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

Host Family Tips: How Can I Help My New Exchange Student in The First Few Weeks?

airplane with welcome words

Bringing a student into the home is not an automatic “we will live happily ever after” situation. It requires work and time to build a good relationship. It amazes us every year to see the lengths that families go to welcome their students: taking them on excursions around the community, showing them the local high school, and just spending time with them. Even with such enthusiasm, however, it can be helpful to think a bit about how to direct your efforts.

Here are some of our basic recommendations.

Exhaustion

Your student may not be up for a major tour of the city when you pick him or her up. She may have just come from her home country, or she may have spent several days at an exchange program’s post-arrival orientation. Either way, she won’t have slept much. Food is generally appreciated; you might want to stop at a favorite eating spot on the way home or make sure to have something tasty ready at home.

camouflage-1297384_640Even if your student seems alert and says he/she is not tired, the change in time zones will cause fatigue and confusion in ways the student may not realize, and not just the first day or two after arrival. Listening and talking in a foreign language is physically exhausting, too. Don’t be surprised if your student wants to take naps for awhile even if she has had a full night’s sleep; this can continue for several weeks.

If you are thinking about inviting family friends and neighbors to a welcome party, you might want to wait a few days. You might think a party is a great idea, and the extended family may be excited about meeting your new family member. We’ve found, however, that meeting all those new people — with their many different voices speaking English in many different ways — can be overwhelming to teens struggling to stay on their feet and desperately trying to understand what is going on around them.

Confusion and Hesitation

It’s normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. Many students arrive thinking they will not have adjustment difficulties. They think they know the US from having been here on a vacation, perhaps, or from watching so many TV shows and movies. They arrive … and suddenly they realize that streets are different, stories are different, houses are different, and the way people walk and talk are different. They panic, sometimes consciously but sometimes at a deeper level.

Let your student know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that you can help them. Encourage your student to talk about how he or she is feeling. Try to get them involved in something to keep busy: read a book, watch movies or TV shows in English to work on language, talk walks to get used to the neighborhood, go to the mall. Ask your local contact if it’s possible for your student and others in the program to get together.

Language

Students must have a reasonable command of English in order to be eligible to be an exchange student. That doesn’t mean they are fluent.

Students in the beginning will likely understand anywhere from 70–80% of what you and others say. It’s the 20-30% they don’t understand that causes miscommunication and results in host families and students complaining about each other. Your student may nod at everything you say, either because he is sure he understands (and he probably really believes he has understood the important parts) or because he doesn’t have a clue but is too polite to say so. Speak slowly, be careful about using slang or idioms, and be prepared to repeat yourself on the same subject several times. Your student’s brain is literally working full-time trying to translate. Feel free to ask your student to restate a key point back to you to make sure it got through.

Start Conversations

Host families often tell us in the beginning of the year that they think their student is quieter than he or she comes across in the student’s application. The same students will tell us they are too nervous to talk and so remain quiet. Don’t assume that the quiet hesitant student you may see the first few days is the “real” person.

You can help your student to start talking. Have you heard of a conversation jar? Put possible conversation topics onto strips of paper and put the topics into a jar. In the evenings at dinner, pull one out at random and make everyone say something about the topic. You can easily find conversation jar lists online (sample lists here and here), or come up with your own! Another idea is to ask your student to come to the dinner table prepared to talk about a “story of the day” from the news.

Start Small

Take your student on errands. Things that may not feel like a major excursion for you — or a fun one — will be new for your student. Grocery shopping can be an event in itself. See if your community has a store specializing in products from your student’s home country; perhaps you can buy ingredients to make his favorite meal and learn something about your student’s culture and cuisine at the same time.

Show your student around the house and begin to explain how things “work” in your family. Does he have laundry yet? Talk about the washer and dryer. When do you want him to change the sheets on his bed? Explain where you keep the sheets and where to put dirty ones. If your student goes for a walk or takes the bus into town while you are work, do you expect her to tell you ahead of time? Explain, and tell her why it’s important.

ice-cream-1101396_640Take a walk with your student around the neighborhood and show him key spots and interesting places. Is there a park nearby, and is it OK if she goes for a walk or run on her own through the park? How far is the grocery store — can she walk there? Do you have an extra bike she can ride (with a bike helmet)? Show her the way. Where are the post office and the library? For teens, snacks and “hangouts” are important; show them where to get ice cream or frozen yogurt, if you have a good place nearby.

In short, think about what you might want to know in a brand-new place, and try not to make assumptions about your student’s personality or what he or she knows or understands. Watch her, listen to her, and get her involved at school. Talk about conflicts early. Following these recommendations now can help you set the tone for the whole year.

Charitable Tax Deductions for Host Families

Many families hosting J-1 exchange students may not be aware that if they itemize their taxes, they can claim a deduction of $50/month for each month the exchange student lived in the family’s home. This deduction should be included in the charitable contribution section of one’s tax return. The key elements of this deduction are:

  • The student must have been in the home for most of the month; if it was only a week, don’t claim it!
  • For two students, a taxpayer can claim two deductions.
  • The deduction is taken over two tax years. That means for 2015, a taxpayer would list the months during 2015 that the exchange student lived in the home. Next year, the taxpayer can claim the 2016 portion.
  • Taxpayers do not need a letter of confirmation from their exchange program to claim the deduction. However, If you want a confirmation letter, the organization with which you work should be willing to give you one.

We’re not able to give legal tax advice on this. We’re just providing the information because we know from experience that many families are not aware that the deduction is available. Talk to your accountant and to your exchange program for more information. You can also review the IRS publication that explains it all: IRS Pub 526 (see page 4).