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.