical reasons for trying to arrange a placement ahead of time. Parents naturally worry about sending their child to a strange country for six months or a year, and feel that their child will be safer with someone they know. The student may prefer a particular region in the host country, perhaps because they have family or friends nearby.

A student and his or her family – and the potential host family – should consider a number of factors before jumping in and saying “this is the best idea ever!” For some situations, it might be an excellent choice. For others, it might lead to difficulties for all concerned.

What are the requirements for direct placements for J-1 visa students?

498175455 (2) rules and regs
There are always rules to follow!

In the U.S., finding your own host family does not change the U.S. Department of State requirements for screening students and families. Keep in mind the following:

  • The student must be at least 15 and no more than 18½ years old when he or she starts school in the U.S.
  • Students may not be hosted by a relative, no matter how distant the family relationship.
  • English must be the primary language spoken in the host family’s home, even if they are friends of the student’s family.
  • Parents should not choose a host family based on a desire to have their child attend a particular school for athletic reasons.
  • Students may not have previously come to the U.S. on a J-1 visa; the J-1 visa is a one-year opportunity.
  • A high school in the host family’s area must agree to accept the student; for J-1 visa students, the exchange program arranges for enrollment, not the student or the host family. A school is not required to accept an exchange student. Some schools do not accept 15-year-old exchange students. Some schools may have limits on how many students they accept from a given country, and most schools have limits on how many exchange students they accept each year.
  • The host family must go through the required screening process and be approved by the exchange program. Even if the student’s family knows the host family well, the family must submit an application, provide references, agree to an interview in the home, and show that the home is clean and safe. Adults must undergo a criminal background check and all members of the host family should be in favor of hosting.

Advantages to student and family

The primary advantage of a direct placement is the knowledge early on of where a student will be placed. Waiting for placement information makes people anxious, understandably so given the physical distances and cultural differences involved. From a parent’s point of view, knowing the people your child will live with reduces worry and fear. Parents may also feel it will give them more input into their child’s development during the exchange and more knowledge about their child’s daily life.

Disadvantages to student and family

The advantages of knowing where a student is going and who the student will live with are real. We all agree, and J-1 exchange programs work hard to place students as early as possible before students arrive. Many parents feel that trusting the exchange programs to make a match for their child is a huge gamble. Finding one’s own host family, however, also carries risks.

* “Fit” in the host family: Knowing your host family is not an automatic advantage. Friends may not have similar backgrounds. An example from our own experience: a student’s mother and host father knew each other from university days. Religion was an important part of the U.S. host family’s life, but was not a key element of the German family’s life. The student was uncomfortable, but felt caught between her host family and her parents. The conflict could have had long-term negative impacts on the two families’ relationship; it certainly caused short-term distress to everyone involved. Eventually, we were able to convince the host family and the student’s parents that moving her to a new family – even one they did not know ahead of time – would ensure a better experience for the student.

* “Distancing” from family back home: Parents may feel that knowing the host family will help them to have input into their child’s life abroad. This may be true – but it is not necessarily a good result. Students do better when they are totally immersed into their host culture and community, including in the host family itself. It can be disruptive to both the student and the host family if parents back home are saying “this is how we do it.” The student’s parents may not intend to interfere, but rather may simply feel they are helping by telling the host family the rules their son or daughter is used to following. Quite often, however, the result is that the host family feels their student’s family is telling them how to manage their family’s life.

* Inability to play on a school sports team: In the U.S., many U.S. states prohibit direct placement students from playing sports on school teams. Athletics have become “big business” in the U.S.; families will move to a specific town so that their child can attend that school specifically for sports reasons. Thus, state athletic associations often place limits on the ability to play a sport on students moving into an area, including exchange students. There may be exceptions if an exchange program matches a student with a local family through the usual anonymous process. Waivers may be possible for direct placement students, but generally cannot be arranged ahead of time.

What’s the Answer?

So many directions from which to choose
So many directions from which to choose

Parents have legitimate reasons to want to know as much as possible about where their child will end up. We simply recommend that you think carefully before making a decision that the only solution is to find a host family ahead of time. Other options include carefully researching the exchange organization you choose to work with. Researching the geographic area where your child ends up also helps parents and student feel more comfortable. Finally, when you do receive notice from your exchange organization about your child’s placement, take time to reach out and start the “getting to know you” process. It is possible to become familiar with a region and with your child’s host family even if you do not know them previously.

What about you? Are you a host parent who hosted a student who was a friend of the family, or you knew the older brother or sister who had done an exchange? Are you a parent who is nervous about sending your child on an exchange unless you know the host family? Are you a student whose exchange experience was with someone you knew? Tell us your experiences!

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