Why do people host a teen from another country?

I’ve been thinking about this lately, as all the foreign student exchange programs struggled to find host families by the U.S. government deadline for all the students who had applied to come to the U.S. for an exchange year.  It seemed harder this year to find families.  That perception seems to be borne out by the numbers – maybe it’s anecdotal or maybe it’s just regional, but many local schools have reported fewer exchange students being enrolled than usual.

Maybe it’s the economy making people nervous about the financial burden of feeding another person.  But in some regions of the country, numbers were up.  So I’ll leave the mystery of “why not” to the number crunchers to figure out; I’m going to focus on the other side of the coin: why we *do* host.

Yes, the teen years can be a challenge, and yes, it’s a challenge to make someone part of your family who comes in with no connection to you.  But there are many reasons why Americans (and others) have been enthusiastically choosing to host teens from other countries for many years.  The desire to learn from others while passing along your personal view of life in this country is strong.  People everywhere are proud of their culture and their country, and want to share their experience.  Hosting a student provides an opportunity to learn about another culture from the perspective of what that culture is like on a daily basis, as students share with their host families the differences in their own families.  For host families with children, exposing one’s children to other cultures can help them understand other people better and communicate across cultures, and develop tolerances for differences.

What it really comes down to, I think, is this:

* Students tasting a freshly baked Voodoo Donut for the very first time (if you don’t know what that is – come to Portland and find out for yourself!) – and reminding us how good they taste.

* A boy from Italy playing volleyball in a school tournament (a game that in America is usually considered a “girl’s” sport) and becoming known throughout the school for the rest of the school year as the Volleyball King – and reminding us that it takes courage to stand up and be different.

* Coming around the curve on Highway 101 on the Oregon coast and seeing Haystack Rock loom up out of the surf and hearing the “oh wow” from the back seat – and reminding us that yes, it really is a pretty cool sight.

* Just the other day, a student from Spain told me about how much fun she was having learning how to be a cheerleader.  “We don’t have this at home,” she reminded me excitedly.  “This is America.  I am living my own American dream.”

Yes, it’s hard work hosting and advising the kids all year.  Yes, it’s only September and we coordinators, counselors, and host families will have teen issues and angst to deal with in October and December and February.  But we live for the grins and the smiles, the looks of awe and amazement, the courage of 16 and 17 year olds — and for the airport pickups of former students when they come back to visit a year (or two or four or ten years) later and having them shout “shotgun” to get the front seat and arguing with their “brothers” before you even leave the airport.  Family is family, after all, no matter where they started.

Why Aren’t Americans Hosting Exchange Students — Or Are They?

I’m struck this year by the difficulties foreign exchange student programs in the United States seem to be having in finding host families; at least, that’s the sense here in Oregon.  There are many more openings today in mid-August at many more schools than one would expect so late in the foreign exchange student placement process.

Is it the economy? Is it a regional issue?  Is it lack of information that’s available for potential families? Is it misunderstanding about what’s required and what support you will get if something goes wrong?  Is it something else entirely?  Or is it just that people are not making their decisions on this until the very last minute?

Having a foreign-born teenager in your home for 5 or 10 months is certainly a more involved process than deciding what to have for dinner.  And it’s definitely not the right thing to do for every family; even families who are enthusiastic about hosting exchange students don’t necessarily do it every year.  But it’s also a fact that thousands of families in the U.S. have participated successfully in exchange programs for years, have established lasting relationships around the world, and have gained a son or daughter in the process as well as a better understanding of other cultures.

What’s the difference this year? I would be interested in hearing from people on this topic.  Send me your comments.

 

 

Why Do We Host Exchange Students? Reading Recommendations

For today, I was originally going to write wise words from my experience as a host parent to explain why we do it — why some of us spend all this time and effort to bring an unknown teenager into our lives for up to 10 months (and some of us do this more than once).  But recently I’ve seen several articles in different places that say it just perfectly.

So for today, I’m going with some reading recommendations:

5 Lessons I Learned Hosting an Exchange Student

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/homa-sabet-tavangar/5-lessons-i-learned-hosti_b_916347.html

My Third Son

http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/The-Home-Forum/2011/0804/My-third-son?cmpid=tweet_count

And these two, from May 2011, as students were getting ready to return to their home countries:

Hosting an Exchange Student

http://www.ednewsparent.org/blog/5438-editors-blog-hosting-an-exchange-student

Host a Foreign Exchange Student. You Will Not Regret It, If You Live

http://www.adventureparents.com/blog/adventure-dads-blog/433-if-you-really-want-to-rock-your-world-host-a-foreign-exchange-student.html

 Read their stories – I can’t say it any better.

 

The Air is Full of Excitement – or Are They Bored to Death?

August – the time of excitement and glamour as the exchange students arrive in the U.S. and elsewhere for their semester or year of adventure.  What could be more fabulous than … wait, sitting around the house and watching TV?

We have two exchange students who are starting the year with us.  Viet Anh (Germany) is temporary; we’re his “welcome” family, and we’ll be looking for a “regular” family for him.  But in the meantime, we’re his host family.  He has arrived, and I suspect he is a bit bored – I’m working this week, my husband is out of town, one son is at lacrosse camp, and the older son is taking summer classes.  That doesn’t leave much room for exciting trips across the state – our level of excitement is taking a dog for a walk into town.  Our other exchange student, Pim (Netherlands), arrives next week; he is probably jumping up and down counting every minute and driving his parents crazy until he boards his plane for the U.S.

Is this a fundamental difference between the two teens?  Not at all.  With no school in session, no local friends of their own, and most parents working, students can get bored in August.  Host parents who can’t take the time off will feel guilty if they have to work – if you are reading this, try to get over that!  Check with your exchange program and see if your student can get together with one or more nearby other students for “play dates.”  That’s what we’ll be doing over the next few days (OK, we don’t call it a “play date” – not out loud, anyway….).  Even if the teens are just hanging out being bored together, it’s more fun, and they can exchange the few stories they’ve begun to gather and see that there are many different versions of a “typical American family.”

Over the next few weeks, the rest of the exchange students will begin to arrive at their host families.  For at least a few weeks they will feel like guests, and act like guests – quiet, polite, hesitant around the house.  Host families are excited and want to show the students around their community, their town, and the state, and we will hear reports of some interesting trips and excursions.  But we will also hear stories of students playing hours of X-box or watching a lot of TV.  We can’t entertain them all day, says a parent.  You’re absolutely correct, we tell them.  It will even out over time.  August – the time of contradiction, of too much excitement and too much empty time.

So, while we have this empty time, we try to make the most of it.  We give our students a copy of the school’s curriculum book to start choosing classes (did that today in our house, everyone!).  We print a copy of our house rules (ditto! I’ll report back on what he thinks about them, ha!).  We suggest they read the local newspaper and report back in the evening on a story they read (next on my list).   We take them with us when we walk the dog and get them talking, asking them about their family back home and what their school is like.   We ask them questions about how their parents expect them to manage money and try to get a sense of their financial situation. Some will have unlimited budgets, some will be on tight budgets – we want to find out if they have shown up in your household with a debit/credit card (nice) or a wad of cash (not so nice).  We teach them to use the local bus system (haven’t done that yet, although Viet Anh was asking about it!).  Maybe he and others could go somewhere on the bus while I’m working, we’ll see.

We try to get the students to use the time to practice their English.  Watching a lot of TV isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Many students will be in shock that their English is not as fluent as they thought it was, and they may panic when they cannot understand the conversation around them.  For a few weeks, they may nod at anything and everything said by the people around them.  They will refuse to answer the phone and have trouble understanding the English if they must talk on the phone.  So let them watch TV – it will help them recognize different voices!

August – the honeymoon phase of the exchange experience.  So let’s enjoy the time, boredom and all, before the boundary-pushing “what do you mean I really have to follow the rules” phase sets in!

What’s With the Signs and Balloons at the Airport?

Tomorrow, July 30th, is arrival day for our first group of students, the “camper kids” – the exchange students who have been at an optional language and culture camp before joining their host families.  The campers come to the U.S. several weeks to a month earlier than non-campers and tomorrow the first group will be leaving their two-week camp to head for their new homes.  Shortly before noon Pacific time, excited and nervous kids will begin to arrive at the Portland airport to start their high school semester or year in this country.  They will be met by people they have never met.  They may not even have spoken to their host families; perhaps the only communication has been an email or two.  Yet these strangers will meet these nervous, hesitant teens with excited happy screams, welcoming balloons or signs, open arms, and the kind of the enthusiasm usually reserved for members of one’s family.

In fact, in a way these teens *are* members of these strangers’ families.  By the stroke of a pen – well, and some required paperwork, of course – these students are now part of their new host families for up to 10 months.  These “stranger” mothers will register their new sons or daughters at high school, make sure they brush their teeth, and worry when they go out at night.  These “stranger” dads will transport them to soccer practice, make sure they eat their vegetables, and take them to a football game.  These “stranger” brothers and sisters will take them around town, show them the local sights, introduce them to the American concept of front-seat rivalry known as “shotgun,” and squabble over who gets the X-box first.

Easy, right? Well…not exactly.  There’s a bit of an untraveled road to discover first, and there may be some potholes along the way.  But there’s fun and excitement in that road of discovery, and an unparalleled opportunity to share one’s life and culture.  Let’s get to it! The 2011-2012 year begins!