We have been the Exchange Mom and Exchange Dad since 2003, when we brought our first foreign exchange student (from Spain) into our home here in Portland, Oregon. Since then, we have hosted about a dozen students from countries around the world – places as far apart from each other as Germany, Colombia, Italy, Venezuela, and Hong Kong — as well as short-term summer-stay students from Japan and France. We’ve welcomed them into our lives and in several cases have welcomed our “children” back again when they have returned for visits. We hope to be a part of their lives when they finish college, if they go; when they marry and have children of their own; and when things happen in their lives, both good and bad.
We have also been local liaison/coordinators for almost nine years for one of the largest educational foreign exchange programs operating in the U.S. We find host families, help them through the screening process, and find them a student who, we hope, will “fit” into their family’s activities and lifestyle for the coming semester or academic year. We offer advice to host families on how to bring their student more completely into the family, how to address cultural issues or homesickness, and how to deal with normal teen issues that host families may not have faced before or which may just be different with a foreign student. We work with the students to help them adjust to what may be a radically different way of life, and help them understand that life here is not better or worse than their lives back home – just different. We cheer our students on to A’s in their American high schools (as well as pull them through times of failing grades), advise them on how to adapt to seemingly strange American customs, smile at their prom photos, and help them through personal crises.
Finally, we have some understanding of how our students’ parents feel about sending their children off to the unknown, as our own son spent January-June 2013 on an exchange program in Ghana when he was 18. He lived with a host family in the capital city of Accra and worked as a volunteer teacher’s assistant in an after-school program. We visited for two weeks in May 2013, towards the end of his exchange.
We’ve had a lot of great experiences as host parents and as exchange coordinators. But it’s not a perfect process (what process involving teens ever is?). We’ve worked with challenging students and with host families who have difficulties telling us (the “outsiders”) what’s going on. We believe that many issues we have seen could be avoided through improved communication leading to early identification of problems and active intervention before they threaten the success of the student’s year as an exchange student. That’s what we try to do in our roles as coordinators and counselors.
Who are we when we’re not working with the students?
Laura: My professional background is as an environmental and natural resources lawyer; I went to law school specifically to work in environmental law. I started out as a legal editor, and spent 18 years first as co-owner with Mark of a widely respected climate policy consulting firm, and later as in-house counsel for an international climate policy and carbon project firm. Mark and I continue to work together on climate and energy issues (see our website, The Climatographers). When not trying to make a difference on worldwide environmental issues or working with exchange students, I work with teens as an attorney coach for our local high school teams in the National Mock Trial annual competition and the “We The People” constitutional law competition.
Mark: I still curse my high school Ecology teacher for putting me onto the environmental path that I have been wandering down for more than 30 years. After studying economics and environmental studies in college, I focused on public policy and international environmental cooperation at the University of California at Berkeley, where I earned my master’s and doctorate.
I have specialized in climate change risk and risk management, founding and growing our climate policy consulting firm, Trexler Climate + Energy Services, which we later successfully sold to an international company. I recently returned to those entrepreneurial roots with a focus on whether and how we can effectively communicate climate risk to decision-makers, and how knowledge management tools and strategies can help.