Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student – when it works, it works!

11-02-2012 — I thought this interview on Wisconsin’s TV show, The Morning Blend, was worth passing along.  This is what cultural exchange is all about — a good “match” between host family and exchange student, a student interested in doing things differently while here in the U.S., and a host family interested in learning about their new “exchange daughter’s” life.  (OK — also a good coordinator keeping an eye on how things are going and communicating with the family and student!)

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student – interview on The Morning Blend



The Rules are the Rules …. or, We Mean What We Say and We Say What We Mean

An exchange student in the Portland metro area was sent home this week – eight months early.

What horrible thing did he or she do, do you ask?  Bring alcohol to school?   Possess marijuana?  Steal the family car?  What could a well-adjusted, smart, 16-year-old exchange student do that would result in being sent home  a scant two months into the high school exchange year?

A much simpler answer, actually…..and yet, so much harder.  The student picked up a $50 item from a display at Nordstrom’s, and walked out without paying for it.  Any of us who are parents can understand the impulsive thought that came into the teen’s mind; many parents have counseled their own teens through similar impulsive, bad decisions.

But for that one impulsive, bad, teen-aged decision, an entire exchange year was lost.  And there was nothing anyone could do.  If an exchange student breaks the law, and is driven home in a police car, that’s the beginning and the end of the story in a nutshell.

Those of us who work with high school foreign exchange students do it because we love the teens.  The hardest cases we deal with are when our students make bad decisions – bad decisions that any teen could make.  But they are exchange students, here on a Dept. of State visa, and subject to higher standards and stricter rules.  Every year, one or more of our teens makes a bad decision.  Every year, for example, there are exchange students who get caught with alcohol – at a party, perhaps, where the police show up.  We warn the students every year before they arrive and after they arrive – and yet, someone, inevitably, does not listen.

All reputable exchange programs have a disciplinary process.  For ordinary and expected behavior issues, the disciplinary process will be progressive – that is, first the local coordinator will give the student a warning; then perhaps the program headquarters will issue a warning; and finally there may be a written and final warning.

But for matters involving the law, there’s not a lot of leeway.   If you break the law, you go home.  Simple…..yes.  But there’s a host family that is already missing a student they loved.    There is a coordinator/supervisor who feels as though she missed something, wishing she could have done …. something.  And there is a young person who has lost the opportunity to spend a year in the United States.

If you are an exchange student, take this message to heart.  If you are hosting an exchange student, show this story to your student.  It’s such a pointless reason to be sent home.


High school sports for exchange students: a right or a privilege?

Those of us who work with high school exchange students generally are in favor of our students playing  on their host school’s sports teams.  We talk it up before the students arrive and we talk it up when we first meet the kids in August.  We tell them what a great opportunity it is and how it will help them understand American high school “spirit,” make it easier to become part of high school life in American, and will help them make some friends at the beginning of the school year.

All very true statements!  I’m supervising a couple of exchange students this year who are on their school’s cheerleading team and who are thrilled to be able to do something that is so typically “American.”  My own student (the one we’re hosting) has been happily playing soccer and was tickled by the warm welcome he received by the players and the coaches.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details.  Participating in school sports is not automatic and there are many limitations for exchange students.  The rules vary from state to state.  But here’s a quick glance at a few rules from different states:

* If an exchange student has requested a specific host family (for example, because an older brother or sister lived with them, or the student’s parents know the host family), the exchange student may not be allowed to compete in a high school sport at his or her U.S. high school.  (They might be allowed to train and just not compete; it all depends on the state’s rules.)

* If the student has graduated from high school in his or her home country, many U.S. states will not allow the student to participate in high school sports.

* Some states do not let exchange students play at the varsity level at all.

* There usually are rules about what happens if a student transfers to another school during the school year or if they are attending a school outside the boundaries of where their family lives.  This can affect exchange students if they move to a different host family during the year, or if the school district has given permission for the student to attend another high school in the district where the host family lives.

* U.S. states often require that the exchange program be listed on the advisory list of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), the standard-setting organization for exchange programs.

If a student can’t play on their school’s official team, there often are city or other regional recreational teams that can be just as much fun (or even more fun, depending on whether a student is looking for the competitive aspect or just wants to play and meet people!).  So just something to know in advance, whether you are a student looking forward to playing sports at an American high school or whether you are a host parent trying to help your new student get settled in at school.

Why do people host a teen from another country?

I’ve been thinking about this lately, as all the foreign student exchange programs struggled to find host families by the U.S. government deadline for all the students who had applied to come to the U.S. for an exchange year.  It seemed harder this year to find families.  That perception seems to be borne out by the numbers – maybe it’s anecdotal or maybe it’s just regional, but many local schools have reported fewer exchange students being enrolled than usual.

Maybe it’s the economy making people nervous about the financial burden of feeding another person.  But in some regions of the country, numbers were up.  So I’ll leave the mystery of “why not” to the number crunchers to figure out; I’m going to focus on the other side of the coin: why we *do* host.

Yes, the teen years can be a challenge, and yes, it’s a challenge to make someone part of your family who comes in with no connection to you.  But there are many reasons why Americans (and others) have been enthusiastically choosing to host teens from other countries for many years.  The desire to learn from others while passing along your personal view of life in this country is strong.  People everywhere are proud of their culture and their country, and want to share their experience.  Hosting a student provides an opportunity to learn about another culture from the perspective of what that culture is like on a daily basis, as students share with their host families the differences in their own families.  For host families with children, exposing one’s children to other cultures can help them understand other people better and communicate across cultures, and develop tolerances for differences.

What it really comes down to, I think, is this:

* Students tasting a freshly baked Voodoo Donut for the very first time (if you don’t know what that is – come to Portland and find out for yourself!) – and reminding us how good they taste.

* A boy from Italy playing volleyball in a school tournament (a game that in America is usually considered a “girl’s” sport) and becoming known throughout the school for the rest of the school year as the Volleyball King – and reminding us that it takes courage to stand up and be different.

* Coming around the curve on Highway 101 on the Oregon coast and seeing Haystack Rock loom up out of the surf and hearing the “oh wow” from the back seat – and reminding us that yes, it really is a pretty cool sight.

* Just the other day, a student from Spain told me about how much fun she was having learning how to be a cheerleader.  “We don’t have this at home,” she reminded me excitedly.  “This is America.  I am living my own American dream.”

Yes, it’s hard work hosting and advising the kids all year.  Yes, it’s only September and we coordinators, counselors, and host families will have teen issues and angst to deal with in October and December and February.  But we live for the grins and the smiles, the looks of awe and amazement, the courage of 16 and 17 year olds — and for the airport pickups of former students when they come back to visit a year (or two or four or ten years) later and having them shout “shotgun” to get the front seat and arguing with their “brothers” before you even leave the airport.  Family is family, after all, no matter where they started.

Why Aren’t Americans Hosting Exchange Students — Or Are They?

I’m struck this year by the difficulties foreign exchange student programs in the United States seem to be having in finding host families; at least, that’s the sense here in Oregon.  There are many more openings today in mid-August at many more schools than one would expect so late in the foreign exchange student placement process.

Is it the economy? Is it a regional issue?  Is it lack of information that’s available for potential families? Is it misunderstanding about what’s required and what support you will get if something goes wrong?  Is it something else entirely?  Or is it just that people are not making their decisions on this until the very last minute?

Having a foreign-born teenager in your home for 5 or 10 months is certainly a more involved process than deciding what to have for dinner.  And it’s definitely not the right thing to do for every family; even families who are enthusiastic about hosting exchange students don’t necessarily do it every year.  But it’s also a fact that thousands of families in the U.S. have participated successfully in exchange programs for years, have established lasting relationships around the world, and have gained a son or daughter in the process as well as a better understanding of other cultures.

What’s the difference this year? I would be interested in hearing from people on this topic.  Send me your comments.