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Exchange Student Notes: What’s the Most Important Thing to Know Before I Go?

Sometimes students ask their coordinators questions about life in the host country even before students arrive. Many of those questions are practical: how long is the school day? Are there classes I have to take? Can I be a senior even if I’m not a senior back home? Does my school require me to wear a uniform? Can I go to a concert or other places by myself? Can I get my driver’s license?

From a teenager’s point of view, these are important questions. We try to answer those questions to help students have a better idea about those practical sides of life, and to help them feel a little more comfortable — a little less anxious — about what’s to come. Knowing a bit about what to expect at school, for example, can help reduce nervousness about that particular unknown.

But we also try to instill in our new soon-to-be-students something more basic, something that underlies all those practical questions. What, really, is the most important thing for students to know?

The most important thing is to communicate. That means talking — to everyone around you in your host country, not just your parents and friends back home. It means asking questions — to your host parents, your host siblings, your teachers at school, your coordinator, other students you meet. It means explaining what you are saying to others, because your English is not likely yet to be the best. It means asking people to repeat or explain what they are saying to you, to make sure you understand.

Let’s emphasize that…

Ask questions

Don’t assume you that you understand. If you have missed words in a sentence — ask the person to repeat or explain. There is a huge chance that the words and phrases you miss will be important to understanding the entire sentence. Even if you understand the words, you may not understand the context. Culture is different, and languages don’t always translate words into the “right” meanings. Your brain may be able to translate the English words into German, Spanish, or Japanese — but the entire intent of what was just said to you may mean something entirely different.

Learn to talk to your teachers

The cultural “normal” for how one acts in school with other students, teachers, and administrators may be very different from what is normal in a student’s home country. In the U.S., teachers are generally approachable and consider questions from students appropriate — even desirable and expected. Teachers may be available both before and after the class itself for students to come and ask questions. Students will probably need to turn in homework assignments on a regular basis and will receive grades on those assignments, which may be different from back home. Don’t assume that it is OK not to turn in a homework assignment, just because you don’t remember the teacher saying anything about turning it in. You may not have heard, because (whether you realize this or not) your brain is working furiously to hear and translate, and you probably can’t keep up. Your brain may not have translated the English properly, or the teacher may assume you know the requirements.

Ask for help if you don’t understand an assignment — don’t make guesses. Perhaps making a guess is normal for you back home — but you’re not back home. Perhaps turning in assignments at the end of the school term is normal back home — but you’re not back home. Perhaps turning in a poorly done work product is not a good thing to do back home — but you’re not back home. Students will tell us, “I was going to re-do it and turn it in at the end of the month.” They assume that’s OK — but it’s not. Students will tell us, “I didn’t turn it in because I know it was not done right, so I was going to try to fix it first.” They assume that’s OK — but it’s not. Doing poorly is better than getting a 0% and will likely get you some points for effort. The experience may teach you more than you think about the subject.

Talk to your program’s local contact person

We are not just here for if you get in trouble; students often think that until something happens, and then they’re surprised we have ideas and suggestions on how to help things get better. Your coordinator is not just here to tell you the rules about what you cannot do — we know, of course, we have to tell you that, too, but we’re here to help you with what you *can* do, and to give you ideas on how to do well and be happy. Your coordinator can answer questions and help explain how things are different from back home. Your coordinator can help you explain your feelings and perspective to your host family if you are having difficulty communicating.

Don’t suffer in silence

So what’s the most important thing you need to know as an exchange student? The answer is that you’re not alone. You’ve got help along the way, whether the question is about homework, social life, or problems at school or in your host family. But you need to ask. You need to talk. You need to explain what your feelings are and you need to remember that you might need to explain yourself in several ways and several times. Your host parents, your school, your program contact — they can’t answer your questions, help you adjust to a different world, or help you solve a problem if you don’t communicate to them anything about the problem or the question.

It will be worth it if you do:

“Many people say I went on a vacation this year. All of those people are wrong. What I learned is not comparable to what a year of regular Italian school could have taught me. I learned the meaning of setting your mind to a goal and work to reach it, I learned how to be a great leader in the community, I learned to help the others in rough times. I learned that school is not just about grades and studying but also about getting involved and participating. I learned that you don’t need to have expensive bags and shoes to be a cool person. All you need is yourself and a lot of positivity to transmit to people. I learned how much joy you can give volunteering … I learned that you always have to learn.”

–A student from Italy, 2014-2015  

Photo credits: Harsh Jadav, Andrew Neel.

Homework in the U.S. Educational System: How Do We Compare to Others?

Is homework a good idea? Does it have an impact on whether an educational system is successful? Will students learn better and learn more?

This infographic doesn’t provide definitive answers to those questions, but it does make one stop and think. We’re posting it not to offer an opinion, but just to say “here’s some food for thought!”

Homework Around the World [Infographic]

 

 

Homework Around the World [Infographic] brought to you by Ozicare Life Insurance

International Education Week 2016

Today is the beginning of International Education Week 2016, an annual joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education to talk about the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide.

To help kick off International Education Week, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released its annual Open Doors Report today. Lots of interesting facts and figures! Among other things, the number of international students studying in the U.S. has now surpassed one million. The number of U.S. students studying abroad also increased, for a total of about 313,000 during 2014-2015.

Explore some of the data yourself at the IIE website. To find out more about the Open Doors Report or activities connected with International Education Week, check out these hashtags on social media platforms: #OpenDoorsReport and #IEW2016.

iie-graphic

The Sun Did Rise Today, and Will Rise Again Tomorrow

We wanted to share a message we sent to the exchange students in our region this morning…

Dear Students,

The U.S. presidential election is over. It’s been a wild ride, one that you have been privileged to witness — yes, privileged, no matter which candidate you were hoping would win. It has been one of the most contentious, divisive campaigns this country has seen…believe it or not, it’s not the most contentious or the most divisive election in our history. It has brought to the surface the “high’s” of living in a democracy, and, we’re sad to say, it also has brought out some “low’s.” You may live with a host family who are rejoicing this morning, or you may live with a host family who are worrying about the future. All of your host families, regardless of who they voted for, are citizens of this democracy.

It’s the future we want you to think about, as well as the present. Now, the next phase begins. This, too, is part of the “American experiment” — what happens after a major election, even when half the population voted for someone else? You are here to witness that. Over the next few months, you will see the peaceful transition of power to a completely different group of leaders; President Obama noted this morning in his address to the nation that “the peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks our democracy.”

You will see peaceful disagreement with the policies of those leaders. You will, no doubt, also see less-than-peaceful disagreements. As President Obama also noted, democracy can be “messy.” The divisiveness mentioned above is significant, and it’s serious. It means we have a lot of work to do, both here in the U.S. as the new Administration takes office — as well as abroad, with you, your families, and your home cultures. You are part of what it’s all about.

We encourage all our students to talk to their host families about the meaning of the U.S. election and the meaning of democracy, open political discussion, free speech, and civil disobedience. All of these issues are part of what we hope you are learning during your exchange. Talk to your local program coordinator. Talk to us, too. As you no doubt have learned, Americans love to talk about these issues. What’s most important after yesterday is that it we all must continue to talk about these issues, and more.

 

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Travel and Culture: The Road Trip of Exchange and Study Abroad

When I’m out and about, whether it be at a single day event or traveling for a weekend or a week, I think of all the things I like to share with students about our country and our life. A road trip, such as the one we did just a few weeks ago, brings that home.

Our trip took us from Portland, Oregon, through eastern Oregon, into Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and finally Colorado. We saw major changes even on the first day. In the space of a few hours, we left our bustling metropolitan area of more than two million people, drove through the beauty and dramatic scenery of the Columbia River Gorge, and watched the countryside change from lush green to arid rangeland — without ever leaving the state of Oregon.

Jumping Off the Cliff . . . Into an Exchange

In Twin Falls, Idaho, we watched for a while as people parachuted off the famous Perrine Bridge into the Snake River Canyon. Perrine Bridge is one of the few locations where BASE jumping (the term for this kind of parachute jumping from a fixed object such as a bridge) is permitted year-round. I thought of our students as we watched the jumpers on an incredibly clear sunny day. Our students are as prepared as they can be with their packs of knowledge and pre-arrival preparation. They can see ahead, as the jumpers can see the canyon and the river bank below them. They think they have a clear view of what will come next. They have an idea of the terrain.

BASE jumping Perrine Bridge
Photo credit: Chris McNaught, Twin Falls, Idaho. Perrine Bridge BASE Jumping, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5533192

Yet that’s all it is — an idea. Even though they can see what lies ahead, they don’t really know what kind of landing they will have. Smooth and easy, gliding straight to the desirable flat grassy area? A bit hard on the knees due to misjudgment? A water landing?

Some will give up after a bad landing (a difficult initial adjustment or tough problems at school). Some will pick themselves up and jump again, learning from their mistakes. Some will find it all exhilarating. Some will argue that a water landing is awful (a tough time in a big city when you’re used to a small town, perhaps). Some will argue, as did some of the jumpers we met, that a water landing isn’t bad. It’s just a different experience.

The Same . . . But Different

As we drove through eastern Oregon, western Idaho, a short zig in and out of Utah, northern Wyoming, and finally western Colorado, I thought of friends and colleagues who live in these places. We’re connected by common language and culture, and our students from Europe and Asia think of all of us — whether we’re from Oregon, Idaho, Utah, or anywhere else in the U.S. — as being the same. Yet we’re not — or, perhaps, more accurately we’re all the same and yet we’re all different. We are separated by different twists in the English language and different local cultural norms, resulting from different local upbringings and totally different landscapes. A day’s drive may result in our never leaving the state in which we live, and so we are still in familiar territory. But we have reached a different world and so we’re in an unfamiliar land.

Wyoming
Green River, Wyoming

It’s hard to get used to different cultural expectations and a world that does not look anything like the world you are used to seeing outside your family home. I have to honestly ask myself if I could live in the wide open spaces of Wyoming for a year, when most of my life has been with an ocean within reach. Yet we ask our students to do exactly this, and more.

We know our students sometimes have a hard time adjusting to their host family and host community. Teens from large cities don’t know what to do when they arrive in a small town. Students from small towns are often bewildered when their host family lives in an urban area. Students who grew up with multiple siblings have some difficulty living in families with no children in the home. Students with no siblings have to learn how to share space when they’ve never done that before.

We “get it” perhaps more than they know. We hope we can show them how to navigate through it and enjoy their extended “road trip.” We hope, certainly, that we can help show them something of the vastness of the world we live in — not just the size and diversity of the United States as a place, but also the differences even within a place that many characterize as a single culture. If we can teach them that it’s more complex than that, and that the same is true of people and places everywhere, we’ll have succeeded. That’s what makes travel so exhilarating and exploration of other places so much fun.

RV at wooded campsite
Home for a week . . . Golden, Colorado

 

Photos Copyright 2016 Laura Kosloff, except as noted

 

Note From an Exchange Student: I’m Homesick…How Long Will it Take Me to Settle In?

I’ve been in the U.S. for more than two months now and I don’t have any friends here. It makes me sad. I talk to my friends back home a lot since I don’t have anyone to talk to here in my host country. What else can I do?

It’s around this time of year that students express feelings such as that expressed by the comment above. Students arrive in August in an excited mood, and think that everything will fall into place quickly. How hard can it be to make friends?

Making new friendships and establishing relationships with host family, teachers, and others, however, is more of a challenge than many students realize. One of the reasons we encourage students to join a sports team (even if they’ve never played the sport) or band or drama (even if they’ve never been in band or acted in a play) is that these activities help bring abigail-keenan-sports-huddlestudents into the community and form immediate bonds with a group of students at school. It helps them feel like they belong. Even those students, however, may sometimes feel lonely, left out of an activity, or just generally homesick due to how different life is in the host home and community.

One of our students last year told us that he thinks the most important piece of advice he can give to other high school exchange students or college study abroad students is “Don’t suffer alone! Talk to someone here in your host country, talk to your host family!” We talk to our students about things that they can do to get their minds off how they are feeling. Think about what do you do back home when you are sad. Keep active. Don’t stay in your bedroom; it’s better to hang out in your host family’s living room or family room, so that you can have conversations (which can further help get your mind off how you are feeling). Go for a run. Get involved in a sport, art/music/theater. Do things with your host family, even ordinary things: watch your host family’s favorite TV show with them, go to the grocery store with your host dad, go for a walk with the dog with your host mom.

Students sometimes tell us, “but I don’t like doing any of those activities.” We tell them how any activity will help them focus on something else. Moreover, ordinary activities can help you to get to know the area where you are living, and—perhaps most importantly—host parents will appreciate the fact that their student is showing interest. That last item may seem like a small thing, but it’s those small things that add up, eventually, to real relationships.

J-1 visa students have a local contact person from their exchange program; F-1 visa students may have a local program contact or at least someone at their school who is responsible for exchange students. We encourage students to call that contact person when they are feeling a bit low. Be honest about how you are feeling. Your local coordinator will be happy to sit down with you and help you think of ways to feel like you belong.

Students sometimes think that the answer to their difficulties is to find a new host family. Teens have a tendency to think things happen quickly, so if they don’t immediately feel that they are making friends or becoming close to their host family, they think it means that they need a new school or that they and their host family are not a good “match.” We try to encourage students to think differently — to recognize that making friends, feeling like you belong, and being comfortable in a new environment takes time no matter where you live and who you live with.

Students also often feel that talking to family or friends in their home country will make them feel better. We find that usually the opposite is true. We work with students to get them to spend less time communicating with friends and family back home. If you are spending a lot of time on your smartphone or laptop with friends and family back home — think about cutting that time down. The more time you spend talking to people you know back home, the more you are thinking about what is going on back home — and the less time you are spending getting used to your life in your host country.girl on laptop and phone

The key advice to succeed, in our opinion, is becoming involved and truly part of your host culture. The above examples are ways to do that. Students might be able to think of more ways based on their own personal interests, and host parents might have ideas, too. Hang in there!

Photo credits: Abigail Keenan and Steinar La Engeland

The Meaning of Global Citizenship

I love infographics….This one covers a wide range of sub-topics under the general heading of “raising your child in today’s global world.” It includes data on the increase in cross-border trade; companies expecting employees to work abroad; and interest of young people today in working abroad. It raises briefly issues such as:

* How do you learn how to think about global problems?

* How can you be prepared to be successful anywhere?

* How can you learn how to be a problem-solver, not just a repository of data and statistics?

For those who just like to click on the link and see the “original”: A Passport to Global Citizenship.
A Passport to Global Citizenship Infographic
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