Let Them Sleep, Let Them Eat, Let It Be – The First Day of the Exchange Year

I met some of my new exchange students at the airport this weekend; six of my new group arrived in Portland on Saturday, as well as students who will be supervised and guided by other local coordinators in NW Oregon and SW Washington. Host families waited excitedly in the waiting room with colorful signs, balloons, and lots of excited murmuring.

You could feel the excitement in the air.  People would ask anxiously, “has the plane landed yet?” and “where are they, shouldn’t they be coming out by now?” and “is that them?” And eventually — “there they are!”  The excitement is contagious — I felt just as excited and nervous about it as our host families, I think!

Nora arrival photo
Arrival Day!

The students, on the other hand, looked a bit frazzled and bedraggled, although they tried to smile for their arrival photos. They dragged their carry-on luggage or looking hunched over with packs on their backs, and dragging their feet. They can be forgiven for this; this group came from a 10-day language and culture immersion camp in New England, and had to leave camp shortly after midnight to make it to the airport for their cross-country trek to the West Coast.

Some of the host families have many things planned for August: trips to family elsewhere in the state, visits to Seattle or San Francisco, excursions to summer farmers’ and crafts markets, perhaps the State Fair or the Oregon coast.  There will be visits to local landmarks: the families’ local high school, of course, where their student will attend school for a semester or academic year; their town or city’s downtown center; places where teens hang out.  In Portland, favorite places to “show off” the city include Powell’s Books, the Portland Saturday Market, and Niketown, among other fun attractions.  We will have an entry meeting to talk about rules and expectations (perhaps not so exciting) and a “get to know each other” meeting with pizza or a sleepover (perhaps more exciting).

But all that can wait.  For this weekend, as the students arrive, it’s a blurry whiz of a ride to a place they do not yet call “home,” but will; a whirlwind tour of their new home provided by excited family members; something to eat other than airplane snacks, and a long night’s sleep.  And with that, our year begins.  It may take a few days (or a few weeks….) for the students to really be themselves, and then the year really begins!

Practical Tips for Exchange Students – Preparation for Travel to Your Host Country

Every year, I send my new students some pieces of advice for them to think about before they travel to the U.S. for their exchange semester or year.  Here are some tips that expand on recent advice I’ve given to my new student group, as they prepare to leave their home for their host countries in a few weeks for the new school year.  Host families might find these tips useful, too, for thinking about how to get communications started with their new student.

Contact your host family as soon as your program gives you their contact information, and send them some photos, too.

Don’t hesitate when you get the message that you have a host family – contact them right away! You may feel that you are very busy with the end of your school year and preparations for your travels.  You may be nervous about your language skills, and you may not know what to say — you don’t know them yet, after all, so where do you start?


Dear Host Family,

I am so excited about my exchange! I am looking forward to meeting you. I want to know all about everyone in my host family!…..


Keep in mind that your host family is aware of those things; in fact, they may be nervous, too! But they are as excited to start to get to know you as you are about your upcoming exchange.  And think about how it might look to them if you don’t contact them right away, or if you do not respond to an email from them.  I think this is something teens may not think about in their excitement about all the things they need to do before they leave home.  If you do not respond to a note from your host family, they may think you don’t care very much about them, and you don’t want the semester or year to start that way.  So send them a note.  It’s OK if your first note is a short one, they will understand.  Include a couple of photos!

Get used to using email!

Teen Use of Social Media (Source: Washington Post, June 26, 2012)
Teen Use of Social Media
(Source: Washington Post, June 26, 2012 – http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/how-teens-communicate/2012/06/26/gJQAmPWE5V_graphic.html)

Many teens don’t use email as much as even a couple of years ago.  Certainly, communication styles are changing.  Contacting people through text messages, Facebook posts and messages, and Twitter is more common; for many teens these methods are their primary means of communication with friends and, sometimes, family.  But many exchange programs (at least in the U.S.) discourage host families and students from making first contact through Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, directing new host families to email or call their students first.  Even after students arrive, communication through social media sites may be limited by program rules or host family lifestyle and customs.  Email is a good way to establish contact with your host family and tell them about yourself and your family, and may be one of the ways your exchange program contacts you through your exchange period.

Ask your host family about their house rules and lifestyle now, before you arrive.

Ask your host family about how they live – if you have two host parents, do they both work? How do they get to work, and what do they do?  If you will have host brothers or sisters, how old are they? Ask your host parents for advice on small gifts you could bring for your host siblings.  Will you walk to school, or will there be a bus? How far is your host home from the city center in your community? What chores do children in the family have?  What are typical meal times in your host country culture and in your host family? What does your host family typically do on weekends?  These are all good ways to start a conversation, too, and will help show your interest in your host family’s way of life.

Learn something about your host county/city/community now, even before you go.

(Lake Oswego High School, Oregon) How far is your U.S. high school from your host family's home?
(Lake Oswego High School, Oregon)
How far is your U.S. high school from your host family’s home?

With the power of modern technology, you can find out so many things!  How big is the city or town where you will live? Where is it located in your host country? What is the weather like? How far is the high school from your host home?  Look up your high school on the Internet and find out as much as you can about the school; perhaps you can even download a list of classes offered that you could look at before you arrive.  Find a book about the region of the country where you will be living — you could read it on the plane!  Here are a couple of examples for students coming to the Pacific Northwest, where I live — one practical guide, and one that is “off the beaten path.”  You can find something equivalent for whatever your destination!

What are your goals for your exchange semester/year?

Now that your exchange is feeling very real to you – think about what you might want to do (in addition to going to school, of course!).

* For students going to the U.S. or the U.K., are you hoping to improve your English? It’s pretty much guaranteed that you will, when every conversation and every class will be in English. But there are ways you can move that process along faster and more completely; for example, you can invest in a self-study program (such as Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, or Berlitz, or check out language podcasts, videos, and apps for your smartphone) that you can work on to focus on grammar and vocabulary.  You can force yourself to start conversations in English, even when you are not sure what to say – don’t worry about stumbling over words.

* At your host high school, do you have classes you are required to take, either to get credit back home or because your exchange program requires them? Get those classes on your list, and then look at everything else — take classes you would not have the opportunity to take back home.

* Do you want to learn a new sport and find ways to make friends in your host country? Join a sport team at school if it’s allowed, or sign up for a sport through a city or town league.  Join a club.  If your host family goes to church, join a youth group (or perhaps you can join such a group even if your host family doesn’t attend church).

Finally – speak up, ask questions, talk.

Communication is perhaps the most important thing you can learn and do during your exchange.  I’m talking about all kinds of communication –

* basic questions about where things are located, how appliances work, and basic family rules in your host home.

* any time you do not understand even just a portion of what someone has just said to you – don’t assume you get it just because you understood half of it.  You may have missed the critical half.

* talking to your host parents or your program representative when you do not know or do not understand a particular host family or program rule.  They may not be able or willing to change the rule, but they should be able to explain to you why the rule exists.

* talking to your program representative if something is just not going right in your host family. Perhaps you feel you are not getting along with a host sibling, or you feel your host parents are mad at you.  Chances are it’s something that can be worked out – but not unless you tell someone and ask for help.

No teenager about to leave for their exchange year is going to do all of these recommendations – we know that!  The point is to help get things started on the right foot, and that doesn’t take a lot of work.   So think about these suggestions and do your best – ask questions, send an email or two – and pack your bags!

Youth and High School Exchange Programs: What’s the Right Program for You?

In an earlier post, I talked about the differences between J-1 and F-1 visas, and how which visa a student obtains can affect his or her study abroad experience in the U.S.  In this post, I will back up a step, and ask students to think about their motivations for going on a study abroad program in the first place, and hopefully help them think about the options that might be best for their situation. This discussion is intended primarily for high school students; the decision-making process for college age students would be different.  Also, while I focus on the U.S., the basic question would be the same regardless of the host county a student is considering: “is this the right program for me”?

Let’s look at one particular issue for today: let’s look at the picture of a high school student who chooses to go to a host country specifically to get used to the host country and to prepare for college entrance exams and applications in that host country.  How does that affect the youth cultural exchange experience?

In the U.S., most high school exchange students come on a J-1 cultural exchange visa.  This visa comes with certain rules and expectations attached, both for the student and for the host family.  Because of those rules and expectations, if a student’s motivations do not match the program’s mission, the experience can go poorly for both the student and the host family.  The purpose of youth exchanges is cultural; that is, to share your country’s lifestyle and ideas with that of your host family, and for the host family to share their lifestyle, city/town, and country customs with you.  If you have a larger goal of applying to college, what do you think you will want to focus on during your exchange?  Most likely, you would need to focus on studying for college entrance exams and a specific language entrance exam (e.g., TOEFL, required for foreign students applying to college in the U.S.), or both; these would likely require special preparation courses and time.  You might need to spend time doing the actual college applications, and you might feel you need to visit colleges in which you are interested.

These activities take time away from your host country high school studies, making friends and going out with new friends in your host country, and spending time with your host family.  Indeed, these activities may conflict with youth exchange regulations and guidelines.  In the U.S., for example, high school exchange students often are limited in the extent to which they can travel on their own, so visiting colleges may not be an option. Students are also required to pass all classes at their U.S. high school, so if your college prep class interferes with that you may find yourself on academic probation.  If you need to study in your free time, it may well prevent you from going out with friends and seeing anything in your host city.  Additionally, students who choose not to interact with their host family may face a disciplinary process or possible removal from the host family home.

Let’s look at it, too, from the perspective of the host family seeking to bring a new family member into the home.  They will want to encourage the student to take part in family activities, learn new things, take classes the student cannot take in his or her home country.  No doubt they will want to encourage the student to do what the students wants and needs to do, and no one wants to deny a teen something that may be important for the student’s future.  If a student says “I need to take the TOEFL in November,” many host families will likely say “of course.”  But how will they feel when their student feels she cannot go to the beach for the weekend because she needs to study for that extra language or college prep class she is taking?  How will they feel when the student stays in his room all the time on the computer because he needs to work on his college entrance applications, or doesn’t want to go to the movies because he is now failing a class at school due to the time he has spent reviewing colleges?  At what point will the family feel they have a “boarder” in their home, and not a member of the family?  Remember, in many countries host families are not paid for hosting a student; this is certainly true in the U.S. under the J-1 visa exchange regulations.  If there is no exchange and no learning, if the student is purely a body using a bedroom and eating the host family’s food – ask yourself, is that fair?

Don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s wrong to be motivated to learn about a country before making a decision to go to college there.  That’s not the message here.  A wish to go to college in another country is not a poor goal by any means. Indeed, it’s a great idea; in a way, it’s an extended version of study abroad and can immerse you more completely in another culture much more completely than a high school semester or two ever could.  But going to that host country in high school as preparation for the college experience may not be the best reason to participate in a youth exchange program, since those programs have the mission of cultural exchange and development of a long-term host family relationship.  Your best bet may be to find another program.  Perhaps a summer homestay program can give you the flavor you need to evaluate the host country, or perhaps you should focus only on other programs; in the U.S., for example, perhaps an F-1 visa would be better for you, as it does not require cultural immersion and relationship development.

The same arguments could be made if your motivation is to get your driver’s license a couple of years earlier than you could in your home country, because you think getting a driver’s license in a particular host country would be easier.  The discussion above could easily apply to that situation as well – your motivations would be to study for your driving test, and practice driving, and not hanging out with friends and your host family (and the truth is, it is not as easy as you think to get that license!). Students considering study abroad may have other goals, too: perhaps you have not been getting along with your parents, and you think getting away from them would be a good idea.

Whatever your motivations are: think about your options carefully.  Make sure you understand the requirements for the study abroad program you are choosing.  Your success during your year abroad is likely to depend on it.

Sending Your Child Off This Summer for a High School Exchange Year? Here Are Six Tips For Parents

1. Take the Opportunity to Learn About Your Son or Daughter’s Destination

* Read a book or two about the country where your son or daughter will be living.  Research the region – the eastern part of the country may be very different from the west, or the north or south.  Try to find out something about differences between rural and urban areas. (See this blog post for a little bit about what I learned about Ghana when our son left for his one semester exchange.)

* Ask your son or daughter’s host parents for some advice on how to learn more.  Do they have a particular book they recommend?  What about a magazine or newspaper you could read online?

* Are there specific laws that are different from those in your country that your child needs to know about?  The exchange program will give you some information on this, but don’t hesitate to ask.  For students coming to the U.S., for example, it’s important to understand that they cannot legally drink alcohol – anywhere, with anyone, at any time whatsoever – until they reach the age of 21.

* Look online for student blogs about living in the country where your son or daughter will be, both past and present.  Find out if your exchange program has previous students who might be ‘on call’ for information.  Ask your student’s local coordinator/liaison if there are previous students from the region or even perhaps the same school who your son or daughter could get in touch with.

* Research the issue of safety.  Don’t just rely on the mass media – television and cable news stories may not give you thorough or balanced information about a particular political situation, natural disaster, or other safety issue at your child’s destination.  Remind your child that he is responsible for following his host family’s and the program’s rules, and that these rules are for his safety.

2.  What to Take?

* With current international baggage restrictions, most exchange programs advise students to stick to one suitcase and one carry-on.  Your child will, no doubt, add to his belongings during the year!  It may well make sense for your child to buy winter clothing after he/she arrives.  In some cases, your child might be able to borrow a coat from his or her host family.

* Be prepared for the need to ship items back home at the end of the exchange year, or else have your child buy an inexpensive suitcase and pay the baggage fee for an extra piece of luggage.

* Specific suggestions to think about include:

  • English dictionary or electronic translator – small pocket version that the student can carry in purse or pocket.
  • Camera!  I’ve never met an exchange student who doesn’t love to take photos.
  • Laptop computer – more and more students bring this with them.  Please remind your student that their host family may have family rules on computer use.
  • Prescription medicines — If your child has prescription medicines that he or she takes on a regular basis (such as asthma or acne medicine), it is best to bring enough for the whole year.  Ask your child’s host parents or the program representative about non-prescription medicines; in many places, it is probably simpler and easier for your child or his host parents to buy such items when needed, rather than having your child bring things like aspirin or first-aid cream, with her.

Tell your child’s host family about any medications your son or daughter is taking; remember that teens may forget, and such information is critical for the host family to help keep your child safe.  In an emergency, they will need to know if their student is already taking any medication before new ones can be added safely.

  • If your student wears glasses, send along an extra pair.
  • Mobile phones – Generally speaking, do not buy your child a phone before they travel.  In most locations, the simplest option is for your child to buy an inexpensive phone upon arrival, and buy a pay-as-you-go plan with a local phone number.  Most such plans include texting options.  Students generally cannot sign contracts or sign up for long-term plans.  Your son or daugher’s host parents may also have a low-cost phone option they are planning to take advantage of for your child.
  • Clothing – Will your child be required to wear a uniform, or a particular style of clothing?  In the U.S., for example, most public schools allow students to wear ordinary street clothes such as blue jeans, T-shirts, and sweatshirts to school; however, there are limits on the kind of clothing that may be worn.  Make sure your child has at least one nice outfit for special occasions.  Note that the clothing your daughter may be accustomed to wearing may not be considered appropriate in an American school.

3. Financial Issues

* Try to get your son or daughter started on a budget even before he or she leaves.  Give your child a set amount of money, tell him or her it’s for the entire month, and give some guidelines.  Teach your child how to take money out of the ATM a bit at a time, so that he doesn’t have too much cash.  Suggest a schedule (perhaps taking cash out once/week, and trying to live on that for the entire week).  Try not to interfere while she is learning how to manage a budget (at least, don’t get mad!).  It’s a learning experience for you, too.

* Talk to your child about budgets and finances before he or she leaves.  What kind of expenses can you foresee now? Does your exchange program have recommendations on an average amount of expenses to expect per month?

* Get a pre-paid card that can be used much like a credit card as long as you have put money in the account; best is to have it be through Visa or Mastercard.  Make sure the card can be used at an ATM.   Test it out before your child leaves to make sure it works.

* Ask your child’s host parents if there are particular expenses they expect your child to have.  Does the school charge fees if your son or daughter chooses to play a sport?  When would that need to be paid?  Are there fees for any textbooks, or are they loaned for free?

* Think ahead of time about the possibility of your child traveling during his/her exchange year.  There may be opportunities to travel with her host family, on a school trip, or on a trip organized by the exchange program.  You may not be able to find out about all these possibilities ahead of time, but you can ask the program what might be likely.  You should think about what your family’s financial limits are so that you will be more prepared when the question of travel comes up.  How much are you prepared to spend over and beyond the exchange program fees? Ask the program where your child will stay if he/she cannot travel with the host family.

4. Communicating During the Exchange

* Keeping in touch with your child is important; it’s also important to remember that your child will need to be focusing on his or her new life, and immersing himself into his host family’s activities, his new school, and making new friends.  The hardest part of being the parents back home is figuring out the right communications balance. (See my January blog post for a bit about our nervousness when our son left home for his one semester exchange program to Ghana.)

* A good plan might be to suggest talking to your child no more than once/week, generally on weekends, for no more than 30 minutes to an hour – and force yourself to stick to this.  For some families, even every other week will be enough to know what is going on in your child’s life.  Remember that in between these times, you can email your child – and she can email you, too, sometimes.  Try not to text or call your son or daughter more than this – the less often, the better.  We know it’s hard – and as a parent who has sent her own son abroad, I can speak to this!  But it’s important to let your child find his or her own life, and it’s critical to their success that you step back.

* Blogs are an inexpensive way to keep in touch – suggest to your child that she write a blog about her exchange adventures.  You – and friends and other family members – can easily follow along.

5. Visiting Your Child During the Exchange

Many families look forward to a child’s exchange year almost as much as the student.  We know we did! We looked forward to the idea of visiting Ghana ourselves, regardless of whether our son would be able to join on our travels around the country or not (he joined us for 4 days out of the two weeks we were in the country).  You, too, may want to visit your child during the exchange semester or year.

* Take a deep breath, and remember it’s your child’s experience.  If you do visit – and it certainly is an opportunity for your own family to travel to a place you might never otherwise have thought about visiting – do it within the exchange program’s rules; most programs ask that family and friends wait until the end of the exchange period, when your visit is not likely to interfere with your child’s adjustment or host family life.

* Do not visit during any key holidays in the host country.  In the U.S., this would include Thanksgiving, the last two weeks of December, and Easter.  Find out what the key holidays are in your child’s host country, and avoid those dates; remember that these are times for your child to spend with her host family and local friends.

* Do not visit at any times your child’s host family has major family activities or travel plans.

* Try not to visit when school is in session.  Your child is expected to attend school and to pass all classes.  It can complicate his or her experience if you want to take your student out of school.  It could also affect your child’s relationship with her host family, and could negatively affect the exchange program’s relationship with the school.

* Show thanks to your child’s host family by bringing a small gift, or perhaps taking them out to dinner.  Stay in a hotel rather than asking if you can stay with them.

6.  Letting Go

One of the hardest lessons for parents of exchange students, in my experience, is that you are no longer in control of your child’s life.  You often do not know what your child is doing on a daily basis anymore, and you do not know your son or daughter’s friends.  You cannot change this; indeed, it can be harmful to your child’s experience if you try.  The exchange students who have the most adjustment problems tend to be the ones whose parents insist on calling or texting every day, the ones whose parents try to convince the host parents to do things the way their child is using to doing things, and the ones whose parents tell their child, when the teen complains about a particular host family habit or rules, that “you don’t have to put up with that, I’ll take care of that today!”  Help your student have a good exchange year; don’t do these things!

* If your teen tells you “I don’t like my host family because XXXX” or “My host family won’t let me go out with my friends,” or any other complaint – don’t offer to solve the problem.  Encourage your child to figure out ways to solve the problem themselves.  Have they talked to their host parents about why a particular rule exists? Have they asked their local coordinator/liaison if this particular rule is normal for teens in the host country?  If it is considered normal in the host country, guide your child towards acceptance.

* Don’t expect to hear from your student every day while he or she is abroad, and don’t make your student feel bad for not being in daily touch.  Don’t call or text more than once/week, or even less.

* Talk with parents whose children have studied abroad, as well as parents whose children are currently in your child’s program.  How have they dealt with various situations that have come up?

Finally …..

In closing – As you prepare to send your child to a far-away place for 5 or 10 months, don’t downplay your own feelings.   It’s hard to send your child off to places they’ve never been before.  It’s hard to watch your teen stride through the airport security, give you a final wave, and trot off to the gate (and of course, they don’t look back at their worried parents!).  Remember – good things and positive experiences don’t always come easy.  Your teen will come through this experience a better and more mature person; perhaps you, too, can learn something new.

“Exchange is not a Year in a Life, but a Life in a Year” — The Year Ends, and the Life Begins

airplane taking off

There is a saying in the international exchange community, “exchange is not a year in one’s life, but a life in a year.”  Between late May through the end of June, the students who have been on their exchange for a semester or for a full academic year are beginning to return to their home countries – their “life in a year” is ending.  I hope they, their host families, and their families back home can see, now that they are packing up their belongings and saying their goodbyes, that the saying is more than just words.

The students go home not only more mature after having lived for so long without the cushion of family and long-time friends, but also with a better understanding of what our country is all about, and perhaps a better idea of what the world is all about.  They know better now than to believe that everyone lives the American life they see on TV.  There is, also, more to it than that, for both students and host families.

Two of my students, Megan (Hong Kong) and Patrick (Switzerland), upon arrival in the U.S. August 2012
Two of my students, Megan (Hong Kong) and Patrick (Switzerland), upon arrival in the U.S. August 2012

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.” As I write this, 13 of my 14 students from this academic year are packing their bags to leave the U.S. and return home to Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain, and Hong Kong.  My 14th student went home early due to illness, but that does not diminish her exchange experience.  She is still a part of this group – a group that has succeeded in what the U.S. government intends with the J-1 visa high school cultural exchange program: learn what life is like for U.S. teens, adapt to lifestyles and a culture different from their own, attend school and become a part of their U.S. school community, try new “American” things (food, sports, classes, etc.), and develop relationships with Americans that will continue after they return home.  Host families have learned a bit more about the country of their students, and have gained a connection they will not lose; for many, they now consider that they have a new “son” or “daughter.”

Matilde (Italy) and Sara (Sweden) -- June 2013
Matilde (Italy) and Sara (Sweden) — June 2013

The year has not always been easy; it would be foolish for any academic international exchange program to promise either a student or a host family that bringing someone new into the family – someone who has no idea how you live or how school is run in this country – is going to be a piece of cake. Having a five- or ten-month vacation is not the point of the program.

For some, the transition has not been difficult.  For others, there have been bumps along the way. Some of the students and host families have struggled through difficult times together.  Several students had a hard time adjusting to life without their close friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, and their comfortable “normal” life; but they muddled through, as people do.  Some families struggled with issues that happen to families (a teen rejects mom to go live with dad; a host grandparent falls ill); their students lived through those issues with them.  The world, too, interfered with life, bringing to us this year on one side of the coin the re-election of President Barack Obama and, sadly, on the other side of the coin such events as the Newtown tragedy and the recent tornados in Oklahoma, and more.  We have had some personal scary moments — a concussion for one preventing him from playing football for a while in the Fall and an even scarier emergency flight to the hospital by helicopter for another student this Spring after a rugby injury (which, fortunately, was not as serious as it first seemed).  There have been some sad, painful times – unsolvable problems in a host family for one student requiring a move to a new family, and for one, a serious long-term illness that required her to return home in January, cutting short her exchange year.

But they have all learned.  So have their host families, as well as the students, teachers, and others (myself included) whose lives have intersected with theirs. The world is a slightly smaller — and yet larger – place.  That, indeed, is exactly the point.