I especially like #1; it’s exactly why we decided to host high school students when our boys were 9 and 11. But the other items on her list all hit home as well.
Were we busy with running our own company, transporting our kids to soccer, taking care of the family and whatever? Sure. But as Beth Markley, the author of the article says, “Embracing the unexpected, and being determined to make the most of any situation, is the entire point.”
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?”
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:
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.