Sports as a Tool For International Youth Exchange

high school lacrosse players

Sports can be another great way to bridge gaps across cultures and to get people who may think they have nothing in common to start talking. So it is not a surprise that there are organizations around the world that do their best to bring young people from different countries together to meet over their favorite sport. The question arises, though, whether these organizations offer what you personally need from an exchange.

We sometimes get questions from people interested in working with exchange students through the medium of sports. In one case, an organization in Brazil contacted us, looking to find a way to send promising teen and pre-teen soccer athletes to the U.S. as exchange students to learn about the U.S. and to have an opportunity to play competitive soccer during a school year in the U.S. In another case, a small U.S. non-profit was hoping that exchange students from another country could participate in the organization’s program while studying here in the U.S. and obtain competitive level basketball training, with the possibility of being recruited for college-level play.

We also sometimes hear from parents. One email was from a father in Greece who had visited friends in Florida with his family. The friends offered to host his son so that he could go to high school in Florida and play varsity basketball at their school, and the father wanted advice on how to make that happen. Another email we received recently was from a parent in Germany. She wanted to make sure that her son would be able to play competitive soccer during his exchange year in the U.S. Should she just tell the exchange organization she wanted to go through? Should she herself search online for a family who had a teen who plays soccer, she wondered, or perhaps she should get in touch directly with high schools that have high-level soccer programs and then contact a sponsoring organization?

Great ideas. The devil, as always, is in the details. The answer we had to give these people was essentially that they could not do what they wanted to do.

What’s the Problem?

There is a great deal of concern in the U.S. about students “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons. That concern crosses over into the exchange student world, and it’s against U.S. government regulations to place an exchange student in a school specifically for the purpose of playing a particular sport. In fact, when a family finds its own host family for their student (what we call “direct placements”), those students generally cannot play sports at their school unless they get a waiver from the local high school athletics association certifying that the student was not placed at that school for sports reasons.

Many exchange students do engage in sports at their school or in their town. But there are no guarantees. An exchange student may not be able to qualify for a school team, particularly if the team is competitive; exchange students often have to try out for a team like everyone else. Some U.S. states limit exchange students to less competitive teams, keeping varsity team spots for American students who may be using their sports experience for a longer term purpose (such as trying to get a college scholarship, for example).

If an exchange student doesn’t qualify or can’t play varsity, or if he or she isn’t able to play on junior varsity for any reason, there often are local city leagues, recreational clubs, or even possibly a competitive club in the student’s desired sport. These options would be outside the school day, and would be at additional cost to the student and his or her family. It’s also important to note that these opportunities may or may not be at the competitive level the student is seeking.

What about the option of coming to the U.S. on an F-1 visa instead of a J-1 visa, since F-1 visa students apply directly to a school? We’ve been asked this question; parents have contacted us thinking that this is a way to make sure their child can play the sport of his or choice. However, because F-1 students choose the school they will attend, they generally are unable to play school sports. The concern about “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons still applies.

Are There Options?

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Sports Diplomacy Division focuses on sports-related exchanges. These are short-term exchanges and are not intended as academic programs, so these programs are not a solution, for example, for semester or year-long exchange students. The Division’s projects include:

  • Sports Envoy Program: Sports Envoys are athletes or coaches who lead overseas sports programs on behalf of the U.S. They hold sports clinics, take part in community outreach, and engage youth in dialogues on the importance of leadership and respect for diversity. Read, for example, about Neftalie Williams, who has used his love of skateboarding and his participation in the U.S. Sports Envoy program to bring skateboarding to Syrian refugees in the Netherlands and to Cambodian youth as a representative of the U.S. government.
  • Sports Visitor Program: A short-term program for young people to come to the U.S. for a two-week intensive sports-based exchange.

Other programs managed by the Division include the Global Sports Mentoring Program for women, the Sports and Sustainability Initiative, and the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that if you are primarily interested in playing a particular sport at a competitive level, high school exchange programs are probably not the right vehicle for your student. But if you are primarily interested in the exchange experience — cultural and language immersion, growth in self-confidence, learning how to deal with new situations — then high school exchange may be the right answer, regardless of whether you can play a particular sport at a competitive level during the exchange. While on exchange, we always encourage students to take advantage of opportunities to engage in high school sports or other non-academic activities; it’s a great way to get to know other students at your school, and it can be a lot of fun. The experience is worthwhile!

It‘s hard to reach out to people of different cultures when you feel you have nothing in common. But bring out a soccer ball to a field, and kids who do not speak the same language will flock to it and play together without understanding a single word the other child says. As adults, the effects are the same. You don’t need a common language to forge friendships, just a shared love for a sport and respect for one another.

 –League Network, 6 Ways That a Shared Love for Sports Can Bring Cultures Together, February 2017.

 

Warm Wishes to All!

On this Christmas Day, we send warm wishes to all our readers and to all our students and host families, current and former. We think about all the ups and downs, and give thanks that we are able to contribute just a little bit to the “ups” part of it all! Most of all, we thank you all for the work you put into the “citizen diplomacy” project of cultural exchange.

May you all have a wonderful day with friends and family!

Halfway Through the Exchange Year – Holiday Thoughts 2017

home is where the heart is on colorful background

It’s the time of year for musings and contemplation of the past and the future when it comes to your exchange student’s adventure here in the United States. Today, we are thinking about how the past five months have gone for the exchange students in our group. In our regular check-in calls and meetings, several students have commented on how time is flying by. They feel as though it’s almost time to go home . . . yet they’re only halfway through!

We think back over what they have accomplished in their five months here, and we are also thinking ahead to what’s in store for them for the second half of their exchange. We’re proud of what all of our students have achieved so far and are thankful for the opportunity to get to know them and their host families.

It’s a happy time of year, and it’s a time to give thanks, which we do — we are thankful to our students for reminding us about the wonder and excitement of having new experiences. We are thankful to our students’ families back home for allowing them to leave home for this adventure. And we are ever so thankful to our host families for sharing their lives with an exchange student. No, it hasn’t been perfect. Yes, it’s been more challenging for students than they probably thought it would be. We have moved a few students to new host families; that happens, often for no real fault on anyone’s part. Two students became very homesick and chose to return home early. Some students are homesick now at the holidays.

But the group is succeeding, as exchange students do when they have the support of their host families, parents, teachers, and program. They are learning that they can overcome difficulties, and we all learn how to communicate better with people who might not understand everything you do and say.

Most of our students will not return to their home countries until the end of June, so we have six months to go. There is something about the holiday season, though, that marks a turning point. Our students are past the phase of acting like a guest in the host family home. They are no longer quiet or hesitant around the house, and most of them talk a lot more than when they arrived. They don’t hesitate to grab a snack from the fridge. Their English has improved, in some cases dramatically. They squabble with their host siblings and moan like any teen about school or chores.

They’re at home now.

The transition to being “home” has meant many everyday experiences that we are thankful to our host families for sharing with their exchange student “children.” As 2017 winds down, our group’s students have been able to:

  • visit other U.S. states, including Arizona, California, Minnesota, Florida, and New York.
  • see parts of the Pacific Northwest region in which they live, including  Seattle, Washington; Bend and Sunriver, Oregon; and the Oregon and Washington coasts.
  • take classes not offered in their home countries such as ceramics, psychology, cooking, forensic science, and marketing.
  • become fans of their host family’s American college football teams such as in-state rivals University of Oregon Ducks and Oregon State University Beavers, or root for professional teams like the Seattle Seahawks.
  • become athletes themselves and play sports they’ve done before, or learn new sports including American football, soccer, volleyball, cross-country, and basketball.

There has been an assortment of American holiday experiences: corn mazes in October, carving pumpkins on Halloween, and eating too much turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. Our students living in Jewish homes are learning about Hanukkah this month and students living in Muslim homes may have celebrated Eid al-Adha in August. Students have joined in the search for the perfect Christmas tree, hanging lights and tree ornaments, and baking pies. They show their host families tidbits from their own home and culture. We learn what a normal school day is in other countries, and how school systems differ. We learn about holiday traditions like Sinterklas (Netherlands) and Erntedankfest (German and Austrian harvest thanksgiving festival).

advent calendar

Our students come from a variety of backgrounds. This is part of what we love to find out — it’s part of what we are thankful for, as we can learn so much from each of them. One of our students comes from Kiruna, a town in the far north of Swedish Lapland. Another comes from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, with a population of 2.8 million. Two of our students come from Rome, another comes from Madrid; they are adjusting to life in smaller cities and suburbs. Two students come from Catalonia in Spain, where citizens voted for independence shortly after students arrived here in the U.S. Another calls Sardinia her home, a large Italian island sitting in the Mediterranean with its own history going back several thousand years. (How must it feel to students who come from places with 2,000+ years of history to arrive in an area that celebrates 150 years of statehood with excitement?) We have one student who is an amazing musician and who is quite comfortable playing his music at open mike sessions in public, and another who is a leader on her school’s basketball team. One student’s parent back home is a doctor, another is an engineer, and others are restaurant managers, teachers, and electricians. Like us, they’re all different.

Here in the U.S., they live very different lives from their lives in Sweden, Switzerland, or Taiwan. Some live with one host parent; some live with two. Some have host brothers or sisters; some do not. Some of those who are used to a big city now live in small towns, while some students from small towns now live in a city with public transportation and people everywhere. Some have plenty of spending money; some are on a tight budget. Some are energetic and outgoing, and live for the excitement of going out on the weekends; some are quiet and introspective, and prefer a good book or movie with their host family.

They have one thing in common. They are all teenagers who five months ago were brave enough to get on a plane and head into the complete unknown. Could you have done that when you were 15, 16, or 17?

real time planes in sky Atlantic

We show these young people from around the world that the United States is not just the Hollywood sign or fast food at McDonald’s. With what we have all seen and heard on TV and in social media this year, it is perhaps more critical than ever to show these teens – who are future adults, citizens, and perhaps eventual leaders in their home countries – that we are ordinary people, more like them than different.

An Exchange Mom Video Minute: The Holidays

snowman with snowflakces coming down

As a host family, are you thinking about the holidays with your student? As a student, are you wondering what the holidays will be like in your host country?

This is our first video in our “Exchange Mom Minute” series. We hope to have many more…we’ll see what we can do in between the rest of our lives!

 

Everything we do here on The Exchange Mom is on our own time . . .
please consider supporting us on Patreon!

Become a Patron!

Behind the Scenes: A Day in the Life of an Exchange Coordinator

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.

word study background of textbooks

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.”

That’s why.

boy with open arms and beautiful rainbow