It’s the time of year for musings and contemplation of the past and the future. Today, I’m thinking about the past few months for my students, and the upcoming first half of 2015.
For the academic year 2014-2015, we are supervising 12 high school exchange students. (The number varies from year to year, depending on where we find host families and school slots.) As the regional managers, we’re also indirectly keeping an eye on 20 other students in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. We have quite a varied crew, both in terms of backgrounds, interests, and the life they are living here in the Pacific Northwest.
This year, our region’s students are from Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Thailand. Just like our host families, they come from all walks of life. Some live with one parent; some live with two. Some have host-brothers or sisters; some do not. Some are used to a big city and now live in a small town; others come from smaller villages or towns and are now living in suburban or urban areas. Some have plenty of spending money; some are on a tight budget. Some are energetic and outgoing; some are quiet and introspective.
They have one thing in common. They are all teenagers who were brave enough, about four or five months ago, to get on a plane and head into the complete unknown. While we were comfortably sitting on our decks in the sunshine this past summer, walking a dog, going for our daily coffee pick-me-up, and heading to work on our usual and predictable schedules, they were getting up in the dark at 4 AM, leaving their homes where they may have lived all their lives, and flying across the ocean to live in a strange land and with people they didn’t know. How many of us could have done the same when we were 15, 16, or 17?
They are now halfway through their exchange year. They’re all past the guest phase. They are no longer quiet, ultra ultra-polite, or hesitant around the house. Most of them talk a lot more than when they arrived. Their English has improved dramatically. They squabble with their host siblings and moan like any teen about school or chores. They leave clothes around the house and forget to empty the dishwasher. They’re at home now.
I was going to write “it’s been a pretty uneventful half year so far,” since in the scheme of exchange year experiences, our group has not had many “dramatic” events outside what we consider normal. But I’m not sure that’s accurate. Perhaps from the perspective of adults who deal with teens every year, it’s true; we haven’t had major behavior problems, medical emergencies, or life-threatening events. No one in our group has been sent home early for alcohol or other illegal activities. No one has needed surgery or had major medical issues.
But from the perspective of 32 teenagers, it’s been quite eventful. The two girls who thought they had appendicitis probably considered those ER visits rather major. The three students who have had to change host families certainly have been through some emotional ups and downs. And there are the normal events of American life, which for these teens is pretty abnormal and new; as 2014 winds down, they have been able to:
visit other U.S. states such as California, Arizona, New York, and go out of the country to Canada.
see such beautiful places as Seattle, Washington; Crater Lake, Oregon; Bend and Sunriver, Oregon; and the Oregon and Washington coasts.
take classes not offered in their home countries such as Japanese, ceramics, psychology, cooking, and marketing, as well as community or city class offerings such as ballet or martial arts.
become fans of American college football teams such as arch-rivals University of Oregon Ducks and Oregon State University Beavers.
go to NBA Trailblazer basketball games and MLS Timbers and the Portland Thorns soccer games.
become athletes themselves and play sports they’ve done before, or new sports: American football, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, or join the cross-country or ski racing team.
go camping in the mountains, stay in a yurt, or go surfing on the Oregon coast.
There’s also the usual normal assortment of American holiday experiences: trick-or-treating on Halloween, and carving pumpkins; eating turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving; lighting the candles for the eight nights of Hanukkah; and decorating the host family home and tree for Christmas.
This is kind of what it’s all about: sharing experiences with young people from other countries and cultures. We try to show them that the United States is not just the Hollywood sign or McDonald’s. We show them what we like and what we do, and by doing so we show them by our daily lives that for all our differences, people from different countries and cultures still like many of the same things.
Of course, there have also been tears. But they’re surviving, and they are succeeding. The hardest part of the year should be past them now, and they can focus on enjoying the second half of their exchange year. And we can enjoy it with them.
Got questions about hosting high school exchange students? Come visit me this weekend at the 30th Annual ScanFair, a huge celebration of everything Scandinavian! The fair is at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon. There will be food, musical performances, dance groups, arts and crafts vendors, and more.The ScanFair program sponsors list the following as being among this year’s attractions:
LIVE MUSIC, DANCE & ENTERTAINMENT: Enjoy the talents of Scandinavian artists and dance groups from around the Pacific Northwest on two separate stages. Both seating and dance floor available.
SCANDINAVIAN ARTS & CRAFTS: ScanFair is the only event in Portland where all the beautiful Scandinavian traditional and modern arts and crafts come together in one place for a two-day festival and marketplace.
OREGON LUCIA, QUEEN OF LIGHT: Witness the crowning of Oregon’s Official Lucia at 12pm on Sunday. The Lucia Bride wins a $2,500 scholarship to the college of her choice and holds court with the rest of the Lucia applicants for one year.
JOULUPUKKI, FINNISH SANTA CLAUS: Get your family’s picture taken with Finland’s jovial Santa on a beautiful set complete with reindeer and sleigh, and benefit the Finlandia Foundation’s Columbia Pacific Chapter.
THE PIPPI LONGSTOCKING KIDS AREA: Children have a special area where they can make traditional Scandinavian Christmas crafts, including Danish Hjerte (woven hearts) and Swedish Julgranskaramel (poppers) to decorate the Christmas tree.
SCANDINAVIAN DELICACIES: Eat food on the spot or take baked goods home. Enjoy Danish aebleskiver (apple pancake balls), Norwegian lefse & krum kake, Swedish meatballs with lingonberries, pickled herring and flat bread, rice pudding and fruit soup, Vorm Korv (hot dogs) and lots of coffee.
CULTURAL EXPLORATIONS: Purchase books, meet authors, research your family’s roots with the Scandinavian Genealogical Society, and check out Scandinavian language schools.
PICKLED HERRING CONTEST: Match your Nordic taste buds and stomach against all comers in the all-you-can-eat pickled herring eating contest!
Come enjoy this wonderfully entertaining and educational event. Make sure to find the EF High School Exchange Year table so you can learn more about educational and cultural exchange.
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?
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?
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.
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?)
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!
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.
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.
Some 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.