I am not a travel blogger and don’t have any intention of trying to be one. And I don’t post many personal stories, except bits and pieces that relate to study abroad. But sometimes the two converge.
We’re on day three of a road trip from Portland to San Diego, complete with RV, car in tow behind (“toad,” as RV’ers call them), 2 dogs — and exchange student. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, our 16 yr old German exchange student has been living with us since August 2014. Most of the students who have been on exchange this past year have left or are leaving within the next week or so. Jan and two dozen others across the U.S. will stay with their host family or local coordinators until mid-July, at which time they will head to NY for their responsibilities as camp and orientation counselors for hundreds of incoming students.
Jan had originally hoped to spend the two weeks Mark and I are in California with family friends in San Francisco; the idea was we would drop him off on the way down and pick him up a week or so later. But with the news that the family friends were visiting their own home and family in Germany, Jan took the initiative and asked if he could come with us.
Not necessarily a small request, since it’s not a large RV. With two adults and two 75 lb German shepherds it can be a challenge to find space and not step on each other’s toes. Add a teenager and it can be interesting. Since I’m writing this post we obviously decided to do it.
Now, we’ve been to most of the places we are stopping at. We’ve taken the RV to California twice before. We lived in California during law and graduate school, and drove back and forth between northern California and Portland countless times visiting family in Portland. But this is different.
I’m hoping we can look at it anew, from the perspective of our student who has not been to any of these places. We’re doing what host families do — we’re “sharing our America” — and we hope to learn something along the way.
As I write this, the exchange students in our group in northwest Oregon and southern Washington are preparing to return home; most are leaving next week, with a few the following week. Two will remain for the summer – more on that in a moment. I have watched teenagers who arrived anxious, nervous, and afraid to speak in English grow into confident young adults who can talk a mile-a-minute and squabble with their host siblings as if they had done it for years. They are more mature, have gained independence, and have a whole different understanding of the world.
The year has not always been easy; it would be foolish to promise students or host families that bringing someone new into the family 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.
Many students faced 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 with 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, and learned something from these “ordinary” stresses that they will take home with them. There were some painful times; a few students changed host families (an occurrence that more often than not, does not mean that either the host family or student did something “bad” – more likely than not, small miscommunications became big ones, and eventually too big to solve).
Some personal pride
Most students consider their year here a success, even with the occasional bumps. (We hope that even the students who are feeling negative about their experience will see, with time, what they have gained.) As with every year, we include many things among our students’ successes, ranging from those who fit right in, to those who faced significant challenges, to those who have won awards or other achievements. A very small sampling:
* From a student who fit right in, and had the additional experience of having another exchange student in her host family so she had to get used to two sets of cultural differences that were not her own Dutch experience:
Roughly 9 months ago the greatest adventure of my life started! I learned a lot, made some great memories and found my second family, who I will love forever! …. I’ll see you in 10 months again!
* From an Italian student whose first host family experience was less than successful, and who we moved in the Fall:
“I graduated from an American High School that became my family throughout this year. Many people say I went on a vacation. All of those people are wrong. What I learned is not comparable to what a year of regular Italian school could have taught me. I learned the meaning of setting your mind to a goal and work to reach it, I learned how to be a great leader in the community, I learned to help the others in rough times, I learned that school is not just about grades and studying but also about getting involved and participating, I learned that you don’t need to have expensive bags and shoes to be a cool person. All you need is yourself and a lot of positivity to transmit to people. I learned that is not cool making fun of people, I learned how much joy can give you volunteering and supporting the special ones, I learned that you always have to learn….”
* Two of the students in our Oregon group have been chosen by the exchange program to serve as “ambassadors” to the new students coming to the U.S. this summer. They will remain here through the summer, heading to the East Coast in mid-July to start their camp counseling experience. The selection process is competitive, and we do have a note of personal pride that two students from our group are among the 25 selected from across the country. (In the interests of full disclosure: one of these two is our own student, so there is a bit of the “proud parent” thing …)
But at the same time that we say goodbye, we say hello.
It’s a strange time of year because while we are calling or seeing all our students to say goodbye, we are also still scrambling to find host families for incoming students. Under Department of State regulations for J-1 visa exchange students, exchange programs cannot make flight arrangements or finalize travel documentation for students until both a host family and a school slot are confirmed, with all necessary paperwork complete. At this time of year, that can be a challenge, with school officials focusing on end of year needs and closing up for the summer, and potential families themselves looking forward to vacations rather than thinking about the start of the next school year.
As part of that process, we help new host families get ready for their students arriving in August. That “help” can mean different things to different families:
Answering questions about how to register a student for classes or how to sign up for a sports team.
Trying to make sure students obtain all state-required vaccinations before they arrive, since the students’ insurance generally does not cover immunizations and it can be expensive to get shots here.
Helping to arrange permission ahead of time from a student’s family in the home country, as well as obtaining necessary documents, so that a student can travel with his or her host family to Canada within a few days after the student arrives.
Offering to pick up a student at the airport in August, because the host family will be out of town on the scheduled date.
Being “on call” for students whose flights may be delayed or canceled, and being available in the event an emergency pickup is needed late at night to keep a student overnight until a flight the next day.
And more . . .
A few weeks ago, we were wracking our brains on how we could get a bed to a new host family quickly so they could be “legal” and we could complete the paperwork. Almost as if she had heard us talking about it, a former host mom across town contacted me asking “I don’t suppose you would have need of a bed, would you?” She had bought the bed for her German exchange student several years ago, and had realized she really had no further need for it.
We mentioned this to some of our coordinator colleagues in the program, and the response told us that many of them have done the same — including one person who delivered a set of bunk beds a couple of years ago!
So we say goodbye – or “see you later” – to our Class of 2015. It’s bittersweet in many ways, and we know we will not see many of these young people again. But we’re connected now, and look forward to hearing from them – and seeing some of them – as they continue to grow into global citizens. And now we say hello and welcome to the Class of 2016.
Or . . . Will Opportunities for Miscommunication Never End?
Just a small thing I thought I would share today …. a reminder that the importance of asking questions in the cause of effective communication never goes away. A small thing, which will take longer in the telling than in the 30 seconds it took for it to happen. But it’s worth repeating.
Our exchange student’s family is coming to visit this week from Germany. They will be here tomorrow, spend a couple of days in Portland, and then we are all going to the beach for a few days to show them our Oregon coast. Jan, our student, needed to get pre-approval from teachers and the school so that his absence from school this week will be excused. There is a form, of course, which needs to be signed by teachers and a parent (in this case, host parent), and it must be turned in at least a day before the desired absence.
On Friday, I realized after Jan had left for school that he had not gotten either my husband’s or my signature for his form. I texted him:
You forgot to ask me to sign the pre-approval absence form! It needs to be turned in today remember, there is no school Monday due to the holiday. Meet me outside after second period, I’ll come by to sign it?
Sure if you want. But I was going to stop by and turn it in to the office over the weekend sometime.
My first thought was the deep sigh of a parent thinking her teenager is nuts and that he just isn’t thinking. What in the world is he thinking, that teachers and school administrators are going to hang around the school on a weekend? Much less a major holiday weekend? I mean, seriously??!
My second thought followed immediately….that there has to be something here I don’t understand. Jan confirmed this when I stopped by to sign the form. “I didn’t know,” he said. He explained that back home, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to be in the school office on a weekend.
And there it is. Even after 10 months in the United States and 9 months attending an American high school, Jan did not know that the office would be locked up tight as a drum all weekend (and every weekend). He had never had reason to find out that school offices here are not open on weekends, so it had never come up. He did not know that the very suggestion of “I’ll drop the paperwork at the office on Saturday or Sunday” would cause someone to look at him as though he was from another planet. He’s not from another planet, of course — just another country, with enough similarities that we all can be lulled into thinking “we’re alike.” But there are enough differences to continue to result in simple miscommunications (and by implication, potentially more serious ones, too), even after almost a year.
So there’s my mini-lesson, one to ourselves as much as to everyone else. Keep the conversation going…..there is always more to learn.
The article highlighted below, written by Patrick Stephenson, former speechwriter for the NATO secretary-general, is a good piece on the value of studying abroad in high school. He touches on several topics I think important:
Encouraging U.S. students to study abroad: critical, in my opinion, for all the other reasons mentioned below.
Making study abroad more accessible to a wider group of potential students. Study abroad has always suffered from only being available to those who can afford it.
Long-term benefits from study abroad: learning another language and culture, improving one’s resume for college and future job prospects, learning about one’s own capabilities.
Importance in a global economy of having citizens who understand the world just a bit more.
I also thought this article was, in a way, a nice tribute to the bravery and motivation of the high school students around the world who take the leap and study abroad as teenagers without really having a clue about what lies before them.
As Stephenson notes:
Studying abroad is, first and foremost, an instructive exercise in failure. . . . the lesson you learn — that initial setbacks, patience and work are the prerequisites for eventual success — is more important than an A in Calculus. That lesson can’t be taught. It must be learned firsthand. A high school year abroad is a quick and dirty way to discover just how ignorant you are. As such, it’s the door to a lifetime of learning and discovery.
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.”