Holiday Thoughts 2014

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.

185926036 hellosThis 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.

    Our son, Marcus, and Alex, from Germany, with their Christmas presents to each other
    Our son, Marcus, and Alex, from Germany, with their Christmas presents to each other
  • 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.

Julia from the Netherlands with the winning pumpkin
Julia from the Netherlands with the winning pumpkin

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.

 

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com and ©2014 Laura Kosloff.
*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.*

Is Traditional High School Exchange Fading Away?: Charting New Pathways for International High School Education in the U.S.

Last week I posted an infographic with data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) on post-secondary international students in the U.S. The data in the infographic showed (among other things) that the number of college-level international students in the U.S. has climbed steadily, and almost half of these students come from China, India, and South Korea.

Another recent IIE report looks at what’s going on with international students at the high school level in the U.S. When most of us think of the “typical” international student in American high schools, many of us immediately think of exchange students: student who are here for a semester or academic year, whose goal is to immerse themselves in English and American culture for that period of time, learn a bit how American teens and families live, and then return home with (hopefully) a more accurate understanding of our culture and customs.

©2014 Creative_Outlet, Thinkstock.com
©2014 Creative_Outlet, Thinkstock.com

That is no longer the “typical” international student in a U.S. high school. According to the July 2014 research brief, Charting New Pathways to Higher Education: International Secondary Students in the United States, about 49,000 students (67 percent of international secondary students in the U.S. during 2013-2014) were enrolled in U.S. high schools with F-1 visas to earn a U.S. diploma. Only 24,000 (33 percent) were participating in exchange programs on J-1 visas. Who uses the two high school visa options differs significantly. Chinese and South Korean students dominate the F-1 visa program, while students from Europe and South America dominate the J-1 visa program. Since U.S. visa policies restrict both F-1 and J-1 visa students to no more than one year of study in public schools, the vast majority of F-1 visa students attend private schools.

The trends reflected in these numbers have been building over time as participation in the F-1 visa program has steadily grown, while the J-1 visa program has not. But the message is clear. The typical notion of international students spending “an exchange year in a U.S. public school” is no longer the norm. Instead, international students are moving to the U.S. for their high school careers, often with the plan to pursue college in the U.S. as well. That’s an entirely different objective, and an entirely different experience. As the report itself notes:

One risk of the increasing focus on international secondary students enrolling in U.S. high school to earn diplomas is that the important goals of student exchange programs may become sidelined. Understanding the differing demographics between inbound exchange students in the U.S. and international students seeking U.S. diplomas is necessary to strengthen all forms of secondary student mobility and to preserve the specific mission of exchange programs.

For a recent article that summarizes some of these statistics in a readable way, see The Younger International Student, Inside Higher Ed, July 8, 2014. The IIE report can be downloaded at the IIE website here.

Why Would I Want to Host *That* Student . . . He’s So . . . Different!

Why people choose or don’t choose certain students, once they have made the decision to host an exchange student, is an intensely personal decision. People are bringing a foreign teen into their family for a semester or academic year, which is hard enough. We coordinators work hard to make good “matches,” trying to figure out what are a family’s interests and activities, what is their lifestyle, and what kind of personality would fit best.

But there is one thing that does upset me, year after year. The placement season ends at the end of August; by law, the exchange programs must have all J-1 visa students placed with all documentation completed by that time. As we approach the end of the placement season in July and August, we get the inevitable question: “Why are these students still unplaced? What’s wrong with them?”

faces 186467837 (2)Sometimes, we can see the answer to that question in the application. It’s not that there is anything “wrong” with the students, but there generally is an explanation. For one thing, girls are easier to place. Second, for better or worse, there are always a high number of German kids at the end; this is just a fact of the numbers, because Germany sends more than one-third of the exchange students coming to the U.S. every year. Sometimes the students say things that don’t come across well; they may not have realized that saying “I really want to get my driver’s license” might be a turn-off. The students whose English skills are at the lower end of the legal minimum are certainly among the last to placed. Younger students, too, are often among the ones remaining over the summer; the U.S. government allows students between the ages of 15-18, but many schools and host families (and coordinators) are leery about the maturity of 15-year-olds and their ability to handle the challenges of an exchange.

But there is a darker side to the students left in the pool. Or, to be more precise, a darker side as to why they are still there. See this comment from a former host family, after I sent them a couple of applications in case the family might be interested in hosting again this year:

respect 482299675 (2)I read their profiles and both boys sound like they will bring cultural awareness to the family they are placed with. One is Buddhist and the other Muslim, so interesting. I worry that their dietary and religious beliefs will be an issue in their placement. It seems there are not many open minded people. I know when our former student would mention that’s why she didn’t eat pork [because she is Muslim] people would act shocked and become suddenly uncomfortable. So much ignorance, which is why I feel it was great to have her here. It really brought down that wall of fear and ignorance.

There you have it. Our Muslim students, our Buddhist students, our Asian students are always among the last to be placed. It’s kind of hidden among the German/15 yr old/poor English skills statistics. But it’s there, and we know it. It’s the dirty little secret of exchange.

Want to help fix it?

 

Reflections: Moving Up the Ladder?

Last weekend, my husband and I returned from a weekend of additional exchange program training, reflecting the fact that we will be managing other exchange coordinators and their students in the future.

We’re not doing it for the money. We’re not employees of the exchange program, a fact that often comes as a surprise to students and host families. Exchange coordinators are independent contractors under the J-1 visa high school program overseen by the U.S. Department of State. The amount of money coordinators receive for the students we place and supervise does not generally add up to a significant sum; it’s supplemental income, not primary income. The precise amount differs from company to company, but the concept is the same.

Because we do get paid — something — the U.S. government does not allow exchange program local coordinators to say they are volunteers. That’s OK, but it’s important to remember that coordinators are not really getting paid for what they do. Is that a contradiction in terms? Perhaps. But life is full of contradictions.

colored hands in circle 150863845There are times when we all wonder if it’s worth it. When a parent back home complains about us when we support a particular action that we believe will help their child succeed and which they may believe is unwarranted. When a student who has gotten in trouble at school, or who is having difficulty adjusting to his host family’s life or community, starts saying negative things to anyone who will listen. When a student or host family accuses local coordinators of treating them unfairly when the coordinator has made strong efforts to listen to all parties and come to a fair solution. After we have moved a student out of his or her host family home, and everyone is upset.  These things do happen; we’re dealing with people, after all, and people don’t always do what’s logical or “right” (and what’s “right” isn’t always all that clear).

Most of us who do this — year after year, repeatedly saying goodbye to kids we may never see or hear from again — really don’t do it for the income. We do it for the host families who cry when their students leave, and who immediately make plans to visit Norway, Thailand, or Italy. We do it for the kids who do tell us what our assistance meant to them during their year here in the U.S. and who send us notes when they return home thanking us. We do it for the parents from countries around the world who take us out to dinner or lunch when they visit at the end of the year and who are in awe by how much their teen has changed in 10 months, and who say they know that part of that is due to the supervision and advice their child received. We do it for the kids who return to visit; they don’t always contact us, the coordinators, when they return, but if they are visiting their host families, we have succeeded in our mission to create long-term, lifetime relationships.

So my husband and I are looking forward, albeit with some trepidation, to taking on some new responsibilities this coming year. We know that there will be times when students or families will feel that we are the evil face of authority, and that we will have to deliver messages students or families do not want to hear. We know there will be times when parents back home will expect more than we can deliver. And like so many of the other exchange coordinators in all 100 or so companies listed by the Council on Standards of International Education and Travel (CSIET), we know that this is in addition to our “normal” jobs.

But we believe in the mission: cultural and citizen diplomacy at the individual, family, and local level can improve relationships around the world, one person at a time. We can learn from the kids from Taiwan, Thailand, Slovakia, and Denmark. And they can learn from us.

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.