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 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted

Saying Goodbye . . . or Until Next Time?

As I write this, one of my students from this academic year has already left to return home to Germany. Over the next few weeks in June, the rest will pack their suitcases and return to Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Thailand. Like every year, I have watched nervous teenagers grow into confident young adults, have had the opportunity to get to know people in my community I would never have met otherwise, and seen relationships develop that did not exist 10 months ago.

plane 466585981These students return to their families and friends as different people. They are more mature, have gained independence, and have a whole different understanding of what another culture is like. They know that making new friends may be harder than you think, and the skills they have gained in doing that will help them in meeting new people as adults. They know that different school systems are just that, different: they can see advantages and disadvantages to both. They have learned that people may be different the world over, but they’re the same, too.

The year has not always been easy; it would be foolish to promise students or host families that bringing someone new into the family – someone who has no idea how you live or what your community is like – is always going to be a walk in the park. For some, the transition was not difficult. They jumped right in, found a niche in a sport or program at school, and became close to their host family with little outside guidance. For most, however, there were some bumps along the way.

These bumps are the normal bumps of life, perhaps compounded by cultural issues and the challenges of living in a strange home and culture. Some students had a hard time adjusting to life without the family and friends they had left behind. Some families struggled Risk & Reward Aheadwith issues that happen to families everywhere: difficulties between teens and parents, changes and stresses at a parent’s workplace. Their students lived through those issues with them; more often than not, they learned something from those “ordinary” stresses that they will take home with them. There were some painful times, and we had students in our home several times this year as we transitioned a student from one family into another.

The purpose of high school exchange educational and cultural programs is to “support personal growth, lead to a deeper understanding about foreign cultures and improve international relationships.” My students and their host families, as a group and individually, have succeeded in and surpassed expectations for what the U.S. government intends with the J-1 visa high school cultural exchange program. The teens have learned what life is like for U.S. teens, and have adapted to lifestyles and a culture different from their own, while their host families have themselves learned accommodation, compromise, and the nature of another culture (as well as being better prepared for when their own younger kids become teens). The teens, and sometimes their parents, have developed relationships with their host families that will continue after they return home. The host families have gained connections in foreign countries they will not lose; for many, they now consider that they have a new “son” or “daughter.”

Talents 123 Educational Center Inc © 2011
Talents 123 Educational Center Inc © 2011

There is a saying in the international exchange community: “exchange is not a year in one’s life, but a life in a year.” For students returning to their home countries, their “life in a year” is coming to a close. But the rest of their life is beginning. These students have lived far from home, and families in the U.S. (and elsewhere) have opened their doors to strange teenagers from countries around the world. They have all moved outside their comfort zone. Even the difficulties they may have experienced may make them better people. I live with the hope that they have all gained something valuable that will stay with them. That, indeed, is the point.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted
I’ve linked this post to the June 2014 My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com – take a look, you’ll find some other interesting blog posts.

Study Abroad for U.S. Students: Can You Do It Without Breaking the Bank?

There have been many discussions about the costs of studying abroad, and why this is one of the reasons so few U.S. students take advantage of the opportunity at both the high school and college level. The costs vary, depending on the type of program that a student chooses, the length of stay, costs incurred by the school sponsoring the program, local costs of living, and so on. If the program is through a student’s home university, tuition fees tend to be approximately the same as if the student is at home. But there are other fees, such as passports, visas, airfare, meals, and additional travel.

I came across the Infographic I’ve copied below which gives some of the statistics on this for the college level. University level costs generally will be higher than at the high school level.

–Laura the ExchangeMom

Source: BestValueSchools.com


Study Abroad

The Montana Shooting: Reflections on a Tragedy and Thoughts on the Future

On April 27, 2014, a tragedy in the U.S. state of Montana shook the high school exchange community from coast to coast, and reached across the Atlantic to Europe. Diren Dede, a 17-year-old high school exchange student from Germany, was shot and killed just weeks before he was scheduled to return home. Diren had reportedly entered an open garage in his neighborhood late that night, and the owner of the house shot him. Some news reports say Diren was “garage hopping,” a fad in which teens run into open garages looking for … alcohol … soda … snacks? It’s supposed to be a prank. It didn’t turn out that way for Diren Dede.

I’ve been thinking about this horrific event, not quite knowing how to apply it to my work with exchange students. It’s an absolute tragedy for everyone involved, with ripple effects to Diren’s family and friends – both back home and here in the U.S. – and to exchange students all over the country. It’s been difficult for Germans to grasp how this could happen; many of us here in America can’t figure it out either.

risk diceI’m not planning to discuss who did what, and who is at fault for what; it’s hard to sort out the facts from a distance. But I think it makes sense to look at the situation from the perspective of exchange programs, and in particular the perspective of the 2014-2015 group of exchange students and their parents as those students prepare to leave for the United States this summer. I’ve heard, for example, that one German student’s parents refused a host family placement in the state of Wyoming because Wyoming is next to Montana and therefore it, too, must be a dangerous place to live. The reaction is understandable, but it’s unfortunate. What might that student miss by not spending the year with the host family in Wyoming who chose her application from among all others?

Lessons Learned From Tragedy

How do we in the exchange community reduce the chance of this kind of thing happening in the future? How do we further ensure our students’ safety, which is already constantly on our minds? We have to start by understanding that teenagers aren’t adults. We know their brains are not fully developed. They process risks differently from how they will view risk several years from now. Risk, for all practical purposes, just doesn’t exist for them. Moreover, we know that many teenage exchange students anticipate that their study abroad experience will be a vacation from their own parents. That’s a normal teen feeling regarding the prospect of being away from home. It takes time for them to learn that they are living a real life, not a vacation life, in their host country.

Those of us working in this field try to teach them that they are coming into a totally different environment from their lives back home, and that they have to adapt. That means they have to grow up pretty quickly; we’re expecting them to suddenly make good adult-like choices, change habits they may have lived with for years, and adapt to a different community and a different school system from what they are used to – all in a few months. We’re there to help them along that path, and to help them make good decisions. But we can’t foresee everything. Garage hopping? Most of my colleagues and I had never heard of it. But I guarantee it’s on the list now, regardless of whether that is, in fact, what was going on that night in April.

Warning our students to be careful and to make “good” decisions has nothing to do with whether they are in Montana or Oregon. In the U.S., the principles of private property are such that the idea of walking into someone else’s garage at midnight – much less someone you don’t even know — is a terrible idea. This isn’t good, and it’s not bad; there’s no value judgment. It’s just a fact, part of our “normal.” Acknowledging that Diren may have made a mistake in walking into the garage of a neighbor at midnight does not justify the action of the homeowner. But it still leaves the question of why a teenager was walking around at midnight in the garage of someone who, by all accounts, he did not know.

No alcohol imageThe simple answer is that Diren was 17 years old. If you have – or have had – a 17 year old, you “get” it. They do things like this, things that make the adults around them ask “what were they thinking?” Most of the time, a teen’s bad decisions are just dumb, with little or no long-term consequences. Some of the time, there are mid-level consequences – a fine or a court appearance for a teen caught drinking alcohol, for example, or financial consequences for crashing a car the student wasn’t supposed to be driving. For an exchange student, bad decisions can lead to the disciplinary action of immediately being sent home. Sometimes, however, the consequences of making the wrong decision are even more tragic and irreversible.

This is why, in the high school exchange community, we have rules about “act first and ask questions later” when it comes to student safety – if there is even a hint that a student is in trouble or in danger, U.S. government regulations require us to take action to protect the student and investigate the circumstances afterwards. This is why parents and host parents want to know where their children and students are when they are out on their own, and who they are with and what they are doing. This is why it’s common for U.S. teens to have curfews. It’s always hard for exchange students to understand; many of them feel they are being treated like children, and they often have been accustomed to much more freedom in their home country.

But they’re not at home now. They are in a foreign country, with foreign rules and foreign customs. Host parents shouldn’t be afraid to impose the rules and guidelines – not only are we talking about teens, with risk management brains that are far from fully developed, but we’re talking about teens who don’t understand their host country’s peculiarities – any host country, not just the United States. Natural parents of students can help by trying to understand that they can’t expect the rules and customs of the host country to be the same as their own; they can encourage their children to adapt to the reality of life in their host country. This can’t totally prevent students from making bad decisions — but I believe it substantially reduces the possibility.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, we all need to figure out how to move forward. Should we give up on the idea of cultural and education exchange in this country? I believe that would be a serious mistake. Does it make sense to cancel your child’s plan to come to the United States this August? I would strongly disagree; terrible things can happen anywhere and at any time. Should we establish a new rule that exchange students can’t go out after 10 pm? That would be silly.  How about not allowing exchange students to ride in a car? Of course not, although the fact is that the chance of being killed in a car accident is far greater than of being shot. That doesn’t stop us from getting into cars. Life does go on for the 30,000 exchange students who come to the U.S. each year, and for the new batch that will be here this coming year.

Diren Dede should not have died that night in April. He should be preparing his return home to Germany after a year that would have framed his approach to his life as an adult. I don’t know how to help alleviate the pain Diren’s family, host family, and friends feel right now. I know there is nothing I can do directly. But I also know I will continue to work to bring young men and women to my country to learn the value of study abroad and cultural exchange, and I will continued to encourage U.S. teens to do the same in reverse. If they stay home, it’s true they won’t suffer from things that could go wrong. They won’t cry from getting in trouble for a bad teen decision. But we won’t meet them, either, and they won’t meet us. And that seems like a shame for everyone. Better, in my opinion, to learn somehow from what has happened and to work to make sure there aren’t other headlines like this.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com