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.

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

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.

Top Ten Questions I Get About Hosting Exchange Students

I get quite a few questions at this time of year about what are the expectations for a family looking to host a high school exchange student.  So I thought it might be the right time to go over some of those questions.


How long is the typical exchange experience for students?

High school students coming to the U.S. to study come for one or two semesters; students generally arrive in August in time for school to start, and leave at the end of the semester (either at the end of the calendar year or towards the end of January, depending on the location) or at the end of the school year in May or June.  Some students come for the second semester only.


What makes a good host family?

Host families are volunteers and represent the diversity of American culture with varied economic, religious and racial backgrounds. Many host families do not have children, while others have adult children who no longer live at home.  Some have teens, some have young children.  Host families undergo a screening process to make sure that they are suited for an exchange experience.  To become a host family, one adult in the household must be at least 25 years old.


Do I have to have a teenage son or daughter to be a host?

No, you don’t have to have a teenager to be a host family.  Many host families have young children, adult children, or no children.  In the program I’ve been working with, more than 20 percent of host parents do not have children of their own, and another 25 percent have children under the age of 12.



What are the expectations for a host family? 

Host families provide room, board, and a family environment.  “Room” requires a bed, storage space, and a place somewhere in the home to study, but does not necessarily require a separate bedroom.  “Board” requires three meals/day and reasonable snacks.  “Family environment” means the student is a member of your family, not a guest!  They go shopping with the family, they go to the farmers’ market with the family, and they go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving with the family.  And if they stay out past curfew, they can be grounded like any other teen member of the family.


Are host families paid?

The U.S. government does not allow payments to host families.  Host families are eligible to receive a charitable tax deduction on their U.S. federal tax return of $50/month for each month the student lives in the home.


How expensive is it to host a student? 

Host families are required to cover costs associated with at-home meals, any packed school lunches, transportation to reasonable social and extra-curricular activities, and shelter.  Students bring their own pocket money to cover routine expenses including cell phone bills, school expenses, clothing and recreation such as trips to the movies. If the student travels with the host family, the student is expected to pay for any airfare or additional hotel costs, etc.  Students are required to have their own medical insurance and pay for any medical expenses and insurance copayments.


How are students selected?

Students must go through a screening process for motivation, character, grades, and proficiency in written and spoken English language skills.  Student applications include a letter of recommendation, academic transcripts, an essay written in English, and short-answer questions about the student’s family life.  Per U.S. Department of State regulations, students must be between the ages of 15 to 18 to take part in the one-semester or academic year program. 


How are students prepared for life in an American home?

Before traveling to the United States, students will attend orientation meetings to learn about living with a host family, cultural aspects of American life and practical advice and tips related to travel logistics.  The exchange program will probably also provide students and their families with information on American customs and traditions.  Another orientation occurs shortly after students arrive in the country.  These connections help get your relationship started and help prepare the student for the lifestyle of his or her host family.


Are families allowed to contact students before they arrive?

Once a placement has been finalized with all host family, student, and school authorizations signed and filed, the host family and student can contact one another so that they can establish a relationship before the student arrives in the United States. Contact can be occasional emails, telephone calls, or (more common in today’s world) by Skype or other online connections.


What if it does not work out?

All approved exchange programs are required to have a support system for counseling and advice.  As a host family, you should choose your program carefully; make sure you feel comfortable with the local coordinator or liaison, since it is likely that this is the person who will continue to be your primary advisor and contact point.  If problems arise between the host family and student, the local coordinator should be available to provide support, with guidance from the program’s national office.  Ask your coordinator tough questions: are they available evenings and weekends if you have a problem?  What happens if the student or host family needs to call late at night with a significant problem?  If it turns out that differences cannot be resolved, the coordinator should be able to help the student transition to a new home – not something people want to think about, but it’s important to know that help is available.

Why You Should Host an Exchange Student – Yes, You!

“International exchanges are not a great tide to sweep away all differences, but they will slowly wear away at the obstacles to peace as surely as water wears away a hard stone.”

– Former President George H.W. Bush

This time of year, the 100 or so high school exchange student programs in the U.S. are beginning to seek host families for the coming academic year for both one semester and full academic year students.  The process feels (almost…) comfortable right now, as compared to how it will feel over the summer as the August federal government deadline for completing all the necessary paperwork looms ever closer.

About 28,000 students come to the U.S. each year for youth exchange programs of varying lengths.  Not surprisingly, their motivations vary.  They want to improve their English-speaking skills.  They want to establish their independence from their parents.  They want to see the America of Hollywood and the streets of New York.  If they don’t have siblings, they would like one.  They want to share the beauty and complexity of Japanese or Italian cooking.  They want to play American football and be on the cheerleading team.  They want to travel and see new places.

They want to live life as an American teenager.

Student educational exchanges became popular after World War II.  The U.S. government, and others, encouraged such exchanges to increase participants’ understanding and tolerance of other cultures, as well as improve language skills and broaden young people’s social horizons.  The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961 (more commonly called the Fulbright-Hays Act) further demonstrated that the U.S. considered international student exchange programs an important element of U.S. diplomacy; the Fulbright program continues today as one of the most well-known and prestigious government-supported international exchange programs.  In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton extolled the importance of international exchange programs and encouraged American families to continue to host exchange students.

Families who welcome these exchange students into their homes and hearts not only enrich the life of an exceptional young person, they help build people-to-people connections that span the globe and last of a lifetime.

– Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Summer 2010

Fifty-plus years since exchange programs were launched, in an era where people on one side of the world can share in the experience of an event happening on the other side of the world in real time via Facebook and Twitter — does the concept of putting teens and young adults into the homes of American families still make sense?

I would argue that yes, it does.  I think cultural exchanges, including hosting high school exchange students, offer benefits far beyond being “a good citizen.” Beyond actually learning about another culture and how things might be done differently on a daily basis, it challenges one’s assumptions about other cultures, teaches communication skills, and helps develop patience and flexibility.

Few experiences can teach you – and your children — the small but critical differences between cultures as living with someone from another country.

Some things seem to be the same everywhere; teens everywhere, it seems, groan when asked to do their chores before they go out with friends.  But many things are different, sometimes subtly so.  Having someone in your home, over time, makes you see some of those subtle differences – and seeing those differences changes you.  “The German culture is very much like the American culture,” is an opinion I have heard.  Perhaps it is, on some levels; certainly, if you compare either German or U.S. cultures to those of Japan, Thailand, or South Africa, you would reasonably conclude that Germany is more like America than it is like Thailand.

Yet there are differences, even between cultures that may seem similar on the surface.  Every year, we patiently work with our German students to explain to them that what’s considered normal speech in Berlin or Hamburg can come across as impolite when transported to Portland, Boise, or St. Louis.   We work with our host families to help them understand that their German student is not being rude in the way they speak; rather, he or she is just saying things as they occur to them, a direct translation from German – and what is acceptable or “normal” in German speech may come across as abrupt when translated directly into English.  In the case of dress, we work with students to help them understand that what is considered an appropriate teen dress style in their own country may not be appropriate in their U.S. high school and community.

Living with a student from Hong Kong taught our own two children more than a book ever could about how a teenager from a Chinese culture approaches life, decision-making, and relationships. It helped them understand the family histories and family dynamics of their own second generation Asian-American friends, and it taught them tolerance much more effectively than us parents standing there saying “be nice, don’t judge.”

The benefits to America children – both our own children and others who are attending school with exchange students – are significant in ways that are difficult (if not impossible) to quantify.  It’s not something adults often think about.  Even school administrators don’t always think through how exposure to other cultures can benefit students in their districts.  Think about communication for just a moment. Although your children will, of course, speak English to their exchange student, the potential for miscommunication is huge when you are talking to non-native English speakers.  The processes of learning how to re-shape your thoughts, speak more clearly, and make sure what you intend to say is what is heard are important skills.  Think about your assumptions about other cultures – your assumptions, and those of your children and their friends, about another country’s foods, habits, or attitudes.  Think about relationships, and learning how to adapt, become more cooperative, and developing an ability to be flexible.

You *do* have something to offer.

Many families tell me they can’t host because “we aren’t a good host family.”  People assume they must be outgoing, that they need to be a family that travels a lot, or that they must be a family that goes to museums, events, and activities all the time.  People assume that it is critical for a host family to live in a big city so it will be “fun” for a teen, that it is important to provide a student with his or her own bedroom, or that they must live near the high school.  Many people assume you must have a high school student in your home in order to host a high school exchange student. The list of “why we’re not a good family” goes on, but most of these pre-conceptions simply aren’t accurate.  Is it nice to travel with your student? Of course, because it’s fun to share your city, your state, or your country’s beautiful places.  But not everyone travels much.  Is it nice to live next to the high school?  Of course.  But let’s face it, most people don’t.  Is it “fun” for a teen to live in the city?  Sure. But nice people who have the desire, capability, and emotional intelligence to be a host family live everywhere.

The truth is, there is no typical American host family, because there is no single “typical” American family.  American host families have teens and don’t have teens.  They have young children and toddlers.  They have children who are now grown and living elsewhere, or no children at all.  They have dogs or not, large homes or small ones.  Single parents are families, as are grandparents.  American families live in large cities, suburban areas, and in small communities.  The students are not here to travel, have a tour guide, just have “fun,” or to have an easy life with a five-minute school commute.  They’re here to go to school, learn about our country, live with a family, and to learn what life is like for an American teen.  They can play on the soccer team or have a role in the school play no matter where they live and no matter what the composition of their host family.

The key to hosting a student is not in who is in your family, but who you are as people.  Good host families are people who want to share their own culture and community, and learn about someone else’s.  Good host parents look to give their families a glimpse of the world and introduce them to new customs and cultures.

Does this mean it will be a “piece of cake”?

Can I promise you will have the perfect student, who will fit seamlessly into your life and home, with no effort?  No, although sometimes it does happen that way.  Can I promise it will always be fun? That would be silly, as anyone who deals with teens knows. Having someone you never met before live in your home as a member of your family can be hard work. But hard work leads to rewarding experiences.

You won’t be alone; the exchange programs all have program support mechanisms.  You can choose the program you want to work with, and any potential host family should ask about a program’s support network before committing to hosting a student.  It’s an adventure – a family bonding, “family team building,” cross-cultural adventure.

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.

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.