Getting Ready for the New Exchange Year: What If We Don’t Like Each Other?

I read this statement recently in a blog post:

On August 12, 2016, I arrived in California. I still remember when I got off the plane, seeing unfamiliar faces holding a sign that has my name on it. I was nervous and terrified that they wouldn’t like me; I thought it would feel awkward to live with a family that I had never met before.

—Mariam Awwad from Jordan, U.S. Dept. of State YES Program student, “Experience of a Lifetime in California,” July 4, 2017.

We see similar worries from our own students every year:

“I am worried. I don’t think my host family and I have anything in common. I won’t have any host siblings.”

“I am so nervous. My host family has small children and I am not used to that. What if the kids don’t like me? What if I make mistakes, will my host parents get mad at me?”

It’s not just the students who worry that their host family won’t like them. Host families worry just as much. We hear from parents who worry that their student won’t like the food, or that they’ll be homesick and the host parents won’t know how to comfort them. We hear from host siblings worried that their new host sister or brother won’t be able to make friends — or the opposite, that their student will be so popular that the host sibling will be left out.

Everyone is excited … and everyone worries. Here’s what we tell them.

First — you are not alone. It’s exciting to step off the plane into a new adventure, and it’s exciting to host someone from another country and culture. It’s normal to be nervous about how it will work on an everyday basis. Recognize your feelings and talk about them to each other. It’s ok for students to admit they’re nervous about leaving their home for 5 or 10 months. Some of our host families, too, have admitted that they’re nervous. Clear communication — and sharing feelings — is important, even at this early stage.

Second — All students have this idea in their heads about what their host family will be like. Then the host family and the community turn out to be something different, and the student panics. Host families do the same thing! A student is different from what the family thought they saw in the student’s profile and the family wonders “will it be ok?” Students and host families express surprise to their coordinator: “I had information about my host family, and they are not like what I read about,” or “My student is not the way he seemed in his profile.”

But think about it … for students, is it really a surprise that a family you’ve never met is more complex and different from what a one-page summary told you? For families, is it really a surprise that a three- or four-page application didn’t reflect the whole picture, or that a teenager’s likes and dislikes may have changed in the 6 or 9 or more months since an application was filed? For everyone — is it really a surprise that people from another country act differently from what you are used to?

Some students are nervous because their host parents don’t have children in the home. Some students worry about whether they will have enough privacy and personal time because their host families have toddlers. Some students are nervous because their host family lives in a big city; some students are nervous because their host family lives in a small town or on a farm. Families worry for the same reasons: a student doesn’t have siblings so may have difficulty getting used to having a host brother, or comes from a small school and will be attending a school of 1,500 students here in the U.S., or will have to get used to not having public transportation just outside. They want to be the best family possible for their student, and they want to help their student have a successful and fun experience. They worry about whether their plans to do that will work.

word "unknown" with some trees and building in background

The basic thing to remember is just this: you don’t know each other yet. Be open to the experience. It takes time to get to know people! It’s hard to do that before you get here, and it’s not possible to do it in a week or two. Before students arrive, you can text, email, and Skype — but you won’t really get to know each other until you have lived with each other for a while.

Students and families may be worried about the whole adventure. A semester or academic year is a long time to live with someone you have never met. Now that the time is approaching, it feels real. Years ago, shortly before I left for my study-abroad semester in Switzerland, I, too, started to worry. I didn’t know French … maybe I shouldn’t go? I didn’t have a specific schedule since I was doing an independent study project … maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all. Our own son began asking similar questions almost five years ago as the departure date approached for his six-month exchange program in Ghana. What if I don’t get along with my host family, he said; they don’t have teenagers. Maybe it’s too expensive, he said. Maybe I shouldn’t go, he said.

I went, of course. So did our son. There were challenges, of course. But challenges are part of life, and now I can’t imagine not having gone. Our son, too, values his experience and is glad we didn’t let him change his mind.

Being an exchange student — or hosting one — is exciting, fascinating, and an amazing experience that you will all remember forever. It also takes work. Very few students have a perfect fit into their host family and their host community from Day One with no issues or conflicts. There’s no magic wand to build instant relationships. Everything takes time. That’s one of the reasons your coordinators and your exchange program are here — we want to help you build relationships and help you feel like a member of our community.

We’ll close with this statement from Mariam, the student we quoted at the beginning of this post, on how she felt at the end of her exchange year:

Now they are my second family. I have learned how to support each other no matter what, and how to always be helpful and positive. They made my exchange year way better. They showed me what it means to be a member of an American family. I am so thankful and blessed for having them in my life.

 

 

Why We Believe

person holding globe in front of them

Our new year starts this weekend, with one student arriving this Saturday . . . and then next week about a dozen more . . . and almost a dozen more over the following two weeks. Host families they have never met will be waiting for these teens. Families have gone to great lengths to make their new family members feel welcome — perhaps repainting bedrooms, re-arranging space in homes, making personal welcome signs, and making plans for showing their student the community in which he or she will be living. They will greet these strangers walking out of the airport’s security area with the kind of the enthusiasm usually reserved for immediate family members.

With the stroke of a pen (well, the clickety clack of a few keystrokes), we exchange coordinators create new bonds and create paths to new friendships and relationships. It’s a joy to watch and an awesome responsibility. We know there’s a ton of work to do; our role doesn’t end the day the students arrive. Indeed, you could say it’s just beginning.

We believe in the value of these exchanges, and that the work is worthwhile. We’ll end today with this video … yes, it’s a promotional video, but it’s a darn good one, and makes some good statements on why we believe in hosting, in the words of host families who have done it and students who have experienced it.

See you at the airport!

 

Feature photo credit: Slava Bowman

We Had a Bad Hosting Experience . . . Why Should We Host Again?

Woman leaping over chasm at dusk

From an email we received during the last school year:

We are currently hosting an exchange student. We are not enjoying it. The student is not as she described herself in her application. Our student is lazy, grumpy, and moody. Our home has felt awkward for months and we are anxious for her to leave. My wife is against the idea of ever doing this again. I am against it too, at this point … Given that we’ve had such a bad time, am I crazy to consider it again?

Hosting an international student can be a ton of fun. You will view your community and the world around you a bit  differently after you’ve seen them through the eyes of someone new to your community and the United States. Hosting an exchange student can open you up to new ways of looking at the world, make you appreciate your own culture more than before, and help you make long-term friendships around the world.

But it’s not automatic. We can’t wave a magic wand and say “this new person will fit into your family perfectly as of Day One!” It takes work by both the family and the student. Teachers and counselors at the school will help (and often are under-appreciated). What parents back home do and say can either help adjustment or hinder it. Finally, the exchange organization should be part of the working mix — your local representative can be a lifesaver!

Often, when we as coordinators realize that there is a problem, we find that there are things going on that neither the student nor the family have talked about. The students are teenagers, so it’s not a surprise that they either believe they can solve everything themselves or think they’ll get in trouble for “complaining.” Interestingly, though, we sometimes find the same pattern among adults. We often find host families do not contact their coordinator because they feel as adults they should be able to deal with a teenager with no outside help, or they worry about bothering their organizational contact about “little” things. Sometimes, it takes a student move for the student and the host family to learn that open communications are critical to a successful hosting experience — perhaps more open and more direct than they may be used to within their own family.

Moving a student out of the host family home is usually not a reflection on the student’s personality or on the host family’s ability to provide a suitable home. Most of the time, it’s a communication issue (or a combination of communication issues that build up — see this prior blog post). This is a “people to people” experience, and you are not just dealing with different cultures but different personalities. No one can promise you that it will be a perfect experience, or an easy one. That’s not how relationships work.

Last year, we moved a student out of one host family home into another. The student did fabulously in the new family. The original family is now considering hosting again. They realize that while they wished their student had done some things differently, they could have done things differently as well. They chose their first student without asking many questions, and know now the kind of personality that might fit better in their family. They have learned that trying to solve problems by themselves without bothering their program coordinator isn’t always a good idea (the student learned this as well). The little things became big things, like a snowball rolling downhill.

We urge host families to host again if they feel they had a negative experience the first time. If you are ever in that situation yourself, we urge you to brainstorm with your coordinator right away. Your coordinator can help you see what might be going on with your student — maybe he or she is lonely, homesick, having problems at school, having trouble making friends, or worried about something going on back home. Remember that dealing with people is complicated. Learn from the experience. You might want to choose a student based on personality type rather than focusing on specific student interests, for example; what a teenager likes when they fill out their application may not be what they are interested in 6 or 9 months later when they leave for their exchange year. So think about what type of personality would fit into your home. Are there cultures and countries that might fit your family’s personality better? Think about what you could do differently, not just what you wish your student had done differently. Should you impose more structure early on this time around, whether on the level of communications with back home, or the amount of  Internet use?

Even we coordinators sometimes have hosting experiences that result in moving a student out of our home. We choose not to use the words “negative” or “bad” to describe those experiences, to try and get readers (whether you are a host family, student, or worried parent back home) to look at the situation differently. Moving a student out of a host family is a tough decision for family, student, and coordinator. We don’t do it lightly, because we know that working at a relationship can improve it, and we don’t want to encourage the idea that if it’s not perfect from Day One you can wave a magic wand and start over with a new perfect host family or student.

Sometimes, however, it’s best for the student and host family to start again. We don’t send students home just because their first host family didn’t work out the way we had planned, and we have seen how the second time around can be a huge success. It can be the same on the host family’s side as well, and we urge anyone who feels they had a “bad” experience to not let that determine the future. Don’t avoid experiences . . . learn from them!

 

words never a failure always a lesson on chalkboard

Time and Language: Can You See the Future?

old fashioned pocket watch showing watch insides

We recently watched the 2016 movie Arrival, which critics are calling one of the best science fiction movies in decades. We enjoyed it as a film that tries to envision how our planet’s politics might play into first contact with alien visitors. We also liked how the movie focused on how language intersects with culture. As regional coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year, a high school student exchange program placing 2,500+ students in the U.S. every year, we work all year long with students from around the world who are trying to understand our culture and speak our language. We know that to understand one, you need to understand the other.

We express our culture through language, and our language defines how we interact with our world. It’s hard to separate one from the other, or to determine “which came first?” Learning another language is not just about learning the words for “person,” “table,” and “animal.” Arrival shows us the truth of this statement. In the movie, linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) works to translate words and concepts so that humans and the aliens can talk to each other. As she struggles to learn the aliens’ language, she realizes that the key is that the aliens view time very differently than we do. This view of the universe winds its way throughout the aliens’ language. The way they express time enables them to see pieces of the future; as Louise learns the language, she learns the culture — and so sees her own future.

Fantastical, beyond our reality, and make-believe — yes. It is, after all, a fictional story about meeting aliens from another world. But is it really so fantastical to think that people from different cultures will view abstract concepts such as time, place, and distance differently? In a way, Arrival describes the reality of language and culture on our own planet. It’s about viewing the entire universe the way the other person views it and realizing that this changes how you view your own universe.

Viewing time differently isn’t as fantastical as you might think. Some cultures (and, therefore, some languages) express time as a means of looking to the future — “future-in-front” languages as linguist Panos Athanasopoulos discusses in this article. Native English speakers visualize the future as being ahead of us and the past as behind us, already done and gone. But not all cultures on Earth look at time that way, as Athanasopoulos describes:

[F]or speakers of Aymara (spoken in Peru), looking ahead means looking at the past. The word for future (qhipuru) means “behind time” – so the spatial axis is reversed: the future is behind, the past is ahead. The logic in Aymara appears to be this: we can’t look into the future just like we can’t see behind us. The past is already known to us, we can see it just like anything else that appears in our field of vision, in front of us.

The study conducted by Athanasopoulos and colleagues implies that the language we speak will affect whether we believe that time is passing slower or faster. He submits that bilingual people “go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously.” I find the idea fascinating — that one can go between such different world views just by speaking another language. He also argues that going back and forth between different languages regularly “confers advantages on the ability to learn and multitask, and even long term benefits for mental well-being.” I like that idea, but I’ll leave that for others to debate.

What I want to leave readers with today is just this, whether you are the host family trying to understand the student in your home, the student trying to learn how to be part of a new environment, the teacher trying to help, or the parent back home watching your child from afar. If you really work at not just translating word by word but rather try to see the why and how of another language, you will come to view your own universe differently. That might be a bit unsettling … but it’s exciting, too. Moreover, seeing how the ‘other’ really thinks can only be positive in establishing friendships and long-term relationships. That seems like a good idea to me.

 

Scrabble word future

More Beginnings: New Goals!

one sign over here other sign no this way with sky in background

Over the years, we have learned so much about the challenges involved when students leave their countries to experience a different culture. It’s difficult for parents to see their children fly away, often for their first lengthy absence from home. It can be difficult for the students to adapt to different behaviors and expectations in the United States (as when one student confused Spam with cat food…). And host families may not know how to successfully welcome a student into their home. We’re proud to be a part of this — to be able to send more mature students home to their parents and to be able to help facilitate Americans learning about other cultures, one person at a time.

It’s not always an easy path from August to June — 10 months is a long time. The reality is that everyone involved is human, and humans make mistakes. Most of these mistakes don’t have to lead to big problems, but sometimes they do. Small misunderstandings and cultural differences blossom into conflicts for many students and their host families every year. We started The Exchange Mom blog and website several years ago with the goal of helping to tackle these kinds of misunderstandings on a broader level than just our own local exchange student community. We hope it’s playing that role, and we’re gratified by the followers that The Exchange Mom has on Facebook and Twitter. We would like to make it something more, though.

That’s why we have set up a Patreon page. For those who are not familiar with it, Patreon is a crowdfunding platform for people creating all kinds of work: written work as well as podcasts, videos, artwork, music, and more. Instead of gathering up funds in one sitting and then moving forward like Kickstarter, Patreon’s “creators” are paid by patrons who pledge an ongoing amount. A patron can be anyone who believes in the item being created, and contribution amounts can range from $1/month and up — you can choose!

With your support, we can take our role as “exchange year information source” further. We’re not charging for our content; our website is still here and we’re still blogging, and that’s still free. We’re just asking for your support. We would like to be able to post more often, as well as provide tips on a more regular basis. We would like to be able to update and add to our website. We have goals of doing videos and perhaps even pulling together thoughts for another book. We don’t know yet exactly the direction this will take us … it makes us nervous but hopefully it will be fun, too!

roads going off to right and left with question mark in the middle

I remember a few short months ago going to the home of one of our host families to say goodbye to their student from the Netherlands, who was getting ready to return home after her one-semester adventure here in the U.S. We both began to cry. But it was a good cry…recognizing all the ups and downs during the past six months, the things she has learned, the “stepping outside your comfort zone.” She has grown so much! And seeing that growth — and being a small part of it — is why we do what we do.

We couldn’t even dream of this project without you — our followers here on the blog and website. We welcome your support at any level.

 

Support the Exchange Mom on Patreon!

 

Patreon in black on red background