Looking for a New Hope? Become an Exchange Student or a Host Family

Chewbacca saying apply to an exchange program

The Stars Wars saga has been used to explain society, culture, and political trends. Some have argued that it may represent a statement about our cultural values and show the power of myths and storytelling. Today, on Star Wars Day, I read one article observing that “fake news” gave rise to the Galactic Empire and another article using the behind-the-scenes development of the trilogies’ story lines to explain U.S. constitutional law.

But the best lines I’ve seen so far today on Star Wars Day relate to international cultural exchange:

Looking for a new hope? Apply to an exchange program

With permission from the dedicated folks at the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, we share these images:

May the 4th be with you images

#Maythe4thBeWithYou . . . and may the positive force of international cultural exchange be with you, ever and always … every day!

Connect with the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Programs on Facebook and Twitter, and visit the Department’s study abroad website for more information on exchange programs for U.S. citizens who want to study or travel abroad and non-U.S. citizens coming to the U.S. It’s a great resource and a good place to start your search, both for students and for potential host families. See our list of some international exchange opportunities on our website here, and don’t forget to also visit the website of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel for lists of approved J-1 and F-1 exchange organizations.

Preparing to Study in the USA: Getting Here is Just the Beginning

International students in the United States are seeking a combination of intellectual and cross-cultural experiences that will prepare them to succeed in the global marketplace. With billions of dollars of funding, cutting-edge research and innovation, and unmatched flexibility on more than 4,700 campuses, the United States offers unparalleled educational opportunities. But with this depth and breadth also comes complexity and confusion. Succeeding at a U.S. college or university can be difficult if you don’t understand the system.

Stacie Berdan, co-author of Preparing to Study in the USA (Institute of International Education 2016)


There are many reasons why students choose to spend their university education in a foreign country. Motivations range from a desire for adventure, to having a wider choice of institutions as compared to back home, to an opportunity to study with a particular professor in a specific field.

All, however, face the challenges of living in a foreign country, studying in a foreign language, and understanding the nuances of a culture in which they did not grow up. In their new book, Stacie Berdan and Allan Goodman, both of whom have long experience in the field of international education, have tried to address those challenges as they apply to students coming to the U.S. for college-level study.

Why This Book Could be Useful

There are more than 4,700 U.S. colleges and universities, Berdan and Goodman tell us. The variety is tremendous and includes large state-run institutions, small liberal arts colleges, specialized institutions, and two-year community colleges. The range of opportunities this variety presents is attractive to international students. It also presents a challenge to those same students, since there is no centralized application process or standardized set of application acceptance guidelines. It’s school by school.

One’s first reaction to that, if you’re from the U.S., is “of course, it’s school by school!” Berdan and Goodman explain that this is not how many countries manage college applications. Just imagine the challenge this poses to students from other cultures; not only are they trying to navigate a foreign culture and understand the nuances of English before they get here, but they have to do it one school at a time.

Berdan and Goodman note that only 4 percent of the 21 million students in US colleges are from other countries. Schools have seen increases in recent years. The authors believe that these increases will continue. Our world is becoming more interdependent, they argue, and it’s important for US students to meet and interact with others to be effective global citizens. I would agree. Having our own children and young adults interacting on an ongoing basis with international students is one reason why I work with high school exchange students. Berdan and Goodman also note that tuition from international students provides another source of school revenue; the Institute of International Education’s 2015 Open Doors report estimates that international students contribute $30 billion to the U.S. economy annually.

Open Door intl students graph
Institute of International Education, 2015. “International Student Enrollment Trends, 1948/49-2014/15.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/opendoors.

The authors also believe in the cultural exchange and citizen diplomacy aspect of encouraging international students to study in the U.S. Students who study here will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of who we are as Americans. They will, hopefully, establish friendships that will last over time and create bridges towards improved cross-cultural communications.

Berdan and Goodman provide students with practical tools and tips. An incoming student can use these tips to improve chances of admission at a school that “fits” with the student’s goals and to improve chances of success once the student sets foot on U.S. soil. This, perhaps, is where this book can be useful, if we can get the students for whom it is intended to read it and use it.

Studying in Another Country is not Just the Application Process

Preparing to Study in the USA does more than its title initially suggests. The authors try to take into account the lack of knowledge of their foreign student readers regarding the US college admissions system. They also try to convey some of the nuances and cultural perspective of a different system. The lack of a centralized admissions agency, mentioned earlier, isn’t just a “fact.” It’s the basis of a national approach—a cultural perspective—that will seem totally alien to many students. It has its source in American history, a history that the authors argue has resulted in an education system different from that of any other country.

The book covers practical tips as well, however, “how to” suggestions that an international student should relish. Chapters include not only admissions and graduation requirements an international student can expect from a typical U.S. college, but also information on getting a visa, how to deal with university registrars, information about college advisers, approachability of college professors, and health care.

I was pleased to see a section on academic ethics and plagiarism. As Berdan and Goodman note, how the U.S. education system defines “plagiarism”—and enforces violations—takes international students by surprise. It’s not that foreign students believe cheating is acceptable; rather, it’s the rigorous application of attribution rules and the dedication to individual critical thinking that can be difficult for students from other cultures to comprehend.

The chapter on college sports might raise some eyebrows; isn’t college about academics, many will ask. Our high school international students could probably jump in here to tell you that sports play an integral role in the American educational system, both at the high school and college level, and that having some understanding of sports helps an international student be a part of his or her host community. Just look, as Berdan and Goodman note, at how sports idioms occur throughout the English language.

Safety also receives mention. Berdan and Goodman don’t try to downplay this issue. Student safety is an issue everywhere. That does not mean students are unsafe. It does mean you need to pay attention to your surroundings and learn what’s real, what’s not. If you stay home, you won’t meet people who could change your life, or see wonders that could affect how you view the world — or learn about other cultures and customs which could help prevent future “bad things” from happening. Berdan and Goodman treat the subject objectively and explain what students can do to protect themselves.

A Checklist to Success

I don’t think this book is perfect. I think the authors could have emphasized more strongly the need for students to work on English skills. Many teachers, professors, and other students have commented on the inability of many foreign students to truly participate as full members of their university community due to poor English comprehension and limited vocabulary. I also would have liked to see more emphasis on how to really succeed in one’s daily life. While the authors do suggest becoming active in extracurricular activities and being open to learning from fellow students (see, e.g., Chapter 11: Campus Life, and Chapter 15: Making the Most of It), the recommendations seem understated. Those of us involved in international cultural exchange see first-hand the difficulty many students have in truly throwing themselves into their host culture. We all tend to seek the familiar, even if we’re adventurous enough to study abroad. Many international education professionals lament the tendency—at both the high school and post-secondary levels—of international students to hang out together rather than seeking out their fellow American students. Could Berdan and Goodman have planted a stronger seed for future students?

Such shortcomings, however, do not take away the book’s value. As those of us who work with international students know, placement is just the first step. Students often think that placement is the key element to their success. Where will I end up? Will I be in an interesting place? Why would I want to even consider studying ____ (fill in with preconceived notion of why any particular location might be considered “undesirable”)?

That’s simplistic thinking, and it’s something we work on with our high school international students and their families. An initial placement for a high school exchange student does not make or break a student’s success; so, too, admission to a particular college is just the beginning. Using the 15 chapters in this book as a checklist, international students coming to the US for college can begin to learn much more as they begin their education journey.


Preparing to Study in the USA can be purchased directly from the Institute of International Education or from Amazon.

See our review of Berdan and Goodman’s previous book, A Parent Guide To Study Abroad.


Deciding on a Host Student: Let’s Wave a Magic Wand!

The “matching” of an exchange student with his or her host family is a key factor in the likely success of student’s exchange year in the U.S. How does that process actually work? Can we make it work in a better way?

The “matching” we are talking about is the process in which host families look at student applications and try to figure out who would fit best into their families. This isn’t a 2-3 week vacation visitor, after all; it’s a person who will be living in your home for up to 10-11 months and with whom you hope to have a long-term relationship. Exchange program coordinators like us work to get to know our host families a little bit, so we can recommend students we think will fit into the family’s personal lifestyle and the nature of the school community. In the “ideal” case, we might send a potential host family 3-4 applications; they pick one of them, and everyone lives happily ever after.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes a host family looks at a few dozen applications (or even more!) in search of the perfect exchange student. Here’s the thing, though: there is no such thing as a perfect exchange student, any more than there is a “perfect” host family. We’re all people, with strengths and weaknesses, maturity in some respects, selfishness in others, abilities to adapt easily to some things and less so to other circumstances. Even under the best of circumstances, the process of choosing a student is more of an art than a science. Choosing a student is only the first step in the longer process that leads to a successful exchange year. Think about how much uncertainty remains when you hire an employee, even after carefully reviewing their resume, checking references, and conducting an in-person interview. Whether that employee and the company are a good “match” is not something you know on Day One. You need to train her, show her the ropes, explain your system of doing things, and introduce her to all the right people. You can improve the odds of success through a careful hiring process–but that’s only the beginning.

Study abroad applicationHost families can’t personally check the references of the exchange students whose applications they are reviewing, although they can review the teacher and staff recommendations in a student’s file. They can’t do in-person interviews, although the exchange organization will have done that. All host families have is the written application and perhaps a short student-prepared video.

Nevertheless, host families tell us all the time that they want to find the “best” student for their family. That’s a good goal and of course, we do, too! The question is, of course, what does “best” mean? We urge potential host families to question several common but not necessarily helpful assumptions.

With enough effort, we  can get the “right” student.

We would urge host families to reconsider this assumption. In the end, it’s a matter of probabilities (does this teen really likes gymnastics as much as she says in her application? Is this teen as outgoing as he seems to be?). It’s a matter of motivation and effort once a student arrives and finds that being an international student does have some challenges. It’s a matter of host family expectations and ability to follow through (yes, you *can* take away computer privileges for a day!). The selection process is  a matter of trying to bias the outcome in favor of success rather than against success. But that’s about as much as you can hope for.

179139156 right wrongI can pick the right student by myself.

First-time host parents could possibly look at a series of student profiles and find a great student for their family. But using the hiring example introduced above, it’s a long shot. Families who have hosted multiple times may know how to read student applications and know what to look for. In most cases, though, we urge families to work closely with their local program coordinator. In our case, we take time to screen students before sending applications to potential host families. We look at the family’s host family application for information about the family’s interests, nature of the school and local community, and family members. Are there young children in the family? Perhaps a student with no siblings would not be the best fit. Does the family spend a lot of time outdoors? A student who seems to like to spend time inside might not be a good choice. Our goal is to make sure that any student the host family might pick from the selection we send would turn out to be a good “fit.”

We’ll apply to several exchange programs because having a larger pool makes it more likely we will get “the right” student.

If you absolutely want a student with very specific characteristics, e.g. a Norwegian ski team member, then looking for potential students from multiple exchange programs might work for you. Generally, however, any major exchange program will likely have enough students to choose from so that we can find a good match. Simply expanding the size of the pool is unlikely to make it any more likely that you’ll get a successful match. We have also seen the exact opposite – host families frozen in the headlights like a deer with too many choices and not knowing how to make a decision. Potentially great matches then slip away (placed elsewhere) while you are still working your way through dozens of student files.

We urge host families not to focus on the size of the pool. It’s unlikely to have much of a relationship to a future student’s success and the likelihood of you and your student being happy together.

The exchange organizations are all the same, so it doesn’t matter whom we work with.

Host families routinely think much more about choosing a student than the nature of the support structure an exchange program offers during the placement process and during the exchange year itself. In practice, these two elements are equally important to the likelihood of a successful year.

We occasionally get calls or emails from host families who are working with other programs, who are referred to us by other families, schools, or through our blog. Some are trying to figure out how to solve a problem on their own because they feel they are not receiving appropriate support from their exchange program. Some report on previous experiences and want to know what we would do. Some schools that we work with refer potential host families to us because we have developed a reputation (we hope!) for fairness and trustworthiness in our dealings with students, families, and the schools.

We can’t solve every problem that arises in the way a student, host family, or school may want. It’s more complicated than that. We’re not dealing with nuts and bolts — we’re dealing with people. The support structure and the specific relationship you develop with your local program representatives can matter as much as choosing “the right” student. We recommend that host families research the exchange organizations active in their area. If you have a particular country or cultural background that interests you, which organizations have more students from that region? Does the organization have a good reputation in your community? What does the local school think about the organization’s representatives and their commitment to working with the student and the host family during the school year? 

Maybe I should go eeny meeny miny mo.

We wouldn’t go that far! Work with your local coordinator and make sure he or she knows what is important to you and your family. No vegetarians? Say so. Prefer a vegetarian? Say so! Do you have big dogs? Chickens in the back yard? Go skiing a lot? Go skiing just occasionally? Help your exchange organization to help you — and then keep that up during the exchange year. Choosing a successful  student is just the beginning!

Photo credits: ©2016 Thinkstock.com