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.

Should I or Shouldn’t I: Why Should I Tell the Exchange Program Anything This Personal?

Students’ families back home clearly make some decisions about what to disclose when they fill out their applications for an exchange year in the U.S. In theory, anything relevant — personal interests, family situations, allergies, and medical issues — should be disclosed through the application and interview process. The exchange world is full of stories, however, about students who have showed up for their exchange with illnesses, allergies,  or difficult personal situations not mentioned in the student’s application.

Some undisclosed issues turn out to be relatively minor, and host families are able to adjust to them. Other issues, however, are more significant and can have a significant impact on a student’s life in his or her host family. At the very least, the discovery can create problems for  the student with the host family right at the beginning of the exchange when the relationship has just begun to develop. If a student is willing to hide the truth about a medical condition for which she has previously received treatment, hasn’t mentioned that he really cannot live with cats, or doesn’t disclose on the application his parents’ recent separation, will he not be able to be honest about other things? Some issues could affect whether this particular placement is the best situation for the student and the family. Some issues can result in a student becoming seriously ill while on the exchange or cause a student to have significant emotional distress that could have been avoided if dealt with in advance.

diabetes-528678_640We’ve had students show up with undisclosed allergies (“I need to get an allergy shot every month and the first one needs to be in a week!”). We’ve had students arrive right when parents are in the middle of a messy divorce. One student had been assaulted by a close relative shortly before coming to the U.S. and had not told anyone. Another student was treated for anorexia a few months before traveling to the U.S.; the student became seriously ill during her exchange and came very close to being hospitalized. We had a student in our own home who had serious emotional issues; his parents had sent him to the U.S. “to grow up.” These issues are not relevant only to high school international students, and we’re not trying to suggest it’s a majority (or even a significant minority) of students. But it does happen. When it does, it affects that student, that student’s host family, and that student’s circle of friends and community.

The issue of disclosure and the fear of how it could affect a student’s dream of going abroad is not limited to students. Host families, too, need to think about the impact of not disclosing key pieces of information during the screening process. They, too, fill out an application and have an interview. They, too are asked to self-disclose. They, too, sometimes fear that sharing certain types of personal information will affect their ability to be part of the exchange experience.

We explain it during the application process as an issue of family dynamics. It’s important for the exchange organization to know, for example, if a family has a complex joint custody situation — if the student will have host brothers one week and the next he’ll be by himself with his host parents, that affects daily life. It’s important for the organization to know if a host parent has a medical condition, such as multiple sclerosis or diabetes, both in terms of placing a student who would be appropriate and in understanding family dynamics (e.g., that’s why host dad doesn’t go on all the family hikes).

It’s equally important for the exchange program to hear about these kinds of issues as they develop later on, either before or after your student arrives. Have you received a diagnosis of cancer two months after your student has joined the family? You need to talk about this with your program representative. Is it an automatic “move the student”? Not necessarily; each case is different. When a host mother told us this diagnosis a few years ago, we talked to everyone involved: her, her husband, the student, and the student’s parents back home. He stayed in his host family. It was the right decision for him and for them — but it might not have been the right decision for another teenager and another family.

Did you learn over the summer, weeks before your student is scheduled to arrive, that you and your wife are expecting twins? Let’s talk about it; maybe it’s still OK for you to host this year, but maybe it’s not good timing. Have you learned that the strange symptoms you are experiencing are not just exhaustion but the sign of a previously unknown medical condition? Tell your coordinator. Maybe you’re still in a position to host your student. Maybe you should wait. But talk about it. Have you received a promotion at work that will require you to work additional hours? Tell the program.

friends with arms around each otherOn both sides of this equation – students/families, and host families – people are weighing the risks of disclosing or not. We know it’s difficult — we’re asking people to tell strangers personal details about their family life. But in the end, we’re working to help build relationships. Those relationships cannot be built on hiding the ball; if they’re to succeed, communication from the beginning is key.

Photo credits: Pixabay.com

Injuries and Illness While on an Exchange: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Last year, one of the exchange students in our group had to return home to Norway two months before the end of the exchange year due to illness. Potential host parents ask us questions about this kind of thing: what happens if students get sick while they are here? Do I as a host parent have the right to take my student to a doctor? How do we deal with insurance? The short answers are that each situation is different. We thought we would share some of our experiences to show how this works in practice.

Things happen.

Exchange students are like anyone else. They break a wrist while snowboarding, sprain an ankle while playing soccer, get the flu, and are diagnosed with previously unknown conditions. Most of the time, they recover. A broken wrist or 15 stitches will cause short-term pain but are also just that: short-term.

Sometimes, however, their illness or condition cannot be adequately treated so far from home. Real life examples can easily show the differences:

  • Easy to deal with: William fell onto another skier while skiing with the high school ski team at the state competition. He needed 15 stitches. The clinic at the ski area called William’s host parents, explained the situation, confirmed his insurance information, and treated him for the injury. He had his stitches removed 10 days later at a local doctor’s office near his host family’s home.
  • Short-term worry, medium difficulty: Maria was vacationing with her host family in a Broken_right_hand_in_orange_castmountain ski area several hours away from the host family’s home when she broke her wrist snowboarding. Neither the host family nor the student had the student’s insurance information with them, causing some immediate short-term stress on the scene at the hospital; this was cleared up by a call to the student’s exchange program coordinator who provided the insurance information. The hospital spelled Maria’s last name wrong and input the insurance information incorrectly into the computer. This caused issues in the following weeks as bills began to arrive requesting full payment. The situation became more complicated because the host family signed forms at the hospital agreeing to be financial guarantors for the student’s bills (something you shouldn’t do if you can avoid it). The exchange program eventually was able to intervene and help straighten out the situation.
  • High level of short-term worry: Jorge slammed his head and shoulder on the ground hard in a rugby game. He had immediate pain and numbness in his arm and could not feel anything in lower legs or feet. As a result, adults at the scene called for a Life Flight helicopter to take him on an emergency basis to the hospital 10 miles away. Over the next several hours, Jorge slowly began to regain sensation in both legs. He continued to have difficulty in moving his left arm. Doctors conducted various tests over the next 12 hours; the hospital released him after a diagnosis of nerve damage. He recovered fully.
  • Previously undiagnosed condition, life-long management needed: Sophia complained of stomach distress over a period of several weeks. After a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. Crohn’s disease is a life-long condition, which can be managed with appropriate medication and supervision. But getting to a stable managed stage can take time, since not everyone responds well to any given medication or dosage. It became clear within a few weeks that Sophia was not responding well to the “easier” medication regime and that she would need to change to a more intensive (and more expensive) medical regime with possibly significant side effects. She had to return home two months before the end of her exchange year, missing her U.S. high school graduation ceremony and other end-of-year activities.
  • Serious condition, intensive medical intervention and family counseling needed: A day or two after New Year’s Day, Alexandra’s host parents called their coordinator to say they were worried because she seemed to have lost a significant amount of weight. They had weighed their student for a school sports information form, and thought the weight seemed low for her height and age. Comparing her current weight to the weight on the medical form the student had submitted to the exchange program prior to departure from her home country, the host parents realized Alexandra had lost 20+ lbs. Within a few days, a physician had diagnosed anorexia and strongly recommended that the student return home for treatment; indeed, the physician indicated that the student was on the verge of requiring hospitalization. Within two weeks, she returned home.

Insurance helps, but may need explanation

The U.S. Department of State requires that all J-1 visa exchange students carry adequate medical insurance. Exactly what the insurance coverage will cover is not always easy to determine on the spot. This can be difficult for foreign teens and their parents to understand, since they are used to very different healthcare systems.

Lifeflight* Bills from doctors, labs, and hospitals often arrive in the mail before insurance companies have processed claims. Jorge, our rugby player, saw the $21,000 Life Flight helicopter bill when it arrived at his host family’s home before the insurance company processed the claim. He had difficulty understanding that he and his parents did not need to panic, that this was purely a ‘crossing in the mail’ issue.

* Requirements that there be a financial guarantor can create administrative confusion and worry. The clinic treating student William on the mountain for his skiing accident tried to pressure the host family into agreeing to be financially responsible. This was not an unreasonable request from the point of view of the clinic billing administrator, but it’s not a situation we want host families to face. We generally recommend that host families ask the medical facility to use either the exchange program’s contact information or that of the student’s natural parents. This approach may not always succeed, since medical providers may not understand the relationship between an exchange student and host parents. If this happens, host parents should immediately follow up with their program to help prevent it from becoming a major issue. In William’s case, the host parents were able to point out to the clinic that they were not the student’s legal guardians and had no legal relationship. The clinic agreed to put the student’s natural parents contact information on the documents.

* The concept of co-payments or deductibles can be difficult for students and natural parents to understand. The concept of co-payment may seem obvious to American readers, but may come as a surprise to exchange students and their families, who are unfamiliar with the U.S. medical system. We have had many conversations with students and sometimes their parents as well. We try to walk them through an explanation of why they have to pay this or that balance on a medical bill even though they have paid for medical insurance.

What do you need to know?

We can recommend basic strategies to be prepared. For one thing, all adults involved with exchange students should encourage students from the day they arrive to talk to someone – host parents, local coordinator, a teacher or counselor at school, someone from their program’s main office – if they feel ill or injure themselves. Teens often ignore symptoms. They don’t believe a swollen ankle is a big deal (the swelling will go down, it’s nothing) and a stomach ache will go away (it’s just something I ate). They may be embarrassed by their symptoms, and it can be difficult to share personal feelings or medical symptoms with people they do not know well.

Additionally, host parents should keep an eye on their student’s general health and eating habits, as well as on any medications their student may have brought with them from home. A student’s diet may have changed from what he or she normally ate back home. Students worry about gaining weight and may develop poor eating habits as a result. Host parents may feel uncomfortable about compelling teens they do not yet know well to eat a balanced diet, feeling that they are nagging. Host parents can help students feel more comfortable about talking about personal issues such as medical symptoms by themselves talking about personal issues and showing their student that it’s ok to talk about it. Host parents should not hesitate to take the student to a doctor; this should be an adult decision, not left up to a teen who may not understand potential illnesses.

We don’t like it when our students have accidents or get sick. Coordinators worry, program staff members worry, host parents worry, and of course parents back home worry. But the fact that life doesn’t always take the direction we want should not stop parents from letting their teenaged and young adult children from studying abroad and doing a cultural exchange. Indeed, students with pre-existing medical conditions or permanent physical disabilities should also consider study abroad – if under control, it does not stop them from being accepted into an exchange program. Thinking about the “what if” situations shouldn’t stop families from hosting a student, either; the families who hosted the students profiled above had strong relationships with their students. Jorge, Sophia, and Alexandra all have come back to visit their host families. If we stop doing things just because something might happen, we would never see anything, do anything, or learn anything.

All students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy. Photo credits: Helicopter: Lifeflight.org; hand in cast: pixlaw [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]; health image: Lafesta PIxabay.com.

So What Do We Talk About With Your Exchange Students At the Beginning of the Year?

Practical Tips for Host Families (and Students, Too!)

The U.S. government requires that J-1 visa high school exchange students have both pre-departure and post-arrival orientations. These meetings cover U.S laws, program rules and regulations, expectations for behavior, how to ensure students’ health and safety, and practical tips for success.

We’ve been having our post-arrival welcome orientations with exchange students in our region over the past couple of weeks, including a larger group meeting last week. It occurred to us that our readers might find some of these “tips” useful. What follows is a summary of what we talk about with the students in these arrival entry meetings. Details on meeting content may vary from program to program; while U.S. laws remain the same, some program rules vary, so check with your own program contact representative.

What’s the overall theme?

We ask students if they can give us one word to describe the key message for success, or one phrase that they think would describe everything. Usually, they’re pretty good at getting it, and this group did not disappoint us:

** One word: Communication.

** One phrase: “Don’t suffer in silence!”

Who do you talk to if you have a problem?

We try to make sure students understand that it is not rude to ask questions about house rules, family customs, and the local way of doing things. It is good to ask your host family these questions, so that students will know what to do and how to act. Moreover, it can be a great way to start a conversation about cultural similarities and differences.

** If students are uncomfortable talking to host parents, or feel they might hurt someone’s feelings, or don’t understand a particular rule, we encourage them to contact their local coordinators and ask them the question.

** We explain to students what the local coordinators do (also sometimes called local representatives or local liaisons depending on the program). We describe how they help support students and host families during the exchange year.

** We repeat several times to please not hide issues, no matter how small. Talk to someone. Don’t say to yourself “it’s too small to bother my host parents, my coordinator, and my counselor at school.” It’s never too small, and we don’t want small issues to become big issues.

Culture shock and homesickness

We explain to the students what we mean by culture shock. We talk about how it is normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. We let them know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that we can help them get past the feelings. We encourage the students to talk about how they are feeling with their host families and their coordinators, and to let the adults around them know if they are feeling stressed or anxious. Most of the students in our group last week admitted they have felt some element of culture shock and a few admitted they have been a bit homesick. As coordinators, we were pleased rather than disturbed at these admissions, as it suggests the students are trying to be honest about how they are feeling (and were willing to talk about it even a little bit).

** We tell them (and host parents, too) that homesickness can occur at any time.

** We talk about what they can do if they are feeling anxious or sad. Talk to host parents about it, stay busy! Go out for a run or a walk. Do something with your host family. Get involved with activities, clubs, or sports at school. Share something from your culture with your host family.

** We talk about limiting time spent talking with or chatting with friends and family back home. Host parents can help with this. It’s OK to limit Internet time, for example, or to require students to turn off their smartphones at a certain hour. We get questions every year -– and have had a few already this year -– to the effect of “but she’s not my child, can I require her to do what I require my own children to do?”

Cultural differences that students may find to be a challenge

We ask the students to tell us what they find to be the strangest and the most difficult things to get used to in the time that they have been in the U.S. so far; we usually hold the meetings about a month or so after students have arrived, so they have had time to see some of these “strange” differences. We get the expected comments about cars in the U.S. are bigger than back home and grocery stores have so many more choices that students don’t know how to make a decision on which toiletry item to buy. On the more difficult issues:

** We talk about curfews. In the U.S., curfews for teens are common; indeed, in many cities and towns curfews are set by law. Most of the students in our group said that this is different from back home, and admitted that it is hard to get used to the idea that you must be home by a certain time or you will get in trouble. They found it difficult to accept that host parents can tell them they are “grounded” if they don’t follow the curfew rules.

** In the U.S., parents often expect their children to tell them where they are going and to ask (not announce) before a teen goes out with friends. Many exchange students are not used to doing this. We talk about how customs are different, and that “freedom” as they define it may need to be earned by developing trust.

496619997 teen and gadgets** We explain to the students that Internet, computer use, and cell phones are privileges, not rights. Their host parents have the right to set limits on how long they stay on the Internet in the evenings, for example. If students don’t follow host family rules, host parents can take away their cell phone or their laptop for a while, as they might well do if their own children did not follow family rules. Students sometimes feel that no one can take away their laptop or their phone, because those items belong to them, not to their host family. We explain that taking those items away for a day or a few days if a teenager doesn’t follow a family’s rules is a common consequence in the U.S., and that if they believe a particular punishment is unfair they should talk about it with their coordinator.

School Differences

At the beginning of the school year, many exchange students think school is easy. This group was no different. They were positive and enthusiastic, did not feel they had very much school work, and were confident school would be easier than it is back home. Many of them admitted they do not understand everything the teachers are telling them, but did not feel they were missing anything significant. We tried to help the students understand that they probably are missing key parts of the conversation.

** We encourage students to go over syllabuses and class requirements. A note to host parents: in our experience, students often do not understand how important this is, and they do not understand that requirements may be different in different classes (how much a mid-term is worth, how much homework is worth, does participation count? etc.).

467588985 homework** We talk about how homework here in the U.S. is work you do at home AND how most of the time you have to turn it in to be graded.

** We talk about how they are required to pass every class. We explain to students how they can help get those passing grades. We remind them that if they understand 80% of what the teacher is saying, that’s great – but they need to find out about the other 20%, because they might be missing the key points of every lecture, when a major assignment is due, or what’s on the next test.

Getting your driving license

Getting a driver’s license is an issue dear to teenage hearts everywhere. Teens from other countries often are not aware of how difficult it can be to get a driver’s license here in the U.S. They often feel that it’s worth it even if it is a challenge. Some exchange programs prohibit any student on their program to get a driver’s permit or license. Since our program allows it, we go over the guidelines. We explain that some school districts prohibit exchange students from getting a drivers’ permit. Students who are permitted to get a driving permit must pay for their own insurance. We explain that this could be expensive for a teenager.

We’ve previously written a blog post on this specific issue; interested students and host parents might find the additional detail useful.

Traveling without your host family

Travel rules differ from program to program,  For our students, we explain that students generally may not travel overnight alone, that they must travel with an adult over the age of 25, and that the adult must be approved by the program. This generally requires criminal background checks, and for longer trips may require that the adult(s) go through the entire host family screening process. School trips are generally allowed, with appropriate permissions from parents. Host parents and students should contact their own program for the rules that may apply to them.

Program Rules and Regulations

At our welcome meetings, we review the U.S. government and program rules and regulations. The students should have heard these rules before in their home country; we cheerfully repeat them again! Key points we make at these meetings include:

** Students need to be an active member of their host family. We tell them to participate in the activities their host family does – not just go along, but also actively participate and show interest.

** Do their chores around the house, and do them well! If they have never cleaned a bathroom before — ask host parents how to do it right. If they have never cooked before — maybe start with something easy, like spaghetti.

** No drugs, no alcohol. We always spend some time on this one. It can be a difficult concept for students who may be allowed to legally drink at the age of 16 or 18 in their home country. We try to help them understand that the consequences of breaking U.S. law can be severe; in their case, they can be sent home and lose the school year.

Emergencies and Issues No One Likes to Talk About

This is always a difficult part of the entry meeting. It’s difficult because no one, either adults or teens, like to talk about things going really wrong during the exchange year, such as medical emergencies, teens being diagnosed with serious long-term health issues, or any kind of abuse.

** We remind students that their host parents are there to talk to and that we hope that they are beginning to feel comfortable talking to their host parents and host siblings. If there is a problem they cannot talk to their host parents about for any reason, please call us. If there is an emergency or serious issue, please call no matter what time it is.

** We talk about how it is important to speak up if they feel they are being mistreated in serious ways — physical violence, feeling unsafe, and sexual harassment/abuse.

** We talk about their health. We talk about how having a balanced diet, and how their bodies may need to adjust to different foods here. We ask them how much Coke or Pepsi do they drink, and do they know about the effects of caffeine. We encourage them to get some exercise and to get enough sleep.

Communicate, talk, and speak English!

We end with what we start with – the concept that communicating is the key to their success. Some will have listened to everything we talked about; some will forget until they get one of those progress reports from school or their host parents get upset. We will be there to help!

*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com. Check it out and visit some new blogs you may not have seen before on international travel, education, and more!*
**Photos copyright Thinkstock.com

Stumbling as the Finish Line Draws Near

Two students in our region had to return to their home countries last week, two months before the end of their exchange. Neither student volunteered to go home early. Both students were sad and did not want to return home now. But for two very different reasons, neither really had any choice.

Student #1 was ill. About two months ago, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. We started with the hope that it could be treated easily and managed at least at a reasonable level until the end of June when she was scheduled to return home. Unfortunately, we all came to realize that her illness – while manageable in the long run – could not be managed here, without her family, within the scope of a cultural exchange program. Her parents moved up their visit to the U.S., originally planned for a month from now, and what they had planned as a leisurely tour of the region where their daughter has lived for the past eight months became a whirlwind weekend and a time of tears.

Student #2 was drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, and was caught at both. Smoking, by itself, would not necessarily mean a return home; in most cases, it would be treated as a behavior issue and managed as we manage other rule-breaking situations. But alcohol for exchange students under the age of 21 in the U.S. is another story, and generally being caught earns a student an immediate ticket home. In this case, the host family notified the local coordinator on Wednesday. She went over to the host home that evening and found evidence in the student’s room. The student admitted to drinking. Two days later she was on a plane home.

475427741Things happen in life, and they will happen when people travel or study abroad. We can’t control unexpected illness or accidents, and our student came to realize that during the several weeks when we were talking about whether she would be able to stay until the end of June. Knowing she had done nothing wrong and that she was not at fault didn’t make her any happier to leave. But perhaps it helped; she knew she was had developed good friendships and that her host family had made every effort possible to deal with her illness. She had a week or two to say goodbyes at school, a weekend to show her parents some of why she has come to feel Portland is a second home, and time to have a goodbye party on her last evening.

But for that second student, everything was different. She had fallen in with the “wrong” crowd, and her behavior had gone downhill. When her host mother found evidence of alcohol, it was over; the family asked that she be moved out of their home on Wednesday and the coordinator responsible for working with the student reported the events. The student’s parents were told that she had broken the law and the conditions of her visa, and arrangements were made for a flight home on Friday. The student went to school on Thursday to return various items and say brief goodbyes, so she wasn’t quite hustled away under cover of darkness. But she certainly did not have time to process her decisions or have any kind of “closure.” She could not put the responsibility for what was happening on fate, another human being, or bad luck. She made some bad decisions, and there was nothing anyone could do.

Those of us who work with high school foreign exchange students do it because we love working with this age group. We enjoy seeing our own country through their eyes as they discover things we have taken for granted, we enjoy seeing how they grow and mature during their 10-11 months in our country, and we enjoy making friends around the world. We don’t enjoy weeks like this.

These are the hardest cases we have to deal with as exchange program coordinators: when things happen that cut short a student’s exchange year dream. These two cases, coming as they do within days of each other, bring home for our group the two hardest kinds of cases: the first, when a student and host family are happy together and developing a relationship and then a storm comes out of nowhere ruining everything, and the second, when our students – who are ordinary teens — make bad decisions. Any teen can make a bad decision and live through it; for exchange students, the consequences can be much more severe.

We wish we could solve all our students’ problems while they are here, but we can’t. They are exchange students, here on a student visa issued by the U.S. Dept. of State, and they are subject to high standards, strict rules, and certain limitations to what we can do for them. Every year, someone will get sick or have an accident that requires treatment beyond what can be managed while on exchange. Every year, some exchange students will make bad decisions. Every year there are exchange students who get caught with alcohol. We warn our students every year before they arrive and after they arrive that the drinking age in this country is 21 and that drinking is illegal. We tell them we understand that it may not seem fair to them if they come from countries where it is legal to drink at 16 or 18. But they need to obey the laws of the country where they are studying and living, or suffer the consequences. They all say they understand and that it will never happen to them. Inevitably, someone does not listen.

For some kinds of illness or long-term conditions, there’s not much leeway; the student needs treatment now, which may be expensive or just time-consuming. It may require hospitalization or counseling. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Of course she needs to go home. Who wouldn’t agree that this is the best solution? But it’s harder in practice, when you are 2/3 of the way through the school year, to tell a student they have to give up their dream and cut it short because of something they have no control over, to tell their host family it’s time to let the student’s family make the medical decisions, and to tell a family thousands of miles away “your child is sick and it’s not going to get better soon.”

178980203 next exit decisionsIf you are an exchange student, take this message to heart. If you are hosting an exchange student, show this story to your student. If something happens beyond your control, do what Student #1 is doing: grapple with it and accept that dealing with it is the smart thing to do. It doesn’t define who you are. As for the rest of it: think before you act. Don’t let Student #2 be you.

Photo credits: ©2015 Thinkstock.com.