Practical Tips for High School Exchange Students

I sometimes tweet a “tip of the day” for exchange students or host families.  Here are my tips from January for students, with some thoughts on each.  I’ll post more tips from time to time, both for students and for families.

Have a meaningful conversation today with someone in your host family.

Start a conversation on something you think might be interesting.  Don’t agonize about this, just do it! Talk about something that happened at school, even if it’s a small thing – the goal here is to get the conversation going.  “Meaningful” does not mean profound or wise; it just means a “real” conversation. Are people dressed differently at your high school as compared to back home? Was there an assembly? A fire drill? Talk about how good the food at school was today – or how awful it was! Pick a subject from the newspaper, and talk about that.  Ask your host parents something about their country or the local community.  Is a new bridge being built in your city? Ask about the bridge’s history.  Is a new store being built? Ask what was there before.  Does your high school look new? Ask your host parents or host siblings how old the school is.  Tell them about your school back home – how big it is, how many students, is it in the city, how long does it take you to go to school.

Learn a new word in your host country’s language each day.

Think about words you need to know in your classes at school, words that would be helpful in talking about your favorite sport or activity, or words that would help you talk to your host family about something they do in their daily lives.  Put a word on the refrigerator every day in your host language.  Post your new words on a bulletin board in your bedroom.  Ask your host parents what this means and what that means – don’t worry, you won’t offend them!

Offer to make dinner for your host family one day a week.

Parents LOVE not having to cook dinner.  It’s not that hard, either, you can start with something simple.  Spaghetti is easy to make and everyone loves spaghetti.  You could make some soup, chili, or super-duper sandwiches.  Talk to your parents back home and get some recipes and make something from your home country.

Ask your host parents if you can take the dog for a walk — it’s a small thing but they will appreciate it.

Most exchange students have a few chores here and there – putting dishes into the dishwasher, cleaning up the kitchen, doing your own laundry, vacuuming, and so on.  Offer to do something you’re not required to do once sometimes — it will work wonders.  People really appreciate it when you volunteer to do something! If the family has a dog, taking the dog for a short walk is a great way to make friends with the dog.  Are you supposed to help out with feeding the dog at mealtimes? No? Offer to do it! Clean the cat litter! Shovel the sidewalk or driveway if it snows! Rake up the leaves in the yard! (You get the idea!)

A tip for when you go out with friends in the evening: Tell your host parents who you are with at all times. It’s hard but it’s important!

Being an exchange student isn’t all fun and games, as those who have been here since August now know. So this is a more serious item.  This “rule” is hard for exchange students coming to the U.S. from many countries to both understand and accept.  Many students in Europe, for example, are used to much more personal freedom in their daily lives than teens in the U.S.  So it comes across as strange to European 16 and 17 year olds to have to tell their parents they are leaving Joe’s house to go to Nancy’s house, or asking permission to go from someone’s house to the movies.  If you are one of my students, I tell you “it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.”  We know that getting used to a different way of life is tough, especially if the rules seem stricter than what you are used to back home.  But we also know that it’s important for our students to follow these rules.  You’re here as a guest of the U.S. government, so you have a special status.  Your host family has taken on the responsibility of caring for you, and they take that seriously!

Never be afraid to try something new. That’s why you are living in another country after all!

Things my students have done this year that they have not done before:

  • Air ballooning
  • Skiing
  • Snowboarding
  • Cooking
  • Target shooting
  • Scuba diving
  • Para-sailing
  • Lacrosse
  • Acting in a high school play
  • Carving a pumpkin at Halloween
  • Learning Japanese
Alex on his "fun cycle" at the Oregon coast (2010)
Alex on his “fun cycle” at the Oregon coast (2010)

I’m sure when my students read this they will remind me about all the things I haven’t listed — because there’s a whole lot more, and we’re only halfway through the exchange year.  If you’ve done something while on your exchange that’s not listed, let me know!  Take risks (well, reasonable ones!).  Do something you’ve never done before!  Be brave!



Thinking About Ghana

My 18-year-old son, Marcus, is spending a community service exchange semester in Ghana.  So I am trying to learn about the place he will be living for five months, beyond the basics such as it’s about the size of the state of Oregon (although with a population of some 25 million).

The other day I came across this link about Ghana I thought I would share.  It’s a video of Ghanaian ex-President Kufour showing off the sites and countryside of Ghana, with reporter Forrest Sawyer from Travel Channel serving as guest and narrator.  OK, so it’s tourist propaganda in a way, but what’s wrong with that?  It shows great footage of Accra (the capital of Ghana), wildlife in Mole National Park, Ashanti culture, and Kakum National Park.  Watching this video makes me want to visit this beautiful country for sure!

Kakum National Park’s famous canopy walkway  Copyright Chiappi Nicola Jan. 2007
Kakum National Park’s famous canopy walkway
Copyright Chiappi Nicola Jan. 2007

This is on top of the New York Times’ Jan. 11, 2013, article, “The 46 Places to Go in 2013,” which was published the day Marcus arrived in Ghana.  The New York Times has rated Accra #4 on this list, calling Accra a “buzzing metropolis” and noting that “the country has Africa’s fastest-growing economy and is also one of its safest destinations.”  I’m having trouble reminding myself about the cardinal rule for parents of exchange students — all exchange programs tell parents the same thing, which is “please wait until the end of your child’s exchange period, don’t interrupt their experience.”  I know, I know …. but I want to go!

Marcus, of course, is not out and about every day seeing fancy hotels, wildlife, or beautiful beaches.  He is living an “ordinary” life – that’s what exchange students do after all.  He is living with a host family in Accra and working as a tutor and school assistant; in other words, learning what it’s like to live in the “buzzing metropolis” as an ordinary person.  He is working in an after-school program run by BASICS International, a non-profit organization trying to fight poverty in Ghana by providing educational opportunities to primary school children.

BASICS International's "Nana House" where Marcus is working
BASICS International’s “Nana House” where Marcus is working

The organization’s main facility is located in Chorkor, an overpopulated fishing community on the outskirts of Accra.  The children attend school in the mornings and spend all afternoon at the BASICs after-school program.  Marcus and 4-5 other volunteers tutor students and help them with their homework.  The hope is that this will expand on the curriculum at their local school, introduce them to creative learning, such as art, music, dance, and sport, and in general help the children move up the education ladder and move out of the cycle of poverty.  Marcus has only been working a week, so he is still getting used to the daily activities — but he did bring a couple of lacrosse sticks with him and hopes to teach the children his own favorite sport!

Marcus arrived in the country two weeks ago, and he hasn’t seen any of the tourist sites yet.  But this weekend he is heading out with the other students and volunteers in his exchange program for a weekend of hiking and seeing some of the countryside outside the city of Accra.  I can’t wait to hear where he is headed. Kakum National Park? or Cape Coast Castle? or Shai Resource Reserve?  I guess I will have to write some more when I find out!


The “mom” in the Exchange Mom

The idea of cultural exchange sounds simple enough, but in fact several pieces of the cultural exchange puzzle need to fit together for a successful exchange experience.  There are the students, of course, whether high school or college, who make the choice to go abroad for adventure, education, and personal growth.  There are the families left behind, who hope that the year will go as planned, and worry that it won’t.  There are the host families who welcome a student into their home and community (with no compensation and with some personal expense), with the goal of expanding their own horizons and those of their own children.  There are the schools, which like having international students to enrich their community and expose their student body to other cultures and new ways of thinking.  Finally, there are the organizations that facilitate the exchange, and which provide support, ground rules, and oversight.

I’ve now been involved, to one extent or another, in all of these roles:

  • As a host parent, I’ve been a host mom to about a dozen high school exchange students from places as far away from Oregon as Germany and Colombia, from Italy and Hong Kong.  We’ve welcomed them into our lives and in several cases have welcomed our “children” back again when they have returned for visits.  I hope to be a part of their lives when they finish college, if they go; when they marry and have children of their own; and when things happen in their lives, both good and bad.
  • As a local liaison/coordinator for six years for one of the largest educational foreign exchange programs operating in the U.S., I have supervised several dozen students from Europe, Asia, and South America, and recruited dozens of host families.  I’ve cheered my students on to A’s in their American high schools, advised them on how to adapt to seemingly strange American customs, smiled at their prom photos, and wept with them through personal crises.
  • As the contact point and liaison to half a dozen local high schools, I have worked with high school counselors and administrators on how best to bring exchange students into their schools, and have tried to make sure that the students contribute to the school community.
  • Finally and most recently, as a parent, two weeks ago I sent my teen-aged son to a far-away place on his own exchange program for five months, in this case the country of Ghana.

In a way, of course, this last role is not completely new.  I’m a parent, and my children have traveled on their own. I understand how it feels to send your child off to places where they’ve never been before. I know the funny feeling in your gut when your child heads off for travel on his own and he goes through the airport security line, gives you a final wave, and trots off to his gate.  I know the constant looking at the clock, where you find yourself doing a mental calculation and wondering if he has found the people meeting him on the other side of the world at the end of a long flight.

I hope to continue posting this year on my experience with all of these roles – tidbits and items that I hope are useful to students and their host families, as well as tidbits from my son’s experience in Ghana (and from my experience as the parent left behind!).  I hope you benefit from my blog posts as I continue with it this year.

Hosting an exchange student: “We need to wait until our kids are older” — or do you?

I’ve been thinking about this recently, since we’ve been looking for host families for students arriving in January and are beginning to look for families for the 2013-2014 academic year.  I get the question a lot when I talk to people about hosting a student.  “My kids are too young,” or “I need to wait until my son/daughter is in high school.”

I’d like to challenge that assumption, at least for some families.  In some cases, sure — waiting might be the right thing to do for your family situation.  But don’t wait just because you don’t have a teen. Don’t assume, without thinking it through, that the “right time” is when your 10-year-old turns 16.

We’ve hosted about a dozen teens in the past 10 years, not including the ones who we’ve had for a few days or a few weeks as a result of our work as local coordinators/supervisors. Our children were 9 and 11 when we first hosted a boy from Germany.  If we had decided that “our boys will learn more when they’re teens,” we would have missed so much.  We would have missed the opportunity for our older son to learn what it means NOT to be the older son (it means a lot, and very much to the benefit of the younger son!).  We would have missed the change in family dynamic when you have three instead of two, and the opportunity for there always to be someone with whom to kick a soccer ball, watch an action movie, or play video games.  We would have missed the fun of playing Age of Empires (which our exchange student introduced us to) on several computers simultaneously with three boys and Dad all trying to take over the world.

By hosting when our kids were younger, we learned things about teens that came in incredibly handy later on when our own children reached that age.  We learned about managing computer use and cell phones.  We learned how to handle a teen slinking in late with no good excuse.  We learned how to say “no, you can’t go” and not feel awful, and we learned how to say “no” even when you do feel awful.  We learned that intelligent teens can make dumb decisions.  We learned, even as adults who have been abroad, that living with someone from another culture teaches you things that books and popular media cannot.

Yes, it’s a different family makeup when the exchange student is older (or for that matter, younger) than other children in the family.  Our sons’ relationship with Niklas, who was their 17-year-old Age of Empires companion when they were 9 and 11, was different from their relationship with Sven and Jorge, who joined our family when our children were 12 and 14, or with Alex, who became our German son when he and my younger son were both 16.

Marshall, Stefano (Italy), Marcus, and Marc (Germany), Christmas 2004
Marshall, Stefano (Italy), Marcus, and Marc (Germany), Christmas 2004

Let’s face it, American families come in all sizes and shapes.  A host family is just that – a family.  A family can have one or two parents.  A family can have children living in the home or no children living in the home – or no children at all.  A family can have children away at college, teenagers, middle-schoolers, or toddlers. The U.S. government and the 75 or so authorized exchange programs in this country encourage — with good reason — all kinds of families to host.

Foreign cultural exchange is intended to show the variety of culture within a country, and part of that is showing the variety of families.  Families share one important characteristic, though: they are families.  To be a host family for an exchange student, you just need to want to share that experience and expand your own family’s horizons.

Happy New Year to my Exchange Students

For the academic year 2012-2013, I am supervising 14 high school exchange students.  The number varies from year to year.  This year, my students are from Austria, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.  They’ve now been here five months – halfway through their exchange year. So far, as 2012 winds down, they have been able to:

* go with their host families to Hawaii, California, Arizona, Idaho, New York, Canada, and Mexico;

* see Seattle, Washington; Crater Lake, Oregon; and Disneyland, California.

* take classes not offered in their home countries such as Japanese, ceramics, psychology, cooking, and marketing;

*experience homecoming at their US high school;

* become fans of American college football teams such as the University of Oregon Ducks and Oregon State University Beavers, and learn how to dress like a fan;

* go to NBA Trailblazer basketball games and MLS Timbers soccer games;

* become athletes themselves and play rugby, football, soccer, volleyball, or be on the cheerleading squad;

* go skiing, scuba-diving, rock-climbing, and air ballooning;

* gone camping in the mountains, stayed in a yurt;

* have BBQs on Labor Day;

* go trick-or-treating on Halloween;

* eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving;

* help light the candles for the eight nights of Hanukkah;

* decorate their host families’ home and tree for Christmas.

This is kind of what it’s all about, isn’t it? Sharing experiences with young people from other countries and cultures.  Showing them that the United States is not just the Hollywood sign (although it is that, too).  Demonstrating that for all our differences, people from different countries and cultures still, in the end, like many of the same things.

Of course, there have also been tears, and trials and tribulations.  One student is now in a new host family; another broke her wrist over New Year’s while snowboarding.  Some have been homesick.  But they’re surviving, and surviving well.  My New Year’s wish tonight goes to them – here’s to 2013!