Family Visits While on High School Exchange: Yes or No? A “Must Read” for Parents

Several years ago our new Venezuelan exchange student arrived at our home. It was August, when students usually arrive for the exchange year. As many host families do, we had plans for activities as well as for introducing him to our family over the next few weeks before school started. On the way home from the airport, he told us his parents were also in the U.S. and that they would be in Portland in a few days. We talked to our exchange program coordinator, who had someone talk to the parents and explain that a visit at this time was not advised. We thought they understood.

Or so we thought. Three days later, without warning and literally as we were about to walk out the door for a day trip, we heard a knock on our door and found his family outside. They said they were there to pick their son up to go shopping. After some discussion, they left. But in conversations over the next day or two between the program and the student’s family, the student’s father said that he was the father, and he would drop by whenever he chose. In fact, he announced, the family had plans to also visit at Christmas and probably at Easter.

To make a long story short, the student was released to the custody of his parents and left the country. It was a pity; in the short time we had with the student, it had become clear that one reason he wanted to undertake a high school exchange year was to assert some independence from his family. His parents had denied him this opportunity – not intentionally, as they no doubt considered their actions reasonable from their point of view. He was their son. And they were his family.

Most exchange students and their parents reading this story will react with a “that’s outrageous, we would never do anything like that.” But there’s a fine line between the extremes shown in this story and what may seem like more reasonable situations that play out every year as parents announce they plan to visit at one point or another during the exchange year, or as a student announces that he or she plans to take a trip at Christmas or some other time to visit parents, family, or friends elsewhere in the U.S.

The family: Jorge (Colombia), Marshall, Laura, Sven (Germany), Marcus, and Mark (2006)

The bottom line is that exchange students are coming to spend a year in the home of a host family. It is not a hotel. It is a family. It is a relationship that requires work to achieve the desired bonding. It is a two-way street, requiring work from both sides. When parents or students announce their plans to visit or travel, it can throw a wrench into that family bonding process. It can needlessly undercut relationships, even if that is not the intent of anyone involved

Communication isn’t always intentional

When you add the twist of cultural differences, typical behavior patterns seen in exchange students, normal teenage expectations, excitement about the travel part of the exchange year, and ordinary parent worries and anxieties – well, you get a whole kettle full of mixed messages and potential downsides. Here are some possibilities of what the people involved might think the ‘true’ message is regarding a request to visit family or have family visit:

What students and their parents “hear”:

* School doesn’t start until September and the program has me scheduled to arrive the beginning of August. That’s a whole month. Why not go visit my aunt or cousin and come back a few days before school starts?
* It’s my family. Of course I can see them when I want, it’s my family! (or the reverse: It’s my son/daughter, of course I can come see him/her whenever it works best for our family.)
* I love my parents. I can’t spend 10 months without seeing them. (or the reverse: How can you expect me to go 10 months without seeing my child?)
* Seeing my family won’t make me homesick. I don’t get homesick.

What the host family “hears”:

* Who cares about spending a few weeks during the summer with people I don’t know in a town I don’t know?
* Why does it matter that my host family has already made plans to meet me at the airport, and taken time off work for the first few days or week after I arrive? Can’t you just change that?
* I don’t really want to go camping / visit extended host family so you can introduce me/ spend holidays with people I don’ t know.
* I didn’t hear what the program orientation said and the information my exchange program has given me about how important it is to get to know my host family and my host community. And if I’m not paying attention to that, I’m probably not paying attention to other important things, too.

What’s the real message?

Clearly, students and their families are not trying to say they don’t care or that they don’t want to get to know their host families. They have the best intentions; from their point of view, it makes sense. Summer time, winter break, Easter – that’s when you spend time with family, right? Why would it be any different than any other summer or winter break? On the other side of the coin, when exchange programs limit permission for family visits, there clearly is a reason; it’s not intended to cause rifts or prevent family relationships.

question marks 164471329 (2)Part of the miscommunication may be lack of understanding as to what being a host family is all about, which – no matter how much a student may have read or heard — may not be 100% clear until a student has landed into that host family and is actually experiencing a new family life. It’s not uncommon for students to be surprised, for example, that host families don’t get paid (even if their program told them this ahead of time). It’s common for them to be surprised that yes, their host family really does want to include them in activities and introduce them to other members of the family.

No doubt, part of the miscommunication is simply because teens look at the world differently from adults. Moreover, parents have different motivations for sending their child abroad than the motivations of the host family taking the student into their home. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s important is that parents understand that they need to set aside some of their own goals so that their student can have a successful exchange with a host family that has opened up their home (quite often with inconvenience and cost) to their son or daughter.

Exchange program guidelines regarding “no family visits” are not barriers to your family relationship; rather, they are bridges to your child’s new relationships

Programs are not trying to create an artificial barrier between you and your child when they say “don’t visit until the end of the exchange year (if then).” There’s considerable evidence that family visits during an exchange semester/year cause behavioral issues and increases in homesickness after the visit is over. It’s not helpful to say that you know your child and he/she won’t cause problems, or that your child doesn’t get homesick. Your child has never been through an experience like this before. You yourself as a parent have never been through this before. On the other hand, we program coordinators have been through it before.

The reaction of some parents and students is to make logical arguments for when a visit would be a good idea, such as the student who thought it made sense at the beginning before school started, or the families who want to visit during Christmas break thinking it’s a holiday, so no school, and they naturally want to share the holiday with their child. The arguments make sense on the surface; of course, it seems that before school starts or during a holiday would be logical. At least, it makes sense if you look at it purely from the perspective of a family making plans for their son or daughter. But an exchange program isn’t just a family making plans for their child.

What’s really wrong with family visits?

What the arguments are missing is the experience of what is involved in cultural immersion. Why not visit at the beginning of the year before school starts? Because it’s a key relationship-building period, at a time when the anxieties and time-consuming activities of school do not interfere. Going camping, going to the beach, attending a country music festival or the county fair – even just hanging out with your host siblings at the host family home, going to the mall, watching TV, or playing basketball in the street — these are part of summer in this country. Additionally, the school system is different in different countries; in the U.S., for example, you can’t just look at the date classes start. You need to look at when sports practices start and registration for classes, both of which tend to be a couple of weeks before the first day of class. There may be family welcome BBQs offered by the parent-teacher association, or sports team introductory dinners.

Is summer break boring at times? Sure. Is every single day going to be a fun fest and whirlwind of activity? Not likely. But sharing these experiences with your host family at a time when you can enjoy it helps set the stage for the entire year. Moreover, the student learns what daily life is like, figures out where the host family home is in connection with the town or city, and learns how to get around. The whole point of international cultural exchange is to foster relationships, which take time to build. Sharing experiences is part of what makes these strong relationships. If family comes to visit, the student continues to focus on his or her “regular” family, not his host family. If the student goes to visit family, he/she is not spending time beginning to develop relationships.

Alright then, why not visit in the Fall after my child has had a chance to learn some of these things? Because we know, from experience, that the first few months of the school year are the most difficult for the students. They feel stressed from the difficulties of being in a new school in a foreign country, and their brains are working over-time trying to speak and think in a foreign language 24/7. A visit from family can make it more difficult for a teen to struggle through; rather than forcing them to make their way through the difficult times and learn how to resolve problems on their own, it makes them want to return to the familiar territory of home and family. That’s a normal human reaction to a difficult time. And so the result of a visit is tears and sadness, rather than the happiness parents and student expected. No matter how we try to explain this, the parents who visit (or who have their children visit family in the U.S.) seem completely surprised when it happens.

Why not visit during the winter break and Christmas holidays? Because the students do need to experience the holidays and traditions of their host country. It can be a time when the relationships begin to “click,” when they share this family time and have more of those sharing experiences. It’s often the turning point between the first few difficult “why am I here” months and the rest of the year which becomes “I have a second home.” But in order to have a second home, you need to spend time in the home and with the people in the home.

What’s the answer?

Some exchange programs prohibit visits of any kind, and follow up with disciplinary action and warnings if a family or student fail to follow this rule. That’s one solution, and those programs feel it’s the best way to keep teenaged students focused on their exchange immersion experience. It certainly can make it easier for coordinators and host families, since it prevents debate and avoids the need to have awkward conversations.

whats your story 466850519 (2)Some programs are more cautious about issuing such absolute rules. Your program may use words like “strongly discourage visits during the exchange period” and “highly recommend that you wait until the end of the year.” As someone who has been working with students and whose own child went abroad, I ask my readers to listen and as difficult as it might be, to accept these guidelines. Do you know your child? Of course you do . . . or you did, until the moment he or she got on that plane. Listen to the reasons why we suggest waiting until the end of the exchange year. Accept, if you can, that the rules and guidelines serve a purpose.

Here’s the message to parents. Your child will always be your son or daughter. And we generally welcome your visits at the end of the year. It is a pleasure to meet the parents of the teens who have been in our charge for the past 9 or 10 months. Indeed, it’s an honor that you trusted your child to us. Sometimes we get to meet other members of the student’s family as well. But wait until the end of the exchange year. Let your child develop this new life on his or her own.

Photo credits: ©2014 unless otherwise noted
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Why Would I Want to Host *That* Student . . . He’s So . . . Different!

Why people choose or don’t choose certain students, once they have made the decision to host an exchange student, is an intensely personal decision. People are bringing a foreign teen into their family for a semester or academic year, which is hard enough. We coordinators work hard to make good “matches,” trying to figure out what are a family’s interests and activities, what is their lifestyle, and what kind of personality would fit best.

But there is one thing that does upset me, year after year. The placement season ends at the end of August; by law, the exchange programs must have all J-1 visa students placed with all documentation completed by that time. As we approach the end of the placement season in July and August, we get the inevitable question: “Why are these students still unplaced? What’s wrong with them?”

faces 186467837 (2)Sometimes, we can see the answer to that question in the application. It’s not that there is anything “wrong” with the students, but there generally is an explanation. For one thing, girls are easier to place. Second, for better or worse, there are always a high number of German kids at the end; this is just a fact of the numbers, because Germany sends more than one-third of the exchange students coming to the U.S. every year. Sometimes the students say things that don’t come across well; they may not have realized that saying “I really want to get my driver’s license” might be a turn-off. The students whose English skills are at the lower end of the legal minimum are certainly among the last to placed. Younger students, too, are often among the ones remaining over the summer; the U.S. government allows students between the ages of 15-18, but many schools and host families (and coordinators) are leery about the maturity of 15-year-olds and their ability to handle the challenges of an exchange.

But there is a darker side to the students left in the pool. Or, to be more precise, a darker side as to why they are still there. See this comment from a former host family, after I sent them a couple of applications in case the family might be interested in hosting again this year:

respect 482299675 (2)I read their profiles and both boys sound like they will bring cultural awareness to the family they are placed with. One is Buddhist and the other Muslim, so interesting. I worry that their dietary and religious beliefs will be an issue in their placement. It seems there are not many open minded people. I know when our former student would mention that’s why she didn’t eat pork [because she is Muslim] people would act shocked and become suddenly uncomfortable. So much ignorance, which is why I feel it was great to have her here. It really brought down that wall of fear and ignorance.

There you have it. Our Muslim students, our Buddhist students, our Asian students are always among the last to be placed. It’s kind of hidden among the German/15 yr old/poor English skills statistics. But it’s there, and we know it. It’s the dirty little secret of exchange.

Want to help fix it?


What’s the Best Way to Teach English?

I came across the following infographic and thought some of my readers might find it interesting.  The high percentage of teachers who use music to teach English (or any language) didn’t surprise me, but I’ll admit I was surprised by how high a percentage use “celebrities.” It’s a great idea, as I think about it.

Source: The Daily Infographic

Reflections: Moving Up the Ladder?

Last weekend, my husband and I returned from a weekend of additional exchange program training, reflecting the fact that we will be managing other exchange coordinators and their students in the future.

We’re not doing it for the money. We’re not employees of the exchange program, a fact that often comes as a surprise to students and host families. Exchange coordinators are independent contractors under the J-1 visa high school program overseen by the U.S. Department of State. The amount of money coordinators receive for the students we place and supervise does not generally add up to a significant sum; it’s supplemental income, not primary income. The precise amount differs from company to company, but the concept is the same.

Because we do get paid — something — the U.S. government does not allow exchange program local coordinators to say they are volunteers. That’s OK, but it’s important to remember that coordinators are not really getting paid for what they do. Is that a contradiction in terms? Perhaps. But life is full of contradictions.

colored hands in circle 150863845There are times when we all wonder if it’s worth it. When a parent back home complains about us when we support a particular action that we believe will help their child succeed and which they may believe is unwarranted. When a student who has gotten in trouble at school, or who is having difficulty adjusting to his host family’s life or community, starts saying negative things to anyone who will listen. When a student or host family accuses local coordinators of treating them unfairly when the coordinator has made strong efforts to listen to all parties and come to a fair solution. After we have moved a student out of his or her host family home, and everyone is upset.  These things do happen; we’re dealing with people, after all, and people don’t always do what’s logical or “right” (and what’s “right” isn’t always all that clear).

Most of us who do this — year after year, repeatedly saying goodbye to kids we may never see or hear from again — really don’t do it for the income. We do it for the host families who cry when their students leave, and who immediately make plans to visit Norway, Thailand, or Italy. We do it for the kids who do tell us what our assistance meant to them during their year here in the U.S. and who send us notes when they return home thanking us. We do it for the parents from countries around the world who take us out to dinner or lunch when they visit at the end of the year and who are in awe by how much their teen has changed in 10 months, and who say they know that part of that is due to the supervision and advice their child received. We do it for the kids who return to visit; they don’t always contact us, the coordinators, when they return, but if they are visiting their host families, we have succeeded in our mission to create long-term, lifetime relationships.

So my husband and I are looking forward, albeit with some trepidation, to taking on some new responsibilities this coming year. We know that there will be times when students or families will feel that we are the evil face of authority, and that we will have to deliver messages students or families do not want to hear. We know there will be times when parents back home will expect more than we can deliver. And like so many of the other exchange coordinators in all 100 or so companies listed by the Council on Standards of International Education and Travel (CSIET), we know that this is in addition to our “normal” jobs.

But we believe in the mission: cultural and citizen diplomacy at the individual, family, and local level can improve relationships around the world, one person at a time. We can learn from the kids from Taiwan, Thailand, Slovakia, and Denmark. And they can learn from us.

Photo credits: ©2014 unless otherwise noted

What to Bring With You on Your Exchange Year

Every year my incoming students want to know what they should bring with them to the U.S., and what they should just buy here. It’s not a one-answer-fits-all question; it depends on the student, prices in the student’s home country and in the U.S., and the student’s budget once she gets to the U.S. It’s particularly difficult because we advise students to try to travel with just one suitcase given the expense of excess baggage fees. Recognizing the potential confusion, here are some useful “do’s” and “don’ts” that have remained more or less constant in the 11 years we’ve been hosting international students.

A small English dictionary that can fit into a purse or pocket, or an electronic translator. We don’t want the students to rely on these too heavily; we prefer that they listen, focus, and concentrate on the conversation. But there are times when it just makes sense to pull out the dictionary and look up the concepts one is trying to communicate. In answer to the question I know readers will ask: yes, Google Translate and other online options are also available. But online options may not be available all the time; students may not be permitted to use smartphones in the classroom, for example, or may have limits on their Internet access due to host family rules.

phones and laptops 166107706Camera. Being able to email your photos to your friends and family, or to post them on Facebook, means you can share your life here in the U.S. more easily. The smartphone camera is the camera of choice more and more often; even if a student does not have continual online access, these cameras are handy and photos can be uploaded at a later time.

Laptop computer. Many more students bring their own laptops or tablets than we used to see even just a few years ago. Students do need to remember that if they want to buy one here in the U.S., they will need to also an adaptor for the power cord and that they will always, for the lifetime of the computer, be using an adaptor when they return home.

Do bring prescription medicines. Students who take prescription medicines on a regular basis (for example, for asthma, acne, or more serious conditions such as diabetes) should absolutely make sure to bring enough with them to take them through the year if possible. If a student needs to get more medicine in the host country, it can require a doctor’s visit and a new prescription. In the U.S., such a visit and new prescription can be expensive and may not be covered by the student’s medical insurance.

Don’t bring non-prescription medicines. We tell our incoming students every year not to bring with them any medicines that they can easily buy without a prescription. We also tell them to please tell their host families and program representative about anything they do bring with them. Yet every year, students coming to the U.S. show up with a pile of antibiotics, prescription-level painkillers, and other medicines that can easily be overused or cause complications — and they don’t tell us until we accidentally find out during the year. This can create health problems for the students! So, to the parents back home and students reading this post – prove me wrong this year, don’t bring these with you and tell your host parents about everything you do bring along! I’m hoping some of my readers will hear the message.

Don’t bring your mobile phone, or at least don’t expect it to work. The question of what is an appropriate amount of contact with home is a separate subject. For today, consider the following. Mobile phones and smartphones produced for sale in other countries just don’t work well in the U.S. (We tell our students this, too, every year. We get messages saying “OK” – and the student will still ask us after they arrive “why doesn’t my phone work?”)

One solution is for the student to buy a Sim card after arriving. She can put the U.S. Sim card in her phone (storing her home country Sim card in a safe place so she doesn’t lose it during the year). That sometimes works, if the mobile phone was “unlocked” prior to arrival. The easier – and more common solution – is for the student to buy an inexpensive pre-paid/pay as you go phone for use while he or she is in the host country. Costs for these plans in the U.S. vary from provider to provider, but seem to average $25/month for just calls and texts, and $50/month if one adds a data plan.

Many U.S. high schools do not allow use of phones during school hours, and many families in the U.S. do not allow their children unlimited use of the Internet when they’re at home. Exchange programs generally support these limits, so students need to recognize that they may not have unlimited use of their smartphones. Moreover, the cost for using phones and Internet in a foreign country can be very expensive, so we tell students to remember to turn off all data and roaming on their phones and rely on wi-fi access.

Clothing. Ah, clothing. It’s tough to say if this is a “do” or a “don’t.” From a parent’s point of view, it’s a “do” – parents generally want to make sure their child has what he needs (and they may not want their child to be running amok in a foreign clothing store). Students, on the other hand, consider this a “don’t” – after all, they want to buy clothing that’s fashionable in their host country, and the exchange rate may make that even more attractive. This is something that parents and students should talk about before the student leaves on his or her exchange.

girl about to travel 476249979On the serious side, students should talk to their host parents or program contact and find out whether the host school requires uniforms or a particular clothing style. In most U.S. public schools, for example, students wear casual clothes like jeans, T-shirts, and sweatshirts to school. There may be rules about what T-shirts can say and other clothing limitations, and sometimes European-style teenage clothing isn’t considered appropriate in the U.S. We encourage our students to bring at least one nice outfit for special occasions or for going to church with their host family.


Everything in this list provides a great topic for students and parents to talk about with the student’s host family or program representative, both of whom should be approachable even before arrival. Start the relationship now – why not?


Photo credits: ©2014 unless otherwise noted