Why Host an Exchange Student (or is Technology Enough?)

laptop phone book on table

This time of year, high school exchange student programs in the U.S. are seeking host families for the coming academic year. You may have seen posts on Facebook, read flyers in your local coffee shop, or visited an exchange organization’s booth at a local community event. Your thoughts might be “what a cool idea!,” or perhaps “why would anyone take a stranger into their home?”

In one of my regular telephone calls with a host parent the other day, the conversation turned to our students’ ever-increasing use of technology. She wasn’t quite sure their student this year had ever truly immersed himself into the local community and our local world. It’s harder than ever to separate the students from their home country, she commented. Once upon a time (really just a few short years ago) students rarely arrived with smartphones; now, it’s rare for them not to bring one. Once upon a time, they rarely brought  laptops; now, most of them do. Once upon a time, parents back home were content talking to their children on weekends; now, many text their teens every day.

Why host, indeed? Is there still any point to this idea of citizen diplomacy and this type of personal cultural exchange in a world where we’re always connected? With instant translation available on our phones, is learning a foreign language still relevant? Isn’t virtually visiting a foreign country through your computer just as good as being there? So does putting teens into the homes of American families for a full semester or school year still make sense?

Well … yes.

  • It’s about the look on our Italian student’s face a few years back when standing in line at a donut shop in Portland and a shop employee walked by offering a free donut to everyone waiting in line. “This. Is. America…!” he cried. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I don’t know … but it was certainly memorable.
  • It’s about coming around the curve on Highway 101 on the Oregon coast and seeing Haystack Rock loom up out of the surf and hearing the “oh wow” from the back seat from our somewhat-jaded-having-been-to-the-US-multiple-time German student. And yes, it really is a pretty cool sight … his comment reminded us that seeing your world through someone else’s eyes can re-awaken you to your own values.
  • It’s about a student excitedly talking about a weekend geology field trip he took with a few students from his class. “Excited” and “geology” are not usually terms one would use to describe a high school student’s activities. But you could hear it in his voice. It meant so much more to actually see what they had been reading about in class, he said. He talked about how they learned about how the flow of rivers had changed, and how much fun it was to take a ferry to an island.

Each of these is just a little thing by itself. But isn’t it the little things that makes the difference?

Beyond learning about another culture and how daily life might differ, these cultural exchanges challenge our assumptions about other cultures, teach communication skills, and help develop patience and flexibility. That sentence sounds like a platitude, doesn’t it? But all I need to do is look at our own experiences — and we’re just one family.

We’ve learned that what we thought we knew about Europe was just a slice off the top. Beneath the similarities lie fascinating differences between Nordic cultures in the North, Slovak cultures to the East, and Italy to the South. The slices we’ve learned about Hong Kong, Thailand, and Japan are humbling; as educated persons, you think you know something, and then you learn you don’t. Living with a student from Hong Kong taught our own two children more than a book ever could about how a teenager from a Chinese culture approaches life, decision-making, and relationships. It helped them understand the family histories and family dynamics of their own second generation Asian-American friends, and it taught them tolerance much more effectively than us parents standing there saying “be nice, don’t judge.”

We’ve learned that when people think they’re clear in what they are saying, they’re not. We’ve learned to stop ourselves and ask “do you understand what I meant when I say XXX?” It’s not something we ever would have thought about doing before we started working with international students. And in reality, it helps you realize that the potential for miscommunication is huge even when you are talking to native English speakers.

silhouetted people facing away from each other with question marks in air

We’ve learned to be more patient and to not expect perfection overnight (if ever….!). We suggest to our students to read the local newspaper to learn about the local community. We take students in our home with us when we walk the dogs or run errands to get them talking, asking them about their family back home and what their school is like, one topic at a time, day after day. We ask them how their parents expect them to manage money and try to get a sense of their financial situation, one topic at a time. We try to get students who are nervous about speaking English to talk more, a little at a time. Success in the beginning may be a sentence or two.

We’ve learned more than we could have imagined when we started down this hosting and coordinating path about seeing other people’s viewpoints and recognizing other people’s realities.

Some things seem to be the same everywhere. Teens everywhere groan when asked to do their chores before they go out with friends and roll their eyes when asked to do something they don’t want to do. Parents the world over can recognize their children are not perfect. Adults the world over make mistakes in their relationships, and adults the world over are not always better than teenagers at accepting their mistakes and learning from them.

There is no such thing as a perfect person: no perfect student, no perfect teenager, no perfect host families, no perfect adults. It would be nice if we could wave a magic wand at the airport on Arrival Day and announce “congratulations, you now have a long-term forever relationship.” But that’s not real life, and it’s not really how we learn about each other. Having someone you have never met before live in your home for 6 or 10 months as a member of your family is rewarding — and yes, it can be hard work. That work leads to rewarding experiences, and this is what long-term relationships are built on.

I think (and I hope) that it all does still make sense. If our 21st century environment of constant contact, 24/7 online connection, and no-real-life-always-texting life takes over, I think we’re done for in more ways than one. I think cultural exchanges — including but not limited to hosting high school exchange students — offer benefits far beyond being “a good citizen.” The volunteerism component is important, yes …. but it goes beyond that. I hope that these experiences are still possible in today’s ever-connected, never-disconnect-from-home world. We’ll keep working at doing our small part to make it possible.

 

Images courtesy Ewan Robertson on Unsplash and Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

 

Thought for Today: Sharing is How You Make it Work

Tip of the day for host families and students…

Sharing about what’s going on in your life is a great way to begin to get to know each other. What can you share with each other about your day? It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering or jaw-dropping story … just the little things.

Did someone at work say something funny? Share it with your student, and talk about some American jokes.

Did someone at school say something that everyone laughed at and you didn’t understand? Ask your host family what it meant.

Is the family’s favorite TV show on tonight? Share with your student why you like it and have the whole family join in the discussion — then watch it together.

Did the cat do something funny? Talk about all the past times the cat has made the family laugh.

Do you have a dog at home? Talk about why you think your dog is the coolest ever. Why did your family choose him? Have you had other dogs?

See how easy it is? Get started today!

Image courtesy Peter Fischer

Warm Wishes to All!

On this Christmas Day, we send warm wishes to all our readers and to all our students and host families, current and former. We think about all the ups and downs, and give thanks that we are able to contribute just a little bit to the “ups” part of it all! Most of all, we thank you all for the work you put into the “citizen diplomacy” project of cultural exchange.

May you all have a wonderful day with friends and family!

Halfway Through the Exchange Year – Holiday Thoughts 2017

home is where the heart is on colorful background

It’s the time of year for musings and contemplation of the past and the future when it comes to your exchange student’s adventure here in the United States. Today, we are thinking about how the past five months have gone for the exchange students in our group. In our regular check-in calls and meetings, several students have commented on how time is flying by. They feel as though it’s almost time to go home . . . yet they’re only halfway through!

We think back over what they have accomplished in their five months here, and we are also thinking ahead to what’s in store for them for the second half of their exchange. We’re proud of what all of our students have achieved so far and are thankful for the opportunity to get to know them and their host families.

It’s a happy time of year, and it’s a time to give thanks, which we do — we are thankful to our students for reminding us about the wonder and excitement of having new experiences. We are thankful to our students’ families back home for allowing them to leave home for this adventure. And we are ever so thankful to our host families for sharing their lives with an exchange student. No, it hasn’t been perfect. Yes, it’s been more challenging for students than they probably thought it would be. We have moved a few students to new host families; that happens, often for no real fault on anyone’s part. Two students became very homesick and chose to return home early. Some students are homesick now at the holidays.

But the group is succeeding, as exchange students do when they have the support of their host families, parents, teachers, and program. They are learning that they can overcome difficulties, and we all learn how to communicate better with people who might not understand everything you do and say.

Most of our students will not return to their home countries until the end of June, so we have six months to go. There is something about the holiday season, though, that marks a turning point. Our students are past the phase of acting like a guest in the host family home. They are no longer quiet or hesitant around the house, and most of them talk a lot more than when they arrived. They don’t hesitate to grab a snack from the fridge. Their English has improved, in some cases dramatically. They squabble with their host siblings and moan like any teen about school or chores.

They’re at home now.

The transition to being “home” has meant many everyday experiences that we are thankful to our host families for sharing with their exchange student “children.” As 2017 winds down, our group’s students have been able to:

  • visit other U.S. states, including Arizona, California, Minnesota, Florida, and New York.
  • see parts of the Pacific Northwest region in which they live, including  Seattle, Washington; Bend and Sunriver, Oregon; and the Oregon and Washington coasts.
  • take classes not offered in their home countries such as ceramics, psychology, cooking, forensic science, and marketing.
  • become fans of their host family’s American college football teams such as in-state rivals University of Oregon Ducks and Oregon State University Beavers, or root for professional teams like the Seattle Seahawks.
  • become athletes themselves and play sports they’ve done before, or learn new sports including American football, soccer, volleyball, cross-country, and basketball.

There has been an assortment of American holiday experiences: corn mazes in October, carving pumpkins on Halloween, and eating too much turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. Our students living in Jewish homes are learning about Hanukkah this month and students living in Muslim homes may have celebrated Eid al-Adha in August. Students have joined in the search for the perfect Christmas tree, hanging lights and tree ornaments, and baking pies. They show their host families tidbits from their own home and culture. We learn what a normal school day is in other countries, and how school systems differ. We learn about holiday traditions like Sinterklas (Netherlands) and Erntedankfest (German and Austrian harvest thanksgiving festival).

advent calendar

Our students come from a variety of backgrounds. This is part of what we love to find out — it’s part of what we are thankful for, as we can learn so much from each of them. One of our students comes from Kiruna, a town in the far north of Swedish Lapland. Another comes from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, with a population of 2.8 million. Two of our students come from Rome, another comes from Madrid; they are adjusting to life in smaller cities and suburbs. Two students come from Catalonia in Spain, where citizens voted for independence shortly after students arrived here in the U.S. Another calls Sardinia her home, a large Italian island sitting in the Mediterranean with its own history going back several thousand years. (How must it feel to students who come from places with 2,000+ years of history to arrive in an area that celebrates 150 years of statehood with excitement?) We have one student who is an amazing musician and who is quite comfortable playing his music at open mike sessions in public, and another who is a leader on her school’s basketball team. One student’s parent back home is a doctor, another is an engineer, and others are restaurant managers, teachers, and electricians. Like us, they’re all different.

Here in the U.S., they live very different lives from their lives in Sweden, Switzerland, or Taiwan. Some live with one host parent; some live with two. Some have host brothers or sisters; some do not. Some of those who are used to a big city now live in small towns, while some students from small towns now live in a city with public transportation and people everywhere. Some have plenty of spending money; some are on a tight budget. Some are energetic and outgoing, and live for the excitement of going out on the weekends; some are quiet and introspective, and prefer a good book or movie with their host family.

They have one thing in common. They are all teenagers who five months ago were brave enough to get on a plane and head into the complete unknown. Could you have done that when you were 15, 16, or 17?

real time planes in sky Atlantic

We show these young people from around the world that the United States is not just the Hollywood sign or fast food at McDonald’s. With what we have all seen and heard on TV and in social media this year, it is perhaps more critical than ever to show these teens – who are future adults, citizens, and perhaps eventual leaders in their home countries – that we are ordinary people, more like them than different.

An Exchange Mom Video Minute: The Holidays

snowman with snowflakces coming down

As a host family, are you thinking about the holidays with your student? As a student, are you wondering what the holidays will be like in your host country?

This is our first video in our “Exchange Mom Minute” series. We hope to have many more…we’ll see what we can do in between the rest of our lives!

 

Everything we do here on The Exchange Mom is on our own time . . .
please consider supporting us on Patreon!

Become a Patron!