Dear Host Parents, This is Why I Call Every Month: A Note From Your Exchange Coordinator

globe with figures holding hands around globe

The  single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

– George Bernard Shaw

Today’s post describes a not-uncommon situation many coordinators face with new host families.

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Dear New Host Parents,

As you know, I am the local representative for your exchange student program. I know you are excited to have your student here, and I’m happy to see that you are keeping him busy — that’s exactly what he needs to get used to the community and not be homesick!

Many new host parents feel that now that the exchange program has approved them as a host family, the program and the local representative should step aside and let you handle parenting for the coming academic year. I know that it can feel like an invasion of privacy when I call and ask what classes your student is signed up for, and how the student is doing in those classes. I know it can feel strange to explain to me as a relative stranger what you did as a family last week, and what activities you are planning in the near future. I know it can feel unreasonable to help me set up a meeting with your student on short notice. After all, if nothing is wrong, why do I need to come over?

I know you may be experienced parents. But I would ask you to remember and understand two things. First, the exchange program is responsible for your exchange student while he or she is in the United States. Also, exchange organizations operating in the U.S. face certain minimum requirements established by the U.S. Department of State for how we communicate with all our exchange students and their host families.

I’m also here to help your student succeed in a foreign environment — and to help you, too. Some of us have worked with dozens of exchange students; we know that hosting an exchange student isn’t always the same thing as raising your own children. For a student from another culture and country and a host family to become close is not just a matter of making sure the student has similar interests to your family. There’s a lot more involved.

two people chatting in coffee shop

Every year, many students have to be placed into new host families. There are many reasons for that, some that are unavoidable (a host parent becomes ill or loses their job, for example). But many problems arise out of miscommunications, and some of those communications difficulties are the result of host parents (or students) not sharing with their coordinator what’s going on in their lives. My communications with you and the student are intended to help nip that outcome in the bud.

I understand that you have the best interests of your student at heart, and I have no wish to interfere in your home life with your exchange student. My goal is for you to have a successful hosting experience and for your student to have a great exchange year in the United States and in your family. Work with me — we’re a team.

Sincerely,

Your coordinator

 


Photo credit Christin Hume

 

Communicating is Even More Important Than You Think

broken wooden bridge over water

One of the hardest things an exchange student or a host family may face is sharing information that might result in the student moving to a new family. We are talking about real life things. Things like a host parent or sibling being very ill. A host parent losing his or her job. Students discovering they have an allergy to the family’s pet — a pet they may already love. At the harder end of the scale, a student may find that a host sibling is involved with drugs or alcohol, or learn that a host parent has a drug or alcohol problem.

These are some of the hardest relationship issues that we as exchange coordinators have to deal with. A student or host parent coming forward to talk to us may not know what the result will be. Students may be shocked when we tell them that we may have to move them out of their host family. They think, somehow, that by telling us about the issue we can simply make it go away.

Oh, how we wish that could always be the case! Much as we would like to wave a magic wand and have the problem disappear, however, it’s just not possible. Even if a local coordinator believes, based on what the issue seems to be and what the coordinator knows about the student and family, that it should be fine to leave the student in the family, we can’t just assume that is the case. We have to look into it. The Department of State requires detailed communication and investigation to help make sure that students are safe.

We do take every case individually. Students and families may not see what goes on behind the scenes. They sometimes feel as though exchange organizations make snap judgments. This is far from the truth. Rather, we talk to the people involved, and often program staff in the organization’s main office will also talk to everyone as well. A program counselor or the student’s school might be involved, depending on the issue.

Not all cases will end with the student remaining in the family even if that is what students or families want. Sometimes, the investigation will result in a conclusion that it’s best for everyone if we move the student. If a host parent or a host sibling really does have an alcohol problem, for example, our student could be put into jeopardy, and that obviously is critical to the decision. We’re also concerned about whether a family needs to focus on their child’s or the parent’s health.

When a host mom of ours got breast cancer a few years back, we talked to her and asked her how she felt about having the exchange student remain in the home during her treatment. We talked to her husband and asked him what he thought about taking care of her and their children as well as their exchange student. We talked to the student, who said that this was his family. And we talked to his host siblings, who said “he’s our brother.” The program talked to the student’s parents back home. In this case, the decision was for the student to stay in the home.

These tough issues aren’t theoretical for us, or just situations that happened in the past. Even in the past two weeks, we’ve had cases going in both directions. In one case, the facts resulted in a decision to move the student. In the other, the responses of the host parents, student, host siblings, and parents back home resulted in a conclusion that it was all right for the student to remain in the home.

In both cases, we give credit to our students, who knew that the important thing was to talk to their coordinator about their concern. We know how hard that was for them…at this time of year, after less than two months, they don’t really know their coordinators yet. They may only have seen them a couple of times, perhaps talked on the phone once or twice as well. But they had listened to the program telling them before they left their home country about the importance of communicating, and what the role was of their local contact. They listened, it seems, when we talked about that at our beginning-of-the-year welcome meeting.

It always comes back to that one simple word: communication. The sooner the better in these cases, since that offers more opportunities to (hopefully) fix whatever the issue might be. We urge students and host families to talk to your coordinator as soon as you find out about any issue. Let us help you to have a positive exchange experience!

 

Photo courtesy of Tom Butler on Unsplash.com.

Getting Ready for the New Exchange Year: What If We Don’t Like Each Other?

I read this statement recently in a blog post:

On August 12, 2016, I arrived in California. I still remember when I got off the plane, seeing unfamiliar faces holding a sign that has my name on it. I was nervous and terrified that they wouldn’t like me; I thought it would feel awkward to live with a family that I had never met before.

—Mariam Awwad from Jordan, U.S. Dept. of State YES Program student, “Experience of a Lifetime in California,” July 4, 2017.

We see similar worries from our own students every year:

“I am worried. I don’t think my host family and I have anything in common. I won’t have any host siblings.”

“I am so nervous. My host family has small children and I am not used to that. What if the kids don’t like me? What if I make mistakes, will my host parents get mad at me?”

It’s not just the students who worry that their host family won’t like them. Host families worry just as much. We hear from parents who worry that their student won’t like the food, or that they’ll be homesick and the host parents won’t know how to comfort them. We hear from host siblings worried that their new host sister or brother won’t be able to make friends — or the opposite, that their student will be so popular that the host sibling will be left out.

Everyone is excited … and everyone worries. Here’s what we tell them.

First — you are not alone. It’s exciting to step off the plane into a new adventure, and it’s exciting to host someone from another country and culture. It’s normal to be nervous about how it will work on an everyday basis. Recognize your feelings and talk about them to each other. It’s ok for students to admit they’re nervous about leaving their home for 5 or 10 months. Some of our host families, too, have admitted that they’re nervous. Clear communication — and sharing feelings — is important, even at this early stage.

Second — All students have this idea in their heads about what their host family will be like. Then the host family and the community turn out to be something different, and the student panics. Host families do the same thing! A student is different from what the family thought they saw in the student’s profile and the family wonders “will it be ok?” Students and host families express surprise to their coordinator: “I had information about my host family, and they are not like what I read about,” or “My student is not the way he seemed in his profile.”

But think about it … for students, is it really a surprise that a family you’ve never met is more complex and different from what a one-page summary told you? For families, is it really a surprise that a three- or four-page application didn’t reflect the whole picture, or that a teenager’s likes and dislikes may have changed in the 6 or 9 or more months since an application was filed? For everyone — is it really a surprise that people from another country act differently from what you are used to?

Some students are nervous because their host parents don’t have children in the home. Some students worry about whether they will have enough privacy and personal time because their host families have toddlers. Some students are nervous because their host family lives in a big city; some students are nervous because their host family lives in a small town or on a farm. Families worry for the same reasons: a student doesn’t have siblings so may have difficulty getting used to having a host brother, or comes from a small school and will be attending a school of 1,500 students here in the U.S., or will have to get used to not having public transportation just outside. They want to be the best family possible for their student, and they want to help their student have a successful and fun experience. They worry about whether their plans to do that will work.

word "unknown" with some trees and building in background

The basic thing to remember is just this: you don’t know each other yet. Be open to the experience. It takes time to get to know people! It’s hard to do that before you get here, and it’s not possible to do it in a week or two. Before students arrive, you can text, email, and Skype — but you won’t really get to know each other until you have lived with each other for a while.

Students and families may be worried about the whole adventure. A semester or academic year is a long time to live with someone you have never met. Now that the time is approaching, it feels real. Years ago, shortly before I left for my study-abroad semester in Switzerland, I, too, started to worry. I didn’t know French … maybe I shouldn’t go? I didn’t have a specific schedule since I was doing an independent study project … maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all. Our own son began asking similar questions almost five years ago as the departure date approached for his six-month exchange program in Ghana. What if I don’t get along with my host family, he said; they don’t have teenagers. Maybe it’s too expensive, he said. Maybe I shouldn’t go, he said.

I went, of course. So did our son. There were challenges, of course. But challenges are part of life, and now I can’t imagine not having gone. Our son, too, values his experience and is glad we didn’t let him change his mind.

Being an exchange student — or hosting one — is exciting, fascinating, and an amazing experience that you will all remember forever. It also takes work. Very few students have a perfect fit into their host family and their host community from Day One with no issues or conflicts. There’s no magic wand to build instant relationships. Everything takes time. That’s one of the reasons your coordinators and your exchange program are here — we want to help you build relationships and help you feel like a member of our community.

We’ll close with this statement from Mariam, the student we quoted at the beginning of this post, on how she felt at the end of her exchange year:

Now they are my second family. I have learned how to support each other no matter what, and how to always be helpful and positive. They made my exchange year way better. They showed me what it means to be a member of an American family. I am so thankful and blessed for having them in my life.

 

 

We Had a Bad Hosting Experience . . . Why Should We Host Again?

Woman leaping over chasm at dusk

From an email we received during the last school year:

We are currently hosting an exchange student. We are not enjoying it. The student is not as she described herself in her application. Our student is lazy, grumpy, and moody. Our home has felt awkward for months and we are anxious for her to leave. My wife is against the idea of ever doing this again. I am against it too, at this point … Given that we’ve had such a bad time, am I crazy to consider it again?

Hosting an international student can be a ton of fun. You will view your community and the world around you a bit  differently after you’ve seen them through the eyes of someone new to your community and the United States. Hosting an exchange student can open you up to new ways of looking at the world, make you appreciate your own culture more than before, and help you make long-term friendships around the world.

But it’s not automatic. We can’t wave a magic wand and say “this new person will fit into your family perfectly as of Day One!” It takes work by both the family and the student. Teachers and counselors at the school will help (and often are under-appreciated). What parents back home do and say can either help adjustment or hinder it. Finally, the exchange organization should be part of the working mix — your local representative can be a lifesaver!

Often, when we as coordinators realize that there is a problem, we find that there are things going on that neither the student nor the family have talked about. The students are teenagers, so it’s not a surprise that they either believe they can solve everything themselves or think they’ll get in trouble for “complaining.” Interestingly, though, we sometimes find the same pattern among adults. We often find host families do not contact their coordinator because they feel as adults they should be able to deal with a teenager with no outside help, or they worry about bothering their organizational contact about “little” things. Sometimes, it takes a student move for the student and the host family to learn that open communications are critical to a successful hosting experience — perhaps more open and more direct than they may be used to within their own family.

Moving a student out of the host family home is usually not a reflection on the student’s personality or on the host family’s ability to provide a suitable home. Most of the time, it’s a communication issue (or a combination of communication issues that build up — see this prior blog post). This is a “people to people” experience, and you are not just dealing with different cultures but different personalities. No one can promise you that it will be a perfect experience, or an easy one. That’s not how relationships work.

Last year, we moved a student out of one host family home into another. The student did fabulously in the new family. The original family is now considering hosting again. They realize that while they wished their student had done some things differently, they could have done things differently as well. They chose their first student without asking many questions, and know now the kind of personality that might fit better in their family. They have learned that trying to solve problems by themselves without bothering their program coordinator isn’t always a good idea (the student learned this as well). The little things became big things, like a snowball rolling downhill.

We urge host families to host again if they feel they had a negative experience the first time. If you are ever in that situation yourself, we urge you to brainstorm with your coordinator right away. Your coordinator can help you see what might be going on with your student — maybe he or she is lonely, homesick, having problems at school, having trouble making friends, or worried about something going on back home. Remember that dealing with people is complicated. Learn from the experience. You might want to choose a student based on personality type rather than focusing on specific student interests, for example; what a teenager likes when they fill out their application may not be what they are interested in 6 or 9 months later when they leave for their exchange year. So think about what type of personality would fit into your home. Are there cultures and countries that might fit your family’s personality better? Think about what you could do differently, not just what you wish your student had done differently. Should you impose more structure early on this time around, whether on the level of communications with back home, or the amount of  Internet use?

Even we coordinators sometimes have hosting experiences that result in moving a student out of our home. We choose not to use the words “negative” or “bad” to describe those experiences, to try and get readers (whether you are a host family, student, or worried parent back home) to look at the situation differently. Moving a student out of a host family is a tough decision for family, student, and coordinator. We don’t do it lightly, because we know that working at a relationship can improve it, and we don’t want to encourage the idea that if it’s not perfect from Day One you can wave a magic wand and start over with a new perfect host family or student.

Sometimes, however, it’s best for the student and host family to start again. We don’t send students home just because their first host family didn’t work out the way we had planned, and we have seen how the second time around can be a huge success. It can be the same on the host family’s side as well, and we urge anyone who feels they had a “bad” experience to not let that determine the future. Don’t avoid experiences . . . learn from them!

 

words never a failure always a lesson on chalkboard

Hosting If You Don’t Have Children: Why Not?

ivy covered home with bicycle in front

An acquaintance asked me recently, “what is it like to host an exchange student if you don’t have any children in the home?” It’s a question we get sometimes. People worry that perhaps they are not qualified to be a host family if they don’t have children living at home.

What’s the answer? Well, it’s like any family that has one child in the home who happens to be a teenager. That’s the nutshell response.

The longer answer is that every family is different, and every host family is different. So hosting an exchange student is different for every family, regardless of whether you have teens in the home already, whether you have young children, whether you have adult children who no longer live in the home, or whether you have no children at all. If you are reading this blog post, I’m sure you can think of families you know who have one child in the home. Are all of those families alike? Of course not. Are they still a family, with one child? Of course they are.

For some people who don’t have children in the home, having an exchange student means having an excuse to travel around their region when they haven’t done that before (or at least haven’t done it in a while) and showing the area to their student. Another host family will host a student and maybe cannot travel much for a variety of reasons — and they and their student will still have a positive experience, learning about each others’ world. For some parents, having an exchange student when you don’t have children in the home is a way to learn what having a teenager is like. For others, it’s a way to keep liveliness in the home; perhaps their children are adults and the parents like having the energy of teens in the home. Other parents enjoy having their student to themselves and being able to have deep personal conversations that might not be possible with multiple children running around; many students find that having their host parents to themselves has benefits as well.

We’ve hosted over a dozen exchange students, starting when our children were in elementary school and continuing when they were in college and beyond. As a result, we’ve had students whose memories of our family is that of being the older teen with younger host siblings, students whose memories are that of having host siblings close to their own age, and students who remember a family with adult children who sometimes come to visit.

Our life with each exchange student was different every year — and our life was different from other host families in similar circumstances. One year with younger children, maybe we traveled quite a bit. The next year, maybe not. One year with no children in the home, we did lots of things as a family. Another year, our student would be very active at school and in the community. The dynamics, activities, and relationships differ for so many reasons — not just due to whether there are multiple children in the home.

Each family is unique, and your relationship with your student will be unique. Don’t host just because you do or do not have children in the home. Host because it opens up your world, teaches you about another culture, and helps you establish new relationships. Host because you want to share your home and your world.

Photo credits: Christopher Harris, Pixabay