We Think We Want to Host an Exchange Student: What Do We Need to Know?

Why is hosting is a good idea?

Student educational exchanges became popular after World War II. The U.S. government encouraged exchanges to increase participants’ understanding and tolerance of other cultures, as well as improve language skills and broaden young people’s social horizons. The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961 (more commonly called the Fulbright-Hays Act) showed that the U.S. considered international student exchange programs an important element of U.S. diplomacy. The Fulbright program continues today as one of the best known and prestigious government-supported international exchange programs.

Cultural exchanges such as hosting high school exchange students offer benefits beyond being “a good citizen.” Beyond actually learning about another culture and how things might be done differently on a daily basis, it challenges one’s assumptions about other cultures, teaches communication skills, and helps develop patience and flexibility. But believing in cultural exchange doesn’t help put it into practical terms.

What are some of the reasons people give for hosting?

Hendricks Halloween 2008 (640x480)
Seeing Halloween through the eyes of someone who has never experienced it before can give an American family new appreciation for the fun of the holiday

Reasons for choosing to host an exchange student vary.  They include a desire for exposure to foreign cultures, building long-term relationships, changing the dynamics of children’s relationships in the family, and learning how to prepare for when your own kids become teenagers. We found that hosting an exchange student was a great way to reduce sibling rivalries, and hosting and working with teens from around the world has taught us not only how to deal with teens (a practical skill that has come in handy with our own children), but also patience and a better understanding of the similarities and differences among people. Welcoming an international student into your home can spark an interest in your own children, as well in other teens at your local high school, in learning about other cultures. The exchange experience can lead to lasting friendships with people from around the world.

What do we need to provide to a student?

Host families provide room, board, and a family environment. “Room” means a bed (the State Department does not allow a futon or air mattress), storage space, and study space (not necessarily in the bedroom). You do not need to provide a separate bedroom; students can often share a room with a sibling. “Board” means food in the home: three meals/day and reasonable snacks. “Family environment” means the student should be treated like a member of your family, not a guest. They go shopping with you, they go to the farmers’ market with the family, and they go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving. If they stay out past curfew, they can be grounded like any other teen member of the family.

We don’t have teenagers; how can we be a good host family?

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Sharing holiday traditions does not require that you have teens in your home

American families come in all shapes and sizes, and so host families also come in all shapes and sizes: parents with teens, parents with younger children, young couples with no kids, single parents with children and even single parents with no children living in the home, empty nesters, and same-sex couples. Certainly, the exchange organizations need to confirm that a family is suitable regardless of who are the family members. All host family applicants in the U.S. go through a screening process that includes an application, criminal background checks for all adults, references, an in-home interview with all family members, and a host family orientation to educate the family on the basic expectations.

Are host families paid?

The U.S. Department of State J-1 visa program does not allow payments to host families. Host families can take a tax deduction on their U.S. federal tax return of $50/month for each month the student lives in the home, as long as the family itemizes taxes. More information on the tax deduction can be found in this IRS publication.

How expensive is it to host a student?

The primary cost to a host family is the cost connected with extra food for a teenager, some utilities expenses (lights, water, heat) and gasoline associated with reasonable transportation. Host families are not responsible for the costs of buying lunch at school, any fees at school (such as sports fees or cost of a yearbook), going out with friends to dinner, movie tickets, cell phone bill, or other personal expenses. These are all the responsibility of the exchange student. Students are also required by law to have their own medical insurance and pay for any medical expenses and insurance copayments.

Do students know that host families are volunteers?

The U.S. government requires exchange organizations to ensure that students and their families back home are educated about the cultural exchange nature of the program. They’re told that U.S. law prohibits J-1 visa host families from being paid, and that families are not hosting “for the money.” Exchange students, however, are teenagers; sometimes the meaning of “volunteer” takes a little while to sink in. Around this time of year, students begin to realize how much they receive from their host families.

Do the students speak decent English?

The U.S. government has a minimum standard of proficiency in English that exchange students must meet in order to be eligible for a semester or academic year program. Many exchange organizations have set a higher standard to help ensure student success in a U.S. high school. The exchange organizations do their best to make sure that students are enrolled in schools and communities for which their English is sufficient and which can support students’ efforts to improve their English.  Students do have different speaking and comprehension capabilities, however.  If the student’s English comprehension becomes an issue during the school year, steps can be taken (e.g., require a tutor at the student’s expense).

How are students prepared for life in an American home?

Before traveling to the United States, students must attend an orientation to learn about some cultural aspects of American life as well as practical tips (e.g., about travel, cell phones, clothing). They are educated about program rules and U.S. government regulations and expectations regarding school attendance and living in a host family. Their exchange organization will give them information on American customs and traditions, including background on the state and region where they will live. Although the U.S. government provides guidance on what is to be included in these orientations, each exchange organization prepares their students differently. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

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Jorge doing yard work, 2007.  Students should expect a reasonable amount of chores.

The second level of preparation before arrival is direct communication between the host family and the student, and often between the local coordinator and the student. Once the host family has completed the screening process and the school has signed the required confirmation for enrollment, host families and students can contact one another. As local coordinators, we will contact the students in our group each year as well, and will often answer some preliminary questions before students even arrive, which hopefully will ease their transition.

Finally, all students attend another orientation after they arrive in the U.S. Some programs do an initial orientation and retreat as soon as students arrive, providing an initial bonding and “get over your jet lag” time. Within a month or two after students arrive, local orientations are also held.

How long is the typical exchange experience?

The Department of State J-1 educational visa program offers students the opportunity to experience an academic semester or a full high school year. Most full-year students come in August and leave in May or June (depending on when school ends); students from countries such as South Korea, where the school year begins in January, may come for a calendar year. U.S. high schools on a trimester system generally cannot accommodate a half-year student due to school schedules.

Short-term programs are available as well. Short-term programs of 3-4 weeks can be a good way for a young teen to begin to experience another culture, begin to realize that language immersion has benefits, and begin to learn how to adjust to a different world away from home. Host families see the experience as a way to “try out” the exchange idea before committing to a semester or academic year exchange program. Short-term programs, however, do differ from longer term academic programs in fundamental ways; the students have different goals, motivations, and skill levels than those in longer programs. (For more thoughts on short-term programs, see my blog post on this issue here.)

I’m nervous about having someone I don’t know in my home for 9-10 months. There’s no way to know if the student will “fit” into our life! What if it doesn’t work out?

The U.S. Department of State requires all approved exchange organizations in the U.S. to have a support program.  Students and host families all have a local contact (sometimes called a local coordinator or local liaison). By law, the local contact will call or see you and your student at least once every month, if not more often depending on location, events going on, and issues needing to be addressed. If problems arise between the host family and student, the local coordinator can (and should) provide support. Support can include advice on ordinary teen issues, cultural information regarding the student’s home country and culture, suggestions for homesickness or difficulties in adjustment, and disciplinary measures for poor academics or behavioral issues. Support also covers logistical, travel, medical, and “daily life” issues (can a host parent sign a school permission slip? Can my student go skiing/snowboarding/join an archery club? Can our student come to Canada with us? Am I allowed to ground my student for the weekend if he refuses to come home before curfew?)

Visiting Sven in Berlin October 2014, seven years after his year in Oregon.

Lots of questions and challenges can come up during an exchange. Most questions can be answered and challenges can be resolved with help. But some cannot. If differences cannot be resolved, or if something unforeseen should happen in your life that makes it impossible to continue to host your student, your exchange organization will find a new home for the student.

For host families, it’s important to be informed about expectations, rules, and guidelines.  Students should think through their motivations and goals. Parents should participate in their child’s application and in the preparation process, as they also need to know what to expect.  The reality is that while many families are nervous about committing to an exchange student, and many families worry about sending their child off for studying in a foreign country, with help and communication, it usually works out just fine — or, hopefully, better than fine.

This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.  Check it out to find interesting blogs on international study and travel!


522604551 happy thanksgiving

We are thankful this Thanksgiving for our family and the good health of our children and ourselves.  We look forward to sharing our American Thanksgiving this year with our students from Germany and Norway.  All the best for this Thanksgiving Day holiday from our family to yours. 

–The Exchange Mom and family

The Honeymoon is Over: How to Handle Those Ds and Fs

I’ve had conversations about grades with three students over the past week. Each of them had at least one failing grade on their quarterly grade report. Each of them had “reasons” for the poor grades:

  • I didn’t know I really had to turn in assignments. I know you told me, but I didn’t think it would really matter.
  • My teacher didn’t tell me I was doing poorly.
  • I didn’t go talk to the teacher because I didn’t know that was OK, back home we can’t do that.
  • Back home I study for an hour each day, so I assumed I could do the same here. U.S. schools are so easy, everyone told me that.
  • I didn’t think being a few minutes late each day would be a big deal.

The Honeymoon is Over

U.S. government regulations require that high school exchange students pass all their classes. Students often think this will be easy; many of them have the impression that all U.S. schools are easier than their own. They are often genuinely dumbfounded when a progress report arrives at their host family’s home with a D or an F in a given class. The exchange programs take failing grades seriously; in rare cases, a student may face an early return to her home country if she cannot pick up the pace.

136222017 student studyingSome of them may be changing their perspective from “this is going to be the coolest year ever in my entire life” to, perhaps, “this is hard work . . . is it worth it? I don’t know if I can do this.”

The goal of those of us who work with high school international exchange students is to convince them that 1) yes, it is worth it; and 2) yes, they can do it. They are familiar now with their host family’s habits and general lifestyle. They know their town or city a bit, they know where things are at school. And despite those Ds and Fs – or maybe because of them – they better understand how the U.S. school system works.

The question now for the students I’ve spoken to this past week is not “what went wrong,” but “what are you going to do about it?”

Take Responsibility, Learn From Your Mistakes

So a message to students:

  • Failing a class is not the end of the world. For international students, it’s not unusual to have some difficulty in the beginning of the year. But it doesn’t make students feel any better to know this. Failing may make you feel embarrassed or even worried. But you can take control. Go to your teacher, your host parents, and your program coordinator and ask what you can do to correct the problem.
  • Own up to your mistakes. Then move on and figure out how to make things happen.
  • Talk about what is bothering you. If something is wrong – whether it be a problem at school, or a problem in your relationship with your host family — no one can fix it if you don’t talk about it. Are you having difficulty with the material? Tell someone. Are you having trouble understanding a teacher who talks too fast? Tell someone.
  • Your level of effort may matter more than your actual class grade. People will notice if you are working hard — and yes, your local program coordinator will notice, too. The U.S. government doesn’t want to send students home early – but it does want students to be ambassadors and representatives of their home country, and make a positive impression on U.S. students, teachers, and families.

Host Parents Can Help

As with our own children, communication with and information from the teachers and school contributes to a student’s success.

* Make sure your student’s teachers know he or she is an exchange student.

* Let all of your student’s teachers know you are his or her host parent and that you are open to hearing about how your student is doing at school.

* If your school has an online grading system, as many do these days, check your student’s account every couple of weeks.

* If you can help, offer such help to your student. Review his English essay, or offer some thoughts on the chapter he is reading about U.S. history.

* If your student needs extra assistance, talk to your program contact about having parents back home pay for a tutor.

If you know that your student is having difficulty in a class at school, you can better advise your student on what to do. Consult with your program liaison to see if he or she has some advice and together you can make a plan for your student’s success.

It Can Be Done

Of the students I spoke to this week, one understands now that spending an hour a day in study hall on homework isn’t enough. He also sees now that coming in late to class every day makes it hard for the teacher and disrupts class. Another has already talked to the English teacher to get some extra credit assignments. The third admitted she just thought it would be easy and so hadn’t really been trying very hard. Chances are they will all “get” it now. If not, we’ll keep talking. None of them are having difficulty in their host family or in adjusting to life generally. They just need to get over the hump.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted. 

When You Hear an Exchange Student Needs Help – What To Do?

A reader of the ExchangeMom blog recently posed this question:

My question is not about my student, but about another student in another state and program that is a friend of his. He has told me that her placement is not good. They are denying her medication and socialization. They are extremely religious and are forcing those beliefs on her. She has spoken with her representative and the school, so what are her next steps?

I hear reports like this quite often. Sometimes it comes from a host parent who has heard something from a friend, sometimes it comes from a student we are hosting or a student we are supervising. We always take such reports seriously, since the well-being of exchange students is our paramount concern. But I also discuss with the communicator of the report how students (both the one reporting to us and the friend) often jump to conclusions, feel insecure, or just don’t understand as much English as they think they do.

When you hear a story like this, remember several things

When we hear stories like this, we ask the person telling it to us to remember a few key points:

1) Teens have trouble believing their friends would not be 100% honest or factually correct in reporting their situation; adults, too, have trouble believing someone they know and trust could be mistaken or intentionally deceive them. Even our own student this year – who hears from us, as a result of our role in the program, quite a bit of information about how we work with students in the region — told us about a student he knew who was being sent home for underage drinking when (according to him) she hadn’t had any alcohol to drink; she had told him and others that the program made it all up.  We had quite a bit of difficulty in convincing him that this simply didn’t make sense. “She wouldn’t lie,” he said.

2) Miscommunication is the name of our game in the world of study abroad. Let’s face it — most of us aren’t great communicators to begin with, and most people of any age try to avoid conflict. Add to that mix teenagers from another country. Teens as a group act impulsively; as exchange students, they are acclimatizing to living in a foreign country and speaking a foreign language every day. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the result, if not managed, can be massive miscommunication.

Truth is in the eyes of the beholder

Truth 478611913The situation reported by the reader of our blog cries out “Miscommunication! Misunderstanding!” to me. On the religion issue, it may be that the host family is not forcing religious beliefs on their student. Rather, it could be that the student is uncomfortable with going to church, but sees that it is important to her host family and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Maybe she’s not a talkative or outgoing person and isn’t sure how to talk about this issue with her host parents. When we had a similar situation a few years ago, the host parents were horrified when we told them how their student felt. It was never their intent to force her to go to church. They believed they had been clear that she didn’t have to go. But she had felt that would be rude, and had said nothing, leading them to believe she enjoyed going and resulting in her being miserable.

Similar misunderstandings could be the cause of the student’s statement that her host parents are denying her medication. One possible explanation that comes to mind, for example, is that perhaps the student came with a batch of medicines and treatments of various kinds, and the host parents were uncomfortable with the student having control of it. (If you haven’t seen our blog post on this topic, read it here.) Our own student this year came with his personal small pharmacy that included everything from rash treatments to antibiotics, with no instructions; in fact, much of it wasn’t even in original packaging. Students from Eastern Europe and Asia sometimes come with entire travel bags of undecipherable items. In this case, “denying her medication” could be a responsible action for a host parent in the United States — what makes sense elsewhere doesn’t necessarily make sense here (and the reverse is also true!).

We are not trying to say that an adult who hears about such stories and situations should ignore the complaint. Not at all. The very fact of a complaint does suggest that there is a problem, even if it it’s not the problem the student is announcing. If a student is complaining, she’s unhappy about something, which someone needs to investigate. Whether she is unhappy because she is being mistreated, or because she is having trouble adjusting to the host environment, or simply doesn’t understand key elements in each sentence that is being spoken to her – something is wrong. True, it’s a lot easier for teens to blame the people around them than to take a long honest look at themselves, and culture shock can sometimes be quite a challenge. But you don’t want to ignore it.  The situation a student is describing could be mostly true. Even if it is not mostly true, there is a student who is having problems adjusting to her host family and community. If we can get to the bottom of it sooner rather than later, we can help solve the problem and with any luck the teen and her host family can have a rewarding experience. In some cases, however, the student may need to be moved.

When we get stories like this from host families or students, we recommend several things:

myths and facts 485017745* We encourage the concerned host family or student to really try to get the student who is upset to talk to their program coordinator. If they say “but she already did, her coordinator won’t doing anything/doesn’t like her,” we encourage them to tell their friend to try again. Maybe the coordinator didn’t understand what the student was trying to say, or maybe the student has more information than they did the first time they tried to talk about it. Maybe the student didn’t really talk to his or her coordinator, at least not enough for the coordinator to really understand there was a problem that needed to be addressed. Sometimes I can remind a student of something they themselves have complained about, and get them to remember our own conversation about it; that sometimes triggers an agreement (even if reluctant) that it’s not always easy to figure things out and that there usually are several sides to a story.

* We encourage the concerned host family or student to tell the student who is having difficulty that he or she can call the national office of her program, too, if she feels she is not getting support from her local coordinator. All exchange students should have a contact name and number for their main office.

* We encourage students to talk to another adult in their lives if they are having difficulty talking to their host parents or their local program contact. Of course, it’s preferable to talk to one’s host family or program contact – we want communication between students and host parents, and coordinators are there specifically to help guide families and students through the rough patches. But when you’re dealing with people, it doesn’t always work seamlessly. If a teen is close to a teacher, or a guidance counselor at school, that adult can help pave the way towards improved communication – or even just let the program and host family know that there is a problem that should be addressed.

If all else fails, and if you really do believe an emergency exists, any student or concerned citizen can call the U.S. Dept of State office that handles foreign exchange students. All exchange students have that contact information on their program student ID cards. People naturally (and for good reason) are reluctant to involve the government when they realize they don’t have all the information needed to determine if an emergency does exist. But the option is there.

As always, communication is the key to success in a cultural exchange and study abroad program. Those who know us know it’s our “mantra” – but it’s a good motto to remember.

The Successful Exchange Student: What’s in a Rule?

Two years ago, an exchange student in the Portland metro area was sent home early (October) for breaking the rules. What rule did she break, do you ask? 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?

In her case, a simple question with a simple answer. The student picked up a $50 item from a display at Nordstrom’s and walked out without paying for it. Security guards picked her up as she walked out, and the police drove her to her host family’s home. As people say . . . thaaaat’s all, folks!

Any of us who are parents can understand the impulsive thought that may have entered the teen’s mind. Many parents have counseled their own teens through similar impulsive, bad decisions. But for that one impulsive, bad decision, an entire (and expensive!) exchange year was lost. And there was nothing anyone could do. It was more than just breaking the rules; it was breaking the law.

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 with a specific time frame for either seeing behavior improvement or making a decision on whether the student should remain on the program. For matters involving the law, however, there’s not much leeway. Usually any police involvement means the student has earned a ticket home.463192477 - medium res

Discipline is most often needed for the vague categories of “poor behavior” or “teenage attitude,” which cover everything from miscommunication, to lack of fluency in the host country’s language and customs, to culture shock – not to mention normal teenage impulsiveness, forgetfulness, and undeveloped decision-making skills. In general, exchange organizations will bend over backwards to try and find a way to give a student a second (or third) chance, since we all recognize the difficulties in adjusting to a foreign culture and lifestyle.

As the Exchange Mom, I’ve written about miscommunications here, and about the difficulties international high school students face adjusting to life as a teen in the U.S. here and here. Culture shock may feel like an overused term, but the symptoms are real. “Behavior” problems we see in our exchange students are often linked to symptoms of culture shock, including:

  • homesickness
  • avoiding social situations and withdrawal from local friends and host family
  • inability to concentrate at school
  • physical complaints and difficulty sleeping
  • becoming angry over minor issues

Of course, culture shock and “I’m just a forgetful teen” are not workable excuses for poor or inappropriate behavior over a long period. We tend to be more flexible with our students when they first arrive; we *do* understand the difficulties and challenges they face. But after a month or two or three, our expectations are that they will begin to adapt. At that point, they have been part of a host family that has patiently walked them through their family lifestyle and guidelines many times, they have attended school for several months, and they have figured out the local social scene. So eventually, we expect our students – both those we host and those we supervise – to put some attention into concentrating in school, turning in their homework, following their teachers’ and host families’ rules and procedures, and asking for help if this continues to be difficult for them. At a certain point, teens can’t just say, “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.

468583769 we can helpOn the host families’ side, families have to move from treating their student as a guest (since guests may sometimes be excused from certain family rules) to treating him or her as a member of the family. Moreover, even host parents who feel their student has fully integrated into the family often hesitate to discipline their student in any way because “it’s not my child, I really shouldn’t interfere with another person’s parenting decisions.”

For the exchange year to succeed, it works two ways. Students need to dedicate time and energy into the relationship, and cannot just constantly repeat “I forgot.” Host parents need to get beyond the feeling that they have no options. There may need to be consequences if the student doesn’t clean her room when asked, turn off the laptop at the designated time, forgets repeatedly to take out the trash, or uses inappropriate language. Even families who say “but I don’t need to do that with my own children” should think about the fact that their own children have lived with them for their entire lives. Your exchange student has had a month or two. Encouragement and positive feedback are great; by all means, use a reward system. But rewards may not be enough.

In our own home, we are trying out an approach that’s new for us: we will be introducing a yellow card / red card system that we would like to share with readers. As opposed to having yet one more (of the same) conversation about a rule or other infraction, when it works we’ll hold up a yellow card. That’s the warning: you’re on thin ice, you just did something you know by now isn’t acceptable. The yellow card signifies that we’re not looking to get into yet another discussion with you about it. If it happens again, the red card will appear and there will be a consequence – perhaps no surfing on the Internet tonight, or you won’t be able to go out Friday or Saturday night.153098448

There is always experimentation involved when it comes to disciplinary matters, partially because the kids themselves are so different in what is driving their behavior, and what measures they are likely to respond to in a manner that works. But the reality is that the sooner we help students get on the straight and narrow through whatever means work, the happier they – and their host families — will be!

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted. 
**This blog post is linked to the October 2014 My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.**