It’s a Girl! It’s a Boy! It’s an … Exchange Student?

If you’re at the Portland airport this Saturday (or dozens of other airports around the country), you might see some strange goings on. Of course, it’s not unusual for travelers to occasionally see welcome balloons, or families waiting expectantly with welcome signs. But at this time of year it’s a special scene, one that is being repeated hundreds of times between now and each week of August until school starts.

In some regions of the U.S., it’s already begun.  But for us here in Oregon and southern Washington, it’s pretty just getting underway: Saturday is Arrival Day for our first group of high school exchange students for the 2014-2015 year.

Shortly before noon Pacific time, and continuing through the afternoon, exhausted teens from countries around the world will begin to arrive at the Portland airport to start their academic year in the U.S.

Host families they have never met will be waiting for them. Some of these families have gone to great lengths to welcome these foreign teens — repainting bedrooms, re-arranging space in homes, making personal welcome signs. Their only communication to date may have been an email or two. Yet these strangers will meet with the kind of the enthusiasm usually reserved for immediate family members.

In a way these teens *are* members of the family. They’ll be here for up to 10 months. Mothers and fathers are making plans to register their new “sons” or “daughters” for classes at high school and figuring out sports and other extra-curricular schedules. They will worry when their “children” go out at night and, eventually, nag them to do their homework like parents around the world. Host brothers and sisters will take them around town, show them the local sights, introduce them to the American concept of front-seat rivalry known as “shotgun,” and squabble over who gets the last ice cream bar or brownie.

Lori Larsen photo
July 30, 2014 – Washington, USA

With the stroke of a pen (well, more likely, the clack of a few keystrokes), we exchange coordinators create new bonds. It’s a joy to watch, an awesome responsibility . . . and there’s a ton work yet to do. There’s a bit of an untraveled road to discover, and there may be some potholes along the way. But there’s fun and excitement in that road of discovery, and an unparalleled opportunity to share one’s life and culture. Let the fun begin!

welcome Lieke


Photos courtesy Kevin Sanders and Lori Larsen (July 2014)
 This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at Go visit and learn about other blogs with international study and travel themes!

Mobile Phones and Exchange Students: Some Useful Tips

Last week I posted a summary of what to expect regarding students getting a drivers’ license while on their exchange year. Today I address cell phones, as part of this periodic series on “things students and host families might want to know.” What’s posted below may not be news for everyone, but hopefully it gives some direction to students who have not traveled extensively before and to host families who have not had to address the issue of what to do for young people who cannot sign a contract. Options vary in different parts of the U.S. and with different cell providers, so make sure to check locally for more precise information.

There is a good chance that phones from another country will not work in the U.S.

Before they leave their home country, we try to explain to students the difference between “locked” and “unlocked” phones, and ask them to check if their current phone can be “unlocked” before they leave. If it’s locked, it won’t work in another country with another cell provider. More students understand the basics of this than in past years, but it still does cause confusion. (And it’s more complicated than many of us think anyway: see this article from August 2013 for more details and be ready to be even more confused!)

Quite often students and their families will say they have confirmed that the student’s phone is unlocked, and thus believe it should be able to send and receive signals from any cell service provider. Yet the phone simply does not work once the student arrives. This, too, causes confusion and distress every year, as students will fight with Sim cards and insist that their phone is supposed to work, so why doesn’t it? Whether it’s because phones manufactured for sale and use elsewhere are designed differently, whether it’s because cell providers define “locked” differently, or whether it’s something else entirely doesn’t really matter. Just anticipate that your phone from home may well not work.

Even if the phone from home does work, students need to get a local phone number. Many students feel that since they are “only” here for 10 months, why spend time and money on a local phone number? For one thing, using a phone from another country here in the U.S. abroad can be incredibly expensive, since the price for each call and text message will be at high international rates. This can be a shock! If the phone also handles data, data costs using a foreign cellular provider can be astronomical. Second, many people who exchange students meet in the U.S. may not be able to call them on their foreign phone since their own phones may not have international service (not to mention the problem of having to explain expensive international calls that you’ve made to a friend in the next classroom). This often seems strange to the exchange students, but U.S. host families should keep in mind that the students may come from smaller countries where crossing a border can be something one does easily and often.

Even if a student brings a smart phone, students may have limitations on use of the Internet

Students who have smart phones with Internet capability should check with their exchange program to learn about expectations regarding use of the Internet. What’s normal in one country for teens between the ages of 15-18 may not be normal in another country an477922035 no phoned culture. It’s not uncommon in the U.S. for young people in this age group to have limits imposed on their Internet use. We do pay attention to this with exchange students, since it’s a normal culture shock reaction to want to stay in close contact friends and family back home. This continual contact can make it more difficult for students to form relationships with their host family and people they meet in the host country and can cause difficulties in the student’s ability to fully integrate into the host culture; basically, students are reaching out to what’s comfortable and familiar and not learning how to deal with the unknown and establishing new relationships. As a result, limits on internet use are common and it’s a good idea for exchange students coming to the U.S. to understand the expectations and guidelines.

Examples of what high school students coming to the U.S. may find to be different from their home country when it comes to cell phones and other communication technologies:

* Many families have rules about texting and use of cell phones.  A student’s host family may not allow use of cell phones in the home after a certain hour or in certain circumstances. In many host families in our area, for example, a common house rule is that all cell phones must be turned off and left in a common area by a certain hour in the evening (no midnight texting!). Other common rules include no cell phone use in the mornings as students are getting ready for school, or no texting, earphones, or calls in the car when parents are taking you somewhere.

* Students may find they have limits on amount and timing of Internet use. Many families may not allow personal use of the Internet until students have shown that they have finished homework, or may have limits on the amount of time a teen may have to send personal emails or get on Facebook or other social media. Many families require teens to turn off all Internet devices by a certain hour. These limits may be difficult to get used to if a teen is used to using the Internet without restriction.

* Many U.S. high schools do not allow use of cell phones during school hours, either for calls/texts or for use of the Internet.

* Wi-fi is not available everywhere, limiting use of the Internet to what is available in the host family home, school if available, and coffee shops, libraries, and other locations where it might be offered.

So what’s the answer? I need a phone!

The easiest way for students to make sure they are able to communicate effectively is usually to buy a “pay as you go” (also called “prepaid”) cheap phone and phone/text plan. This “pay as you go” option avoids the need to sign a contract, which most exchange students cannot do. Costs vary depending on the cell provider, and may vary in different geographic areas, but tend to be $25-50/month for phone calls and text messages (more if a data plan is included); see this article here for a recent (updated July 2014) comparison between different prepaid plans available in the U.S. If the student’s home phone is truly unlocked, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, the student may be able to simply buy a U.S. Sim card with a pay-as-you-go option and insert that into his or her existing device.

460495493 cell phone chatIn today’s world, the “phone” may also contain a student’s photos and useful applications, so we know that many students will choose to bring their mobile phone with them even if it’s not likely to work in the U.S. A key piece of advice we give to all who do want to bring their phones with them is to make sure to turn off all cellular service, data service, and roaming service before students leave their home country, and to only leave on the wi-fi function. There are many free messaging options available now, too, so that one can avoid the costs and use wi-fi communication options.

Be informed and be prepared!

If you’ve traveled internationally, this warning won’t come as a surprise to you. But many, many teens don’t have that experience under their belt. Every year, a few weeks or month after the students have arrived, we hear from them, or sometimes directly from their parents. That first huge phone bill with its long list of international calls, dozens of text messages at international rates ($0.20 – 0.50 per message), and a few hundred dollars for data sent and received usually gets their attention! Be wise, and plan for your international communications in advance so that you can avoid these unnecessary charges (and spend your money on much more worthwhile and fun things during your exchange year).

Photo credits: ©2014 unless otherwise noted

Is Traditional High School Exchange Fading Away?: Charting New Pathways for International High School Education in the U.S.

Last week I posted an infographic with data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) on post-secondary international students in the U.S. The data in the infographic showed (among other things) that the number of college-level international students in the U.S. has climbed steadily, and almost half of these students come from China, India, and South Korea.

Another recent IIE report looks at what’s going on with international students at the high school level in the U.S. When most of us think of the “typical” international student in American high schools, many of us immediately think of exchange students: student who are here for a semester or academic year, whose goal is to immerse themselves in English and American culture for that period of time, learn a bit how American teens and families live, and then return home with (hopefully) a more accurate understanding of our culture and customs.

©2014 Creative_Outlet,
©2014 Creative_Outlet,

That is no longer the “typical” international student in a U.S. high school. According to the July 2014 research brief, Charting New Pathways to Higher Education: International Secondary Students in the United States, about 49,000 students (67 percent of international secondary students in the U.S. during 2013-2014) were enrolled in U.S. high schools with F-1 visas to earn a U.S. diploma. Only 24,000 (33 percent) were participating in exchange programs on J-1 visas. Who uses the two high school visa options differs significantly. Chinese and South Korean students dominate the F-1 visa program, while students from Europe and South America dominate the J-1 visa program. Since U.S. visa policies restrict both F-1 and J-1 visa students to no more than one year of study in public schools, the vast majority of F-1 visa students attend private schools.

The trends reflected in these numbers have been building over time as participation in the F-1 visa program has steadily grown, while the J-1 visa program has not. But the message is clear. The typical notion of international students spending “an exchange year in a U.S. public school” is no longer the norm. Instead, international students are moving to the U.S. for their high school careers, often with the plan to pursue college in the U.S. as well. That’s an entirely different objective, and an entirely different experience. As the report itself notes:

One risk of the increasing focus on international secondary students enrolling in U.S. high school to earn diplomas is that the important goals of student exchange programs may become sidelined. Understanding the differing demographics between inbound exchange students in the U.S. and international students seeking U.S. diplomas is necessary to strengthen all forms of secondary student mobility and to preserve the specific mission of exchange programs.

For a recent article that summarizes some of these statistics in a readable way, see The Younger International Student, Inside Higher Ed, July 8, 2014. The IIE report can be downloaded at the IIE website here.

Study Abroad: The Open Doors Report

The Institute of International Education’s Open Doors® project, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is an annual comprehensive information resource on international students and scholars studying or teaching at higher education institutions in the United States.  It also tracks U.S. students studying abroad for academic credit at their home colleges or universities.

The following Infographic shows some of the statistics from the most recent Open Doors report relating to international students studying in the U.S. Although the IIE’s international student statistics include only students enrolled at U.S. colleges or universities — not statistics on high school or youth exchanges — I thought some of my readers might be interested.

–Laura the Exchange Mom

Source: Institute of International Education (2013). Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from


Learning How to Drive on Your Exchange: Harder Than You Might Think!

We get questions every year from students about how they can get a driver’s license during the exchange year. In some countries, it is very expensive to get a license, and the age limits are higher than they are in the U.S. So we understand why students are interested (and why parents who are paying the bill might find it an interesting possibility as well).

We send out an email about this to our incoming students each year, to give them some information ahead of time. It occurred to us that readers of this blog might find some of this information useful as well. So, read below for some practical tips about exchange students and drivers’ licenses. It’s impossible, however, to speak to the situation facing all exchange students in all part of the U.S. (much less in other countries).  Host families — please check with your own local coordinator and your state’s motor vehicle department before making any decisions regarding your student; your exchange program may have policies about this (some programs prohibit their students from getting a license, or have specific restrictions).  Students — make sure you check your own program’s rules as well as the rules in your home country.

It’s Less Common Than You Think

First and foremost, it’s less common than most exchange students think for a student to get his or her drivers’ license while on exchange. Of course, many incoming students will hear from students who have returned that they knew exchange students who got their license. And for some students, in some locations, it works out nicely; in rural areas, for example, it can be quite handy for a student to have a license for getting into town, and that advantage for perhaps half the year may outweigh the difficulties in getting the license. But the challenges are significant, including:

123102009 student driver with teacher* Difficulty in getting a driving permit: The permit is the piece of paper you need to be allowed to practice driving. You need a driving permit to even get behind the wheel of a car. To apply for a permit, a student needs to show proof of residence, often proof from the program as to his or her exchange status, signed forms from parents back home, sometimes permission from the high school, and usually a form to show why the student does not have a U.S. Social Security number. This can take time (and usually requires help from host parents).

Getting a driving permit requires a written test. It’s harder than you think to pass the permit test. Even native English-speaking teens have difficulty. In Oregon, at least half and perhaps up to 70% of teens taking the permit test do not pass the test the first time; perhaps 50% have to take it more than twice. Non-native speakers have even more difficulty. It often takes several months, as a result, just to get the permit.

* School rules: To get a driving permit, many states, including Oregon, require that a teen get permission from their high school. School districts can set their own rules on this issue. For example, no exchange student attending school in the city of Portland is allowed to get a driving permit.

* Timing: After a student gets his permit, most U.S. states have a waiting period before a teen under the age of 18 can actually get his license. Oregon law requires teens to wait at least six months before they can take the driving test.

152132803 deadlineAn additional timing issue applies towards the end of the exchange year. Students generally cannot get a driver’s license after their visas expire. The precise date on which students’ visas expire will vary from program to program; for our students, for example, it’s usually on or about June 10th. The U.S. government allows students to remain in the U.S. for up to one month after their visas expire, but they cannot get a driver’s license during that time. Last year we had one student who got her driving permit in early January and was planning on taking her driver’s license test on July 8th, exactly six months later. She was very upset to learn she could not get her license, because of the visa issue.

* Amount of practice: In addition to the six months, many states have a requirement that a teen show a certain number of hours of driving practice. In Oregon, a teen must have 100 hours of driving practice. This is a lot of driving. The teen cannot practice with just anyone. It must be an adult over a certain age; the department of motor vehicles in the state will have rules on the minimum age of the teaching driver. In Oregon, the minimum age is 21; in some states, it’s 25.

In some states, the hourly requirement can be reduced by taking a driver’s education class.  Sometimes the schools offer these classes, but exchange students often are not eligible to take the driver’s education classes due to high demand.

* Impact on a student’s life: Learning how to drive takes up time that that a student could be spending on her exchange year: studying, making friends, learning about the host culture, and participating in host family activities. We do see that students who get their driving permit tend to focus on the driving: they want to practice driving all the time and add to their driving hours. We have seen that this can affect their ability to finish school work, do well at school, make friends, and take part in host family activities.

* Impact on host parents: Host parents usually are the ones who end up teaching their exchange student to drive. It’s a significant burden. While it can work out, we do also see that it can cause stress in the host family-student relationship. Keep in mind that this relationship is just getting under way, and it takes time to build. It can be hard enough teaching your child to drive when you have known that child for 16 years; it’s even harder if you have known him for only a few weeks.

465641367 car accident* Insurance: Automobile insurance can be expensive, especially for teen drivers. The rules for getting insurance will vary from program to program. Our program, for example, requires students to get their own insurance and not rely on the insurance of the host family. Students, families, and host families should keep in mind that if the student has an accident while driving the host family’s car, the host family’s insurance premiums could increase, perhaps significantly, for several years, long after the student returns home.

These challenges are not unique

Before your child speaks up saying, “I’m not going to Oregon on my exchange, I’m going to California/Nebraska/Alabama. So I don’t have to worry about these rules” – I use Oregon as an example because that’s where we live, so we have more information and more familiarity with the rules here. But most U.S. states have similar rules for teens under the age of 18:

* Six months’ time period between getting a permit and taking a driving test is common. In some states, the waiting period is longer. In fact, some states require one year between the time a teen gets a permit and can take the driving test.

* Some states require that a student take the drivers’ education class.  If you can’t take drivers’ education, the result in those states is that you can’t get a license until you are 18.

* Some state motor vehicle departments will not allow exchange students to get a permit because they do not have a U.S. Social Security number. In other states, even if a student can get a permit without the Social Security number, the process for bypassing this requirement can be difficult.

* Some states include a requirement that a certain number of hours be nighttime driving.

Even if you are successful, a U.S. teen driver’s license may not transfer to your home country

Teen drivers in the U.S. under the age of 18 usually do not get a “full” license after they take a driving test. The license usually has restrictions. Some exchange students may be 18 or turn 18 while they are here, and may not face these restrictions. Restrictions can include not being allowed to drive between 12 am – 5 am, for example, or not being allowed to transport anyone outside their immediate family for six months (or longer) after first getting a license.

Any student who does have the opportunity to get a permit and learn how to drive should first check that it will transfer in their home country. Different U.S. states have different restrictions, but the common theme is that the provisional license may not be a “full” license – and as a result, the student’s home country may not recognize the license.

Risk & Reward AheadIn closing: getting a driver’s license sounds like a good idea to many students before they leave their home country, and their parents may think it makes sense due to cost or age restrictions at home. But once you actually think it through, look at the rules, and add up the costs, it’s not as much of a “win win” as it seems at first glance, and in many cases it simply isn’t possible.

Photo credits: ©2014 unless otherwise noted