People who are involved with hosting exchange students — whether it be as a host family, student, parent back home, teacher or counselor at school — know the basic rule that their coordinator will be contacting them by phone or in person at least once every month. It’s right there in the regulations.
Sometimes, it really is just one time during the month. But often the “at least” part comes into play with additional phone calls on a particular issue or question, text messages and emails, or public comments on non-confidential issues on Facebook or Instagram.
What families and students often don’t realize is how much time can go into being an exchange coordinator and the full scope of their involvement. Local coordinators usually do receive some payment from the exchange organization. The reality, however, is that most coordinators spend a lot more time than they are compensated for in order to help “make it work” — the “it” being the success of our students, the bonding we want to see between student and host families, and the benefits to our own children and local schools. That takes more than a monthly phone call or visit.
Exchange coordinators are full-time moms or dads with children of their own, parents who teach high school and work on exchange in the evenings, school bus drivers, grade school principals, or lawyers. Coordinators might try to consolidate their exchange program tasks, but it doesn’t always work out; if a student is upset about something back home or about something that just happened at school, he or she isn’t going to wait until the weekend. If a host family has a major concern, we hope they will call, too.
But if we do set aside a Saturday to catch up, and if it was to be combined with the usual calls out of the blue, it might look something like this…..
10:00 am. Regular monthly check in call with student. Talk about school, how are things with his host family, what activities/fun stuff has he done lately. He’s a happy guy, and promises he’ll call if he has any problems.
10:15 am. Text from a host mom. Exchange student was injured at soccer, taking him to urgent care and will circle back once she knows more.
11:00 am. Monthly check in call with another host mom. She’s a bit concerned about her student, who is struggling in two classes. We talk about things the student can do and suggestions on how the host parents can help. It’s early in the year, so we’re not too concerned yet; the issue now will be what action the student takes.
11:30 am. Work on issues related to the program: write emails to people who have asked for information about hosting, make some phone calls. Mostly I leave phone messages, but I do talk to a mom who has expressed interest in the past and who thinks this next year might be good timing for the family, and I make a note to send her some additional information.
12:30 pm. Text from host mom whose student was injured at soccer. They are at the emergency room waiting for X-rays. Student still cheerful, not complaining. She includes a photo of a grinning student.
12:45 pm. Following up on 11:30 phone call, check organization database for student applications to send based on the description the potential host mom gave me about the family’s interests and lifestyle. Pull applications of a few girls who like dance and theater since that seems to be a key family interest.
1:00 pm. Receive call from a coordinator asking how many students have signed up for our next group excursion in two weeks, and can a student she is supervising still join the activity. We agree that if the student’s host parents are OK with the trip, if she can get the natural parent permission form signed in the next couple of days, and if she immediately sends in the required payment, she can go.
1:15 pm. Call from host mom. Student has hairline fracture. No soccer for a while!
2:00 pm. Text from a student I just spoke to a week ago. It’s a bit like getting a phone call at midnight from your child in college — your first thought is “what has happened?” I cautiously ask, how are things? The student asks if she can get a job to earn some money; homecoming cost more than she expected. I explain to her that the U.S. government does not allow J-1 visa exchange students to get a regular job, but she can occasionally babysit or do yard work to earn a little cash. She’s not thrilled, but seems to understand.
3:00 pm. Text from student asking if it is ok if her parents visit at Christmas. Her host parents suggested that it might be better if her parents visited at the end of the exchange year and the student texts that this is not reasonable, this is her family. I call the student (I don’t want to have this conversation by text), and I explain that Christmas really is a time to spend with her American host family, so that she can learn about our customs and her host family’s traditions. I tell her that I know that her host family is really looking forward to sharing that with her. At the end of the year, she won’t have school or other obligations and she can really show her parents around the area. She says she understands this better now. I send an email to our main office asking them if they can get in touch with the student’s family in her home country and ask them not to visit at Christmas.
4:00 pm. Text from student asking if she can go on one of the trips our group is organizing. I ask her if she has asked her parents back home, her host parents, and her coordinator. She says her host parents and her coordinator told her she couldn’t go unless she brings her math and biology grades up and she doesn’t think this is fair. She isn’t going to be able to travel much this year because her host family doesn’t have plans to go on any big trips, so the trip is really important to her. I explain that she does have to be passing all her classes before she can go on the trip. She has several months to bring her grades up. We talk about what she can do to show she is making a strong effort. I make a note to talk to her coordinator to make sure she, too, is in the loop on this.
5:00 pm. Turn off the phone and go for a walk with the dogs.
Why do we do it? Sometimes we ask ourselves that question … especially if one of these calls is telling us about a particularly poor teenage decision that may result in a student’s early return home, or if a host family has a personal emergency that requires us to move a happy student out of his or her host family home. But then there’s this from a host parent after her student returned home:
I am trying to tell myself that nothing changes — that no matter where we all are, she remains family. And yet…no more having her come out to give a sleepy good morning hug. No more dinnertime conversations, or card games, or quick rides to the store. All that stopped as she walked down the security line at the airport tonight….I believe it. Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.
And this from a student:
I love you all so so much and words cannot explain how much it hurts me to leave this wonderful place. … I know for sure that my way will take me back here sooner or later – after all, I have family here now and lots of amazing friends. I want to especially thank my family for having me this year and making me feel less like “the exchange student” but like “our family member.”