Studying Abroad: Long-Term Benefits?

Study Abroad benefits
Copyright 2013

Does study abroad provide tangible benefits beyond the “fun” of the travel experience? There certainly are studies that show that the prolonged exposure to another culture and the associated personal growth that goes along with that do have positive long-term effects. There are also those that point out that many study abroad programs are poorly managed.  Even so, the long-term effects of having to reach beyond one’s normal comfort zone seem to fall on the positive side.

I came across this 2013 graphical summary from Student Universe (a travel company that provides discounts and experiences for students, faculty and youth) which I thought readers might find interesting:

Studying Abroad Helps Students Gain an Edge on Fellow Classmates

Exchange Students and School: What are the Real Expectations?

At this time of year, with school having started everywhere in the U.S., our exchange students are beginning to settle into the next phase of their exchange year. Most were looking forward to the start of the school year, even if they were a bit nervous at the same time. As teens, they think they know what to expect. Of course, one of the points of the exchange program is to show them that what they think they know may not necessarily be a correct understanding of the U.S. culture or school system. That understanding may not come all at once, and may be something of a surprise; indeed, even a shock.

What are the general expectations for an exchange student at school?

Exchange programs in the U.S. generally require their high school J-1 students to enroll in a standard curriculum. This usually means enrolling in accepted “core” classes such as a regular English class (i.e., not a class designed for English as a second language) and U.S. history or government, with many students also taking mathematics and science. The student can then choose elective classes to fill in the rest of the student’s class schedule such as other science or social science classes, art, music, drama, etc. The U.S. government requires J-1 visa students to maintain passing grades in all their classes; most exchange programs interpret this to mean students must maintain a grade of C or better in every class they attend177105261 student behind books. If students are not passing a class, they are responsible for taking steps to raise their grades.

As coordinators, we look to see what steps a student is taking: is she talking to the teacher about the problems she is having in class? Does she take notes in class? Is she turning in her homework assignments? How much time is she spending on those homework assignments or on general studying? If necessary, a student may be required to find a tutor. If problems persist, exchange programs have disciplinary processes in place; in rare circumstances, it may be determined that a student cannot meet the academic challenges and may need to return to his or her home country before the end of the exchange year.

I can’t talk to the teacher!

Asking an exchange student to talk to the teacher may be more of a challenge for the student than U.S. parents realize; in many countries, the relationship between high school students and teachers is very different. Host parents can help by repeating the message that yes, you really can and should talk to your teacher.

Why am I failing the class when I do OK on the tests?

Many new host parents have a negative reaction to the idea that they should ask their student if they have turned in their homework assignments. Shouldn’t a 16 or 17 year old know something this basic? But the idea that you do have to turn in your homework may seem completely foreign to your student; in many countries, “homework” is work you do at home, on your own time, at your own choosing – and that’s it. Host parents can help here by not hesitating to ask their student if they have completed homework, and students can help themselves by accepting what their coordinators and host parents tell them about the need to turn in homework assignments, and understand that these assignments must be turned in on time. Otherwise you might do very poorly in a class even if you’re passing the tests.

177809116 student with booksHours of homework per night? You can’t be serious!

Exchange students may have to spend a significant amount of time studying to make sure that they succeed academically. This includes not just completing homework and class assignments. A difficult fact for exchange students to accept is that it is almost definitely going to take them longer – sometimes much longer – than their U.S. school friends to do most assignments. Even reading a chapter in the textbook may take an exchange student twice as long as it would take an average U.S. student. Exchange students may be selected based on meeting minimum English skills requirements – but they are not fluent when they arrive, and indeed, may be far from it. Even if their skills are on the high end, it’s unlikely they had vocabulary from U.S. history, math, or science in their English class back home.

For the students – some tips for success

Students can ask questions to make sure they understand what is expected of them regarding homework assignments. If you are not sure what you are supposed to do, ask your classmates or teacher for clarification. Ask your host parents or your coordinator for help. Don’t assume you know the answer – maybe take a look again at our blog post on the importance of communication!

Students should remember they are a representative of their home country. In our program, we consider our exchange students ambassadors who are here to show Americans what their own culture is like and to show the “best” from their home country. Host parents and teachers will not appreciate exchange students who are disruptive in class, act as though they are exempt from school work, do not try to spend enough time reading and trying to understand the material, or who don’t study for exams.

Photo credits: ©2014

Let the Miscommunication Begin!

The 2014-2015 exchange students have now mostly arrived in the U.S. Most are past the jet lag phase. School has just started for some, while others have been in school for several weeks now. On the one hand, we’re still mostly in the “honeymoon phase” of the exchange year. On the other hand, we’re in a perilous period when it comes to student – host family communications.

Let’s face it — most of us aren’t great communicators, and most people of any age try to avoid conflict. To say that goes for teens arriving in a new country and into a new family is probably an understatement. So what do we tend to see each year? The answer, in a nutshell, is miscommunication.

I’m not saying this happens all the time, or even in most cases – there are many, many host families who are happy with their students from the very beginning, and many, many students who settle into their host families’ lives and adjust with little difficulty. But there are also those host families and students who don’t adjust to each other, or whose expectations are not realistic.

The source is usually multiple miscommunications

In some cases, this leads to the outright failure of a student’s exchange year; in other cases, it leads to simmering problems that will explode in the coming weeks or months. These problems, once they boil over, lead to high levels of frustration, stress, and worry. At the extreme, they can result in students being removed from their host families. In too many cases, these miscommunications leave behind lingering resentment from host families or students (or both) with feelings that no one cared and no one listened. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Here’s how it often progresses:

1. Exchange student engages in conversation and makes a point assuming they’ve been clear and understood. Sometimes it’s because they believe their English is great when it’s not; sometimes it’s just predictable teenage “half-statements” (there is something universal about teens in that they think if they say X you will know they mean X plus Y…..). It could be on almost any subject, from their life back home, their current situation, to warrows 175030805 hat they like and don’t like to do, etc. The list is endless.
2. Host parent or host sibling doesn’t understand or misunderstands student’s point, and either ignores the comment (because it’s just a small thing after all), or takes offense but just files it away for future reference (because why get into an argument or discussion about such a small thing?).
3. Neither exchange student nor host family seeks clarification: “Was I clear in saying . . . . ?” “Did I understand you correctly to say . . . . ?”
4. A small wedge is created between exchange student and host family — not a big wedge or a big problem to start. But it quickly expands with subsequent conversations and misunderstanding.

Our brains seek confirmation

Here’s the issue: once our brains think they’ve figured something out, they’ll look for more evidence to support that conclusion. This is not rocket science, nor is it something that is limited to one culture or age group. It’s human nature. Our brains are always looking for evidence that our first impression was correct, no matter how obvious it might be in retrospect that the first impression was based on a misunderstanding. Host family members might talk among each other, commiserating and reinforcing their individual perceptions about why their student is acting a certain way or saying (or not saying) the “right” things. Exchange students might log onto Facebook or other social media where each country’s exchange students often maintain gossip pages or chat groups in their native language which seem to be for the sole purpose of commiserating and spreading negative experiences and stories. And everyone’s initial impression is reinforced. Eventually, the small wedge becomes a chasm; either the student or the host family pulls in their local program coordinator, who has the role of sorting out the conflicting stories and misunderstandings that often are now solidly and perhaps permanently in place.

What’s remarkable is how many “placement problems” each year could be avoided if exchange student and host family would simply ask a few questions: “Was I clear in saying . . . . ?”, “Did I understand you correctly to say . . . . ?,” and the hardest of all for ordinary humans of all ages to admit – “I don’t understand.” We tell students and host families every year to call us — that there is no question too small, no issue too insignificant when you are dealing with people from different world views, different cultures, and different generations. And many do remember this, and do call us. But some do not.

These are our challenges. Sometimes we’re able to help sort it out successfully. Sometimes it’s too late for students or host families to change direction. The student may be labelled as a behavior problem and moved to another home, leaving a host family with a sour taste in their mouth about the entire exchange experience and a teenager who often doesn’t quite understand what went wrong. So much misunderstanding, pain, and lost opportunities could be avoided if problems are nipped in the bud. After all, it’s two very simple questions:

* Was I clear in saying . . . . ?

* Did I understand you correctly to say . . . ?

Good communication is a challenge, and can be difficult and uncomfortable. Many thousands of host families and exchange students can confirm that. Most will admit it may not be an easy process, but the end result is worth it.

Photo credits: ©2014
*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at*

How Should Study Abroad be Re-Defined?

The following link is to an article by Amelia Friedman and Fiora MacPherson, Executive Director and Director of Expansion at the Student Language Exchange.  They pose the following questions regarding university-level study abroad programs.  What do you think?

Do you think study abroad should be mandatory? Should study abroad programs adopt a common application? Should it factor into tenure decisions for faculty? How would you rebrand and reimagine study abroad for yourself or your children? What should the next generation of study abroad look like?

Friedman and MacPherson, How Would You Redefine Study Abroad? (, 08/14/2014).

About Those Pills . . .

As exchange students arrive in the U.S. for the coming year, so, it seems, do their “travel pharmacies.” We’re not talking about specific medications for known conditions; we’re referring to items that have no link to any medical conditions listed in the student’s application. It’s as if students’ families back home don’t believe that their children will be able to buy aspirin or antibiotics in the U.S.

Students arrive with an astounding variety of pills, powders, and herbal concoctions. Often the collection comes with no prescriptions or documentation, with ingredients listed only in the student’s native language. Antibiotics, anti-diarrheal capsules, anti-inflammatories, and pain-killers all may be in individually wrapped packets with no dosage directions. Many times items are not in their original packaging. Some students are able to tell you what each medication and treatment is for; most, however, cannot tell you more than “my mother told me to take these pills if I have a sore throat” (when asked about antibiotics) or “I’m supposed to take these if I have a headache” (when asked about pain killers). They usually cannot tell you what the correct dosage is for each item.

Many host families never find out about these stashes. Others don’t give them much thought. A common point of view is that “if the student’s natural parents trust them with all these pills, I should, too.” We’ve heard host parents say that their student is intelligent and knows when to take medicines, so who are we to take control? Others have said that their student assured them that they did not have prescription level medicines or anything dangerous — and the student must know, right?

Simply put, that is a terrible line of reasoning. How many parents let their own teens have pharmacies in their bedrooms, self-medicating at will? I doubt very many. So why would it be ok for exchange students to self-diagnose and self-medicate?

Several issues should be considered as part of this discussion:

1. Antibiotics are grossly overused, a trend that is contributing to the spread of drug-resistant microbes around the world. Many in the medical community consider this to be a top global health risk; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has called it one of the “world’s most pressing public health problems.” When antibiotics are used, it is critical that they be used correctly and for the full time period. How often do self-medicating teens follow through for the full 10-day cycle when they’re feeling better after a couple of days? Moreover, if someone is deciding on their own based on a self-diagnosis whether to take antibiotics, most of the time it probably isn’t anything antibiotics could help with anyway; taking antibiotics for the common cold is useless.

2. It is very easy to over-consume drugs like aspirin or acetaminophen without even knowing you’re doing so. We have had exchange students take Tylenol® for a headache under our direction, only to find out later they had already taken something else from back home just an hour before – which, when we investigated, turns out to have been the same thing (acetaminophen). Over-consumption of acetaminophen can lead to liver damage, as stated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on its website:

“This drug is generally considered safe when used according to the directions on its labeling. But taking more than the recommended amount can cause liver damage, ranging from abnormalities in liver function blood tests, to acute liver failure, and even death.”

Remember, too, that teenage brains are not fully developed; decision-making is still a “work in progress.” We had a student taking prescribed acne medicine one year. He said he brought enough for the year. About halfway through the year, he said he needed a new prescription. Why? Well, you see, it wasn’t working, so he took more — twice the recommended dosage for one of the strongest acne medicines available on the market, a medicine that can cause serious side effects.

3. There is the issue of communication. It’s critical for exchange students to establish good lines of communication with their host parents.  Whether a student is feeling ill is certainly an important aspect of such communication. Yet we’ve had situations where a student we are hosting is sitting quietly in the kitchen or living room, not saying anything while he or she is on the Internet. Not a problem, of course – until we discover that the student is texting with parents back home, complaining of a sore throat, and getting instructions from 5,000 miles away on what drugs to take from their “travel pharmacy.” This is not the way to develop lasting bonds with host families. Students need to know that it’s better to tell their host parents they are not feeling well and let their host families help them deal with it, rather than trying to get a diagnosis from parents who are not present.  (Even beyond the issue of forming relationships, it’s just logical to get medical advice from someone who is with you, rather than someone who is not!)

4. Finally, there is the question of responsibility. Who’s responsible for bad outcomes if students self-medicate while living in a host family’s home? What if they simultaneously are taking something prescribed by a local doctor (e.g. a genuine antibiotic prescription, or if they are taking over-the-counter medications from the host family’s own medicine cabinet? Acetaminophen is a great example because it’s so common. Should we be giving Tylenol® to 15 and 16 year olds if they may also be self-medicating from their own private stashes? By one estimate, dosage errors involving acetaminophen accounts for more than 100,000 calls to poison centers, roughly 60,000 emergency-room visits, and hundreds of deaths each year in the United States alone.

466236455 pill photoI don’t really understand why students arrive with all of these pills, but that’s largely outside of my control as a host parent. What is within my control is to find out after they have arrived what they have brought with them, and deal with it. That may mean disposing of it if I can’t figure out what it is and what it’s for, or if it’s considered a prescription drug here in the U.S. (even if not in the student’s country of origin) and the student comes with no prescription. It may simply mean taking possession of the “travel pharmacy,” and giving the student access to it as needed upon request and if we agree that treatment from the “pharmacy” is appropriate for the particular ailment. Sometimes, it means finding out about a medical condition that the student and his or her family did not previously disclose (something host parents clearly need to know).

At the end of the day, I hope that at least in my family we have substantially reduced this one source of risk for our exchange students during the coming year; the same goes for the host families we work with, since we recommend that they, too, do not hesitate to take the above actions. There will of course be other risks during the year that aren’t as easy to manage, but why not start with the easy ones?