How To Be A Parent When Your Child Is On An International Student Exchange Program

wooden bridge on path in woods

by Jana Grobbelaar, Moomie, South Africa

Regardless of whether your child is in secondary school or university, an international exchange program will be an enriching experience. There are many benefits for parents: your child will return with added maturity, a more serious approach to their studies, improved language fluency, and a greater comprehension of human nature and the experience of making new friends.  Parents will discover that allowing their child to be an exchange student will be among the best experiences of the child’s entire life.

Of course, you will dearly miss your son or daughter. But the homecoming and the awareness that your child has grown up so much that they can become your friend, as well as be your child, is enough reward to consider this route, even with the challenges that your child will face and the difficulties it poses for parents. As parents, we strive to do anything and everything to enhance our children’s future, but this long distance arrangement doesn’t come without its share of parenting challenges.

Let’s face the facts: it’s not easy being a parent. We often battle with ourselves, questioning if we’re doing the best we can for our children. It’s a lot of pressure realizing that you only get a limited window of time to prepare them to develop into dependable, balanced, and emotionally healthy adults. When your child is away for six or ten months in a different country, there is the extra challenge of being geographically distant from them. But it’s not impossible to parent from halfway around the world. The key is laying the groundwork correctly, both with yourself and with your child.

Here are some suggestions on how to be a parent when your child is in an international student exchange program:

Communication is key

Probably the most valuable approach to ensure you have a secure connection with your kids is to do everything possible to keep communication lines open. This isn’t always easy, but it’s among the best strategies to keep up with what’s happening in your child’s life.  Find out when a good time is to get in touch with them on weekends and set a particular time to contact them. Try not to bother them much during the week, as they will be at school and in a completely different time zone. You can connect with the host parents, as they might be aware of any challenges that your child could be having in school or at home. Your child might not want to burden you with their struggles or may not be keen to share any information that might lead to conflict. Speaking to the host parents might just put your mind at ease for a few days at least.

Technology is your friend

Nowadays it’s easier to stay connected over a distance. Besides telephones, there are many ways to connect that aren’t that expensive. If you have internet access at home, make use of text messages, email, instant messaging, and Skype, to mention a few — but not too often! Reserve time weekly to ‘visit’ for ten to fifteen minutes. Video calls make it possible to not only verbally correspond, but also to see each other occasionally. You may also want to follow your child’s social media posts as they will probably be sharing a lot of pictures on these platforms.

Send a care package

Children of all ages would love to receive some homemade cookies or other treats. A note or a card to tell them that you’re thinking of them and that you love them, carries much weight. But nothing says I love you like a thoughtful package from back home. Never follow up your packages with phone calls. These calls might make it look like you are fishing for a thank-you. Gifts are most efficient as relationship builders when there aren’t any strings attached.

yellow DHL package unopened

Don’t forget to discipline

Parenting your child from a distance can make you feel as though you’re losing control over your everyday responsibilities as a mother. This doesn’t have to be the reality. Don’t stop disciplining your child because you feel guilty, you need things to be “nice and comfortable,” or because you are worried your child will rebel and push you away. Now, more than ever, your child must fully accept that distance doesn’t affect the “rules” at home. Being away from home is not a reason to break the rules and take advantage of the situation. You should continue being consistent about family morals, and loving your child does occasionally mean saying “No.” If your child is living with a host family, it’s also important for your son or daughter to understand that they have to follow the rules of the family they are living with. This can be hard for parents, especially if the rules are different — which is certainly common in a different country!

Teach respect

In the same way as discipline, your child needs to recognize that the host family takes care of them on your behalf. Thus they should respect them as if it were you.

Visit your child

Something that can be fun both for you and your child is if you get to visit them during their exchange period. This could give you a better understanding of their experience, and you might even get to partake in it. Talk to the host-family and find out if a visit will suit them. Don’t proposed a visit in the middle of the exchange, because you don’t want to interfere with your child’s experience. Wait until towards the end! If they have space and are comfortable with it, you might be able to stay with your child or in the alternative you can book a hotel nearby.

In summary

The world is getting smaller, faster and much more complex. Approaches to learning and teaching are shifting. To be successful in tomorrow’s world, young people need the skills essential for a consistently growing number of industries, and possible career paths. They need an understanding of different cultures, a chance to interact with people from various linguistic backgrounds, flexibility and tolerance, an appreciation for alternative perspectives and the maturity to make sensible choices and decisions. Never before has studying a second language been so crucial.

By allowing your child to travel on exchange, you are helping them discover a whole new world. Even though it’s hard to parent from far away, it’s possible to maintain a great relationship with your child and enjoy this experience with them.

 

Jana Grobbelaar is an entrepreneur, editor, and mother of three. She is the founder of Moomie, a popular online parenting forum in South Africa.

Homework in the U.S. Educational System: How Do We Compare to Others?

Is homework a good idea? Does it have an impact on whether an educational system is successful? Will students learn better and learn more?

This infographic doesn’t provide definitive answers to those questions, but it does make one stop and think. We’re posting it not to offer an opinion, but just to say “here’s some food for thought!”

Homework Around the World [Infographic]

 

 

Homework Around the World [Infographic] brought to you by Ozicare Life Insurance

Choosing Where to Go in the U.S. – Good or Bad Idea?

We receive questions from current or future exchange students asking for advice on … well, almost everything. An increasingly common question is whether students should ask for a particular state or region of the U.S. for their exchange year. We have seen an increase in the past couple of years in these “state requests” from student applicants, often for well-known states like California, New York, and Florida.

What does this mean? Is it a good idea?

What It Means

The idea makes sense at first glance. If you are going to spend 5 or 10 months somewhere, why not  have some say about where? The reality, though, is more complex.

Oregon - but not Portland
Oregon – but not Portland

High school students come to the U.S. on one of two visas: F-1 or J-1. (We’ve written about some of the differences between F-1 and J-1 visas for high school exchange here and here.) If you have an F-1 visa, you must apply to and be accepted by a particular school. Many schools have academic and language requirements as well as limits on how many international students they can accept each year. F-1 students also generally pay tuition to the school they attend, even if it is a public school. Certainly, you can apply to schools in states that appeal to you. But even an F-1 visa student may face limitations on where to attend school.

Students coming to the U.S. on the more traditional J-1 visa generally do not choose where they will be placed. The exchange organization works to find a host family, and informs students where they will live once the host family has been screened for suitability and the local school has confirmed that there is an available exchange student opening. Some programs do allow students to express a preference for a particular state or region of the country (for example, “Southwestern U.S.”). We don’t have solid data, but it does seem that students may be taking advantage of this opportunity more often than in the past.

Is it a Good Idea?

Louisiana - but not New Orleans
Louisiana – but not New Orleans

The primary advantage that students and their families see in expressing a geographic preference is that the program will focus on that state or region when working to place the student. Students and their parents sometimes feel they know that certain regions in the country are better to live in — or else they feel they know which regions are worse to live in. Perhaps they have visited Florida on vacation, or perhaps a friend spent time in New York, and so they feel those are good places. They have not heard much if anything about Iowa or South Carolina, and don’t want to go somewhere they know nothing about. Parents want their child to spend the semester or year in an “interesting” location.

We think, sometimes, that both parents and teens are missing the big picture. What does it mean to be “interesting,” after all? The truth is that what people “know” is not always accurate. Teens and parents from other parts of the world may feel that they “know” that Texas could be interesting and a positive experience. They think they “know” that Missouri will be boring and a negative experience. They have heard of one and not the other — and as humans, we tend to make decisions based only on what we think we know. We all do this. It’s human nature not to reach out and embrace what we don’t know. Those misperceptions and misunderstandings, after all, are part of the reason why the U.S. Department of State so strongly encourages cultural exchanges.

Fred B Sharon mansion, Davenport, Iowa
A mansion you might see in Davenport, Iowa

Those misperceptions explain why we see that broad areas of the U.S. do not receive many state request preferences. California, New York, and Florida are considered cool; Iowa, Kentucky, and Arkansas are not. Students will often list states on either of the U.S. coasts, but avoid most states in-between. That’s a large percentage of the country going unnoticed — or being ignored.

It’s important to understand, when evaluating geographic preferences, that host families are not easy to find. For students who have listed preferences, the exchange organization will limit the search for a host family to that state or region, which means a smaller pool of possible host family opportunities. Could this work out so you are placed with a great host family exactly where you want to spend a year? Yes. Are you taking a risk? Absolutely.

In our experience, the likelihood of a successful exchange year can increase dramatically when a student and host family start out with similar interests. It’s part of the matching process that local coordinators work on for months before students arrive, seeking—as much as possible—to find the “right” family for each student. By telling the exchange organization not to look in most of the country, a student may miss being matched with an ideal host family based on interests and other characteristics.

What you might see in Michigan
What you might see in Michigan

It’s also important to recognize that students often do not end up going to the state or region they expressed a preference for. It’s a preference, not a guarantee. At some point during the placement season, the program will cancel the preferences to try and make sure they find a host family for every student.

You might ask: if every student does end up being placed, why are geographic preferences a risk?

  • As noted, a great match might have been passed over during the months that the geographic preferences were in effect.
  • Once the preference is dropped, many host families worry about choosing a student who has said they want to be placed somewhere else. They see it as a bad omen.
  • Students sometimes start their exchange year so disappointed that they didn’t get to live where they had requested that they have difficulty accepting their eventual host family and host community assignment.

In Summary…

We recommend that if you are considering a geographic preference, do some research. Ask yourself why you want to list a particular state or region. Research the state to find out more about it. Research states and regions you don’t know anything about to find out how great they can be. Don’t assume you know what you need to know.

Talk to your exchange program and make sure you understand the implications of selecting a geographic preference. Ask the hard questions! Even if you get the state you think you want, it might not be the place you think it is. If you like cities, you might think, “I’ll ask for New York so I can be near New York City, or I’ll ask for California so I can live in Los Angeles.” Yet the truth is that most host families do not live in larger cities. Students who ask for California generally end up in suburbs, small towns, or farming communities, perhaps hundreds of miles from San Francisco or Los Angeles. Students who ask for Florida generally don’t live near Disney World®. Students who ask for New York may be placed near the Canadian border.

What you might see in Utah
What you might see in Utah

In our experience, the best way to increase the chance of a successful exchange year is to take the experience as it comes. Exchange students are here to learn about U.S. culture, see what school is like for U.S. teenagers, and learn what it is like to be a normal teenager in ordinary U.S. families. If you’re willing to make the decision to leave your home for a semester or school year, you’ve shown that you are willing to leap into the unknown. You might end up in Alabama, Iowa, Oregon, or Arizona — and you might find out that those are interesting places, where you can have experiences you never dreamed about. Allow yourself to be open to the new experience. Make the leap!

 

Photo credits: Thinkstock.com; Pixabay.com; Aaron Burden; Drew Hays.

Book Summary: A Parent Guide to Studying Abroad

“One of the best gifts we can give our children is to help them develop a global mindset so that they will be best positioned for success in our competitive, global marketplace.” That’s from Stacie Berdan, in the book she wrote with Allan Goodman and William Gertz entitled A Parent Guide to Study Abroad.

Parents-Guide-to-Study-Abroad-IIE-Front-Cover-ImageThanks today goes to the folks at The Power of Moms, which has published my book summary of this short but important guide. Parents back home are a key factor in the success of a student’s academic semester or year abroad, and A Parent’s Guide to Study Abroad fills a needed niche.

Read my review here at The Power of Moms — and stay and visit while you are there. It’s an online community providing support and tools for mothers around the world. There are articles, podcasts, online training options, and, of course, book reviews.

Direct Placements for Exchange Students: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

myths and facts - featured imageWe sometimes receive emails from parents asking us how they can find a host family for their child for his or her exchange year. We also sometimes hear from people who are seeking a host family in their area for a family friend or a niece or nephew. Direct placements such as these seem to be more popular with J-1 students than in the past, although statistics are hard to come by to prove one way or the other.

There are logical reasons for trying to arrange a placement ahead of time. Parents naturally worry about sending their child to a strange country for six months or a year, and feel that their child will be safer with someone they know. The student may prefer a particular region in the host country, perhaps because they have family or friends nearby.

A student and his or her family – and the potential host family – should consider a number of factors before jumping in and saying “this is the best idea ever!” For some situations, it might be an excellent choice. For others, it might lead to difficulties for all concerned.

What are the requirements for direct placements for J-1 visa students?

498175455 (2) rules and regs
There are always rules to follow!

In the U.S., finding your own host family does not change the U.S. Department of State requirements for screening students and families. Keep in mind the following:

  • The student must be at least 15 and no more than 18½ years old when he or she starts school in the U.S.
  • Students may not be hosted by a relative, no matter how distant the family relationship.
  • English must be the primary language spoken in the host family’s home, even if they are friends of the student’s family.
  • Parents should not choose a host family based on a desire to have their child attend a particular school for athletic reasons.
  • Students may not have previously come to the U.S. on a J-1 visa; the J-1 visa is a one-year opportunity.
  • A high school in the host family’s area must agree to accept the student; for J-1 visa students, the exchange program arranges for enrollment, not the student or the host family. A school is not required to accept an exchange student. Some schools do not accept 15-year-old exchange students. Some schools may have limits on how many students they accept from a given country, and most schools have limits on how many exchange students they accept each year.
  • The host family must go through the required screening process and be approved by the exchange program. Even if the student’s family knows the host family well, the family must submit an application, provide references, agree to an interview in the home, and show that the home is clean and safe. Adults must undergo a criminal background check and all members of the host family should be in favor of hosting.

Advantages to student and family

The primary advantage of a direct placement is the knowledge early on of where a student will be placed. Waiting for placement information makes people anxious, understandably so given the physical distances and cultural differences involved. From a parent’s point of view, knowing the people your child will live with reduces worry and fear. Parents may also feel it will give them more input into their child’s development during the exchange and more knowledge about their child’s daily life.

Disadvantages to student and family

The advantages of knowing where a student is going and who the student will live with are real. We all agree, and J-1 exchange programs work hard to place students as early as possible before students arrive. Many parents feel that trusting the exchange programs to make a match for their child is a huge gamble. Finding one’s own host family, however, also carries risks.

* “Fit” in the host family: Knowing your host family is not an automatic advantage. Friends may not have similar backgrounds. An example from our own experience: a student’s mother and host father knew each other from university days. Religion was an important part of the U.S. host family’s life, but was not a key element of the German family’s life. The student was uncomfortable, but felt caught between her host family and her parents. The conflict could have had long-term negative impacts on the two families’ relationship; it certainly caused short-term distress to everyone involved. Eventually, we were able to convince the host family and the student’s parents that moving her to a new family – even one they did not know ahead of time – would ensure a better experience for the student.

* “Distancing” from family back home: Parents may feel that knowing the host family will help them to have input into their child’s life abroad. This may be true – but it is not necessarily a good result. Students do better when they are totally immersed into their host culture and community, including in the host family itself. It can be disruptive to both the student and the host family if parents back home are saying “this is how we do it.” The student’s parents may not intend to interfere, but rather may simply feel they are helping by telling the host family the rules their son or daughter is used to following. Quite often, however, the result is that the host family feels their student’s family is telling them how to manage their family’s life.

* Inability to play on a school sports team: In the U.S., many U.S. states prohibit direct placement students from playing sports on school teams. Athletics have become “big business” in the U.S.; families will move to a specific town so that their child can attend that school specifically for sports reasons. Thus, state athletic associations often place limits on the ability to play a sport on students moving into an area, including exchange students. There may be exceptions if an exchange program matches a student with a local family through the usual anonymous process. Waivers may be possible for direct placement students, but generally cannot be arranged ahead of time.

What’s the Answer?

So many directions from which to choose
So many directions from which to choose

Parents have legitimate reasons to want to know as much as possible about where their child will end up. We simply recommend that you think carefully before making a decision that the only solution is to find a host family ahead of time. Other options include carefully researching the exchange organization you choose to work with. Researching the geographic area where your child ends up also helps parents and student feel more comfortable. Finally, when you do receive notice from your exchange organization about your child’s placement, take time to reach out and start the “getting to know you” process. It is possible to become familiar with a region and with your child’s host family even if you do not know them previously.

What about you? Are you a host parent who hosted a student who was a friend of the family, or you knew the older brother or sister who had done an exchange? Are you a parent who is nervous about sending your child on an exchange unless you know the host family? Are you a student whose exchange experience was with someone you knew? Tell us your experiences!

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