Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student – when it works, it works!

11-02-2012 — I thought this interview on Wisconsin’s TV show, The Morning Blend, was worth passing along.  This is what cultural exchange is all about — a good “match” between host family and exchange student, a student interested in doing things differently while here in the U.S., and a host family interested in learning about their new “exchange daughter’s” life.  (OK — also a good coordinator keeping an eye on how things are going and communicating with the family and student!)

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student – interview on The Morning Blend



The Rules are the Rules …. or, We Mean What We Say and We Say What We Mean

An exchange student in the Portland metro area was sent home this week – eight months early.

What horrible thing did he or she do, do you ask?  Bring alcohol to school?   Possess marijuana?  Steal the family car?  What could a well-adjusted, smart, 16-year-old exchange student do that would result in being sent home  a scant two months into the high school exchange year?

A much simpler answer, actually…..and yet, so much harder.  The student picked up a $50 item from a display at Nordstrom’s, and walked out without paying for it.  Any of us who are parents can understand the impulsive thought that came into the teen’s mind; many parents have counseled their own teens through similar impulsive, bad decisions.

But for that one impulsive, bad, teen-aged decision, an entire exchange year was lost.  And there was nothing anyone could do.  If an exchange student breaks the law, and is driven home in a police car, that’s the beginning and the end of the story in a nutshell.

Those of us who work with high school foreign exchange students do it because we love the teens.  The hardest cases we deal with are when our students make bad decisions – bad decisions that any teen could make.  But they are exchange students, here on a Dept. of State visa, and subject to higher standards and stricter rules.  Every year, one or more of our teens makes a bad decision.  Every year, for example, there are exchange students who get caught with alcohol – at a party, perhaps, where the police show up.  We warn the students every year before they arrive and after they arrive – and yet, someone, inevitably, does not listen.

All reputable exchange programs have a disciplinary process.  For ordinary and expected behavior issues, the disciplinary process will be progressive – that is, first the local coordinator will give the student a warning; then perhaps the program headquarters will issue a warning; and finally there may be a written and final warning.

But for matters involving the law, there’s not a lot of leeway.   If you break the law, you go home.  Simple…..yes.  But there’s a host family that is already missing a student they loved.    There is a coordinator/supervisor who feels as though she missed something, wishing she could have done …. something.  And there is a young person who has lost the opportunity to spend a year in the United States.

If you are an exchange student, take this message to heart.  If you are hosting an exchange student, show this story to your student.  It’s such a pointless reason to be sent home.


Why Do We Host Exchange Students? Reading Recommendations

For today, I was originally going to write wise words from my experience as a host parent to explain why we do it — why some of us spend all this time and effort to bring an unknown teenager into our lives for up to 10 months (and some of us do this more than once).  But recently I’ve seen several articles in different places that say it just perfectly.

So for today, I’m going with some reading recommendations:

5 Lessons I Learned Hosting an Exchange Student

My Third Son

And these two, from May 2011, as students were getting ready to return to their home countries:

Hosting an Exchange Student

Host a Foreign Exchange Student. You Will Not Regret It, If You Live

 Read their stories – I can’t say it any better.


The Air is Full of Excitement – or Are They Bored to Death?

August – the time of excitement and glamour as the exchange students arrive in the U.S. and elsewhere for their semester or year of adventure.  What could be more fabulous than … wait, sitting around the house and watching TV?

We have two exchange students who are starting the year with us.  Viet Anh (Germany) is temporary; we’re his “welcome” family, and we’ll be looking for a “regular” family for him.  But in the meantime, we’re his host family.  He has arrived, and I suspect he is a bit bored – I’m working this week, my husband is out of town, one son is at lacrosse camp, and the older son is taking summer classes.  That doesn’t leave much room for exciting trips across the state – our level of excitement is taking a dog for a walk into town.  Our other exchange student, Pim (Netherlands), arrives next week; he is probably jumping up and down counting every minute and driving his parents crazy until he boards his plane for the U.S.

Is this a fundamental difference between the two teens?  Not at all.  With no school in session, no local friends of their own, and most parents working, students can get bored in August.  Host parents who can’t take the time off will feel guilty if they have to work – if you are reading this, try to get over that!  Check with your exchange program and see if your student can get together with one or more nearby other students for “play dates.”  That’s what we’ll be doing over the next few days (OK, we don’t call it a “play date” – not out loud, anyway….).  Even if the teens are just hanging out being bored together, it’s more fun, and they can exchange the few stories they’ve begun to gather and see that there are many different versions of a “typical American family.”

Over the next few weeks, the rest of the exchange students will begin to arrive at their host families.  For at least a few weeks they will feel like guests, and act like guests – quiet, polite, hesitant around the house.  Host families are excited and want to show the students around their community, their town, and the state, and we will hear reports of some interesting trips and excursions.  But we will also hear stories of students playing hours of X-box or watching a lot of TV.  We can’t entertain them all day, says a parent.  You’re absolutely correct, we tell them.  It will even out over time.  August – the time of contradiction, of too much excitement and too much empty time.

So, while we have this empty time, we try to make the most of it.  We give our students a copy of the school’s curriculum book to start choosing classes (did that today in our house, everyone!).  We print a copy of our house rules (ditto! I’ll report back on what he thinks about them, ha!).  We suggest they read the local newspaper and report back in the evening on a story they read (next on my list).   We take them with us when we walk the dog and get them talking, asking them about their family back home and what their school is like.   We ask them questions about how their parents expect them to manage money and try to get a sense of their financial situation. Some will have unlimited budgets, some will be on tight budgets – we want to find out if they have shown up in your household with a debit/credit card (nice) or a wad of cash (not so nice).  We teach them to use the local bus system (haven’t done that yet, although Viet Anh was asking about it!).  Maybe he and others could go somewhere on the bus while I’m working, we’ll see.

We try to get the students to use the time to practice their English.  Watching a lot of TV isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Many students will be in shock that their English is not as fluent as they thought it was, and they may panic when they cannot understand the conversation around them.  For a few weeks, they may nod at anything and everything said by the people around them.  They will refuse to answer the phone and have trouble understanding the English if they must talk on the phone.  So let them watch TV – it will help them recognize different voices!

August – the honeymoon phase of the exchange experience.  So let’s enjoy the time, boredom and all, before the boundary-pushing “what do you mean I really have to follow the rules” phase sets in!

What’s With the Signs and Balloons at the Airport?

Tomorrow, July 30th, is arrival day for our first group of students, the “camper kids” – the exchange students who have been at an optional language and culture camp before joining their host families.  The campers come to the U.S. several weeks to a month earlier than non-campers and tomorrow the first group will be leaving their two-week camp to head for their new homes.  Shortly before noon Pacific time, excited and nervous kids will begin to arrive at the Portland airport to start their high school semester or year in this country.  They will be met by people they have never met.  They may not even have spoken to their host families; perhaps the only communication has been an email or two.  Yet these strangers will meet these nervous, hesitant teens with excited happy screams, welcoming balloons or signs, open arms, and the kind of the enthusiasm usually reserved for members of one’s family.

In fact, in a way these teens *are* members of these strangers’ families.  By the stroke of a pen – well, and some required paperwork, of course – these students are now part of their new host families for up to 10 months.  These “stranger” mothers will register their new sons or daughters at high school, make sure they brush their teeth, and worry when they go out at night.  These “stranger” dads will transport them to soccer practice, make sure they eat their vegetables, and take them to a football game.  These “stranger” brothers and sisters will take them around town, show them the local sights, introduce them to the American concept of front-seat rivalry known as “shotgun,” and squabble over who gets the X-box first.

Easy, right? Well…not exactly.  There’s a bit of an untraveled road to discover first, and there may be some potholes along the way.  But there’s fun and excitement in that road of discovery, and an unparalleled opportunity to share one’s life and culture.  Let’s get to it! The 2011-2012 year begins!