Infographic of the Day: What’s Your Country “Known” For?

This graphic is a bit tongue-in-cheek…but perhaps that is a good idea right now. The truth is, we’re all a bit fatigued from political statements and international news over the past couple of weeks.

I don’t know quite what to do with this “data,” and I suppose some will say the data are a bit suspect. Perhaps — after all, being known as the country of velociraptors seems a bit … well, unusual? Perhaps not — after all, we *do* seem to have quite a few spam emails in the U.S. and perhaps we’re a more interesting target for those sending such emails.

In any event, it’s worth thinking about…and it might, at least, distract your attention for a few minutes. That might be a good thing.

You can see the original of this graphic here at: Information Is Beautiful.

This is Why We Work With Exchange Students

We have worked with high school exchange students for 10 years now — 14 if you count the several years we were “just” host parents and not coordinators! Working with teens going through cultural shock and host families going through the excitement of learning about another culture can be exhilarating. It can be frustrating. It can, at times, be disappointing. This year, two of our 39 students have had to return home early — and we’re just halfway through the academic year. A few students in our group have changed host families, each situation being completely different. Several more students and host families have concerns we are helping to (hopefully…) resolve successfully.

So why do we bother?

We bother because of the relationships we develop with students (and host families) every year. Not every student becomes a friend for life; that would not be a realistic expectation. But enough do so that we see what the experience can do for them, their host families, their teachers, and others. Teachers understand; they teach for the students who care — and for those who eventually learn to care.

I’ve included here just a few examples of those relationships. These are students who “pushed back” and students who did not. The common thread is that after the fact, they could all see some of what they gained during their exchange. (I’ve changed their names for privacy reasons.)

  • Sean lived with us for about six weeks at the beginning of the school year while we found him a permanent home in our school district. During those six weeks, he learned that we loved good European chocolate and Haribo gummies. Every year since, he and his family have sent a small annual Christmas gift containing a box of chocolate and a couple of packages of Haribo treats. He and his parents include a Christmas card with a “happy holidays” note.

This year — five years later — Sean included a hand-written note:

“It now has been five years since you allowed me to stay at your home, and yet I still don’t know how to properly express my gratitude for your many acts of kindness, even though I do think that my English has improved at least a bit!

And even though I probably gave you quite a bit of sorrow with my lack of discipline, I hope I was also able to leave behind something positive (or a deeper appreciation of Haribo!). So, once more, I hope you are all doing well and your wishes come true.”

  • Maria faced some struggles in adjusting to life in the U.S., and had to change host families during her year. By the end of the year, though, this is what she had to say:

I graduated from an American high school that became my family throughout this year. Many people say I went on a vacation. All of those people are wrong. What I learned is not comparable to what a year of regular Italian school could have taught me. I learned the meaning of setting your mind to a goal and work to reach it, I learned how to be a great leader in the community, I learned to help the others in rough times, I learned that school is not just about grades and studying but also about getting involved and participating, I learned that you don’t need to have expensive bags and shoes to be a cool person. All you need is yourself and a lot of positivity to transmit to people. I learned that is not cool making fun of people, I learned how much joy can give you volunteering and supporting the special ones, I learned that you always have to learn….

  • Andrea lived in a small town in Oregon in a host family with two small children. As she left, she wrote:

The past ten months have been the best time of my life so far and never ever will I forget the memories I made here or the friends I’ve made. I love you all so so much and words cannot explain how much it hurts me to leave this wonderful place. … I know for sure that my way will take me back here sooner or later – after all, I have family here now and lots of amazing friends. I want to especially thank my family for having me this year and making me feel less like “the exchange student” but like “our family member.” … I will never forget how [my two little sisters] went from calling me their exchange student to their sister….They know I will always be their sister and I promised them that we will see each other again soon.

  • Ending with again, one of our own … Andrew constantly pushed back during his exchange year. He conveniently “forgot” house rules time and time again. We had a lot of fun, he got along with our boys, and we enjoyed having him around — those arguments could be spirited political discussions! But he argued all the time. Five or six years later, in a Skype chat on one holiday or another, Andrew said completely out of the blue:

I wanted you to know … I know how much you tried to help me. The things you said then, they make a lot more sense now. I just want you to know how much I appreciate it. It just took me a while.

So to our young friend Sean who is now (unbelievably, to a host mom…) 21 years old: We are doing well, and you have shown us that wishes do come true. One student, one teenager at a time, as expressed by a host parent after her student returned home at the end of her year:

… no matter where we all are, she remains family, [and] our mutual love and admiration continues. … Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.

Exchange Student Notes: What’s the Most Important Thing to Know Before I Go?

Sometimes students ask their coordinators questions about life in the host country even before students arrive. Many of those questions are practical: how long is the school day? Are there classes I have to take? Can I be a senior even if I’m not a senior back home? Does my school require me to wear a uniform? Can I go to a concert or other places by myself? Can I get my driver’s license?

From a teenager’s point of view, these are important questions. We try to answer those questions to help students have a better idea about those practical sides of life, and to help them feel a little more comfortable — a little less anxious — about what’s to come. Knowing a bit about what to expect at school, for example, can help reduce nervousness about that particular unknown.

But we also try to instill in our new soon-to-be-students something more basic, something that underlies all those practical questions. What, really, is the most important thing for students to know?

The most important thing is to communicate. That means talking — to everyone around you in your host country, not just your parents and friends back home. It means asking questions — to your host parents, your host siblings, your teachers at school, your coordinator, other students you meet. It means explaining what you are saying to others, because your English is not likely yet to be the best. It means asking people to repeat or explain what they are saying to you, to make sure you understand.

Let’s emphasize that…

Ask questions

Don’t assume you that you understand. If you have missed words in a sentence — ask the person to repeat or explain. There is a huge chance that the words and phrases you miss will be important to understanding the entire sentence. Even if you understand the words, you may not understand the context. Culture is different, and languages don’t always translate words into the “right” meanings. Your brain may be able to translate the English words into German, Spanish, or Japanese — but the entire intent of what was just said to you may mean something entirely different.

Learn to talk to your teachers

The cultural “normal” for how one acts in school with other students, teachers, and administrators may be very different from what is normal in a student’s home country. In the U.S., teachers are generally approachable and consider questions from students appropriate — even desirable and expected. Teachers may be available both before and after the class itself for students to come and ask questions. Students will probably need to turn in homework assignments on a regular basis and will receive grades on those assignments, which may be different from back home. Don’t assume that it is OK not to turn in a homework assignment, just because you don’t remember the teacher saying anything about turning it in. You may not have heard, because (whether you realize this or not) your brain is working furiously to hear and translate, and you probably can’t keep up. Your brain may not have translated the English properly, or the teacher may assume you know the requirements.

Ask for help if you don’t understand an assignment — don’t make guesses. Perhaps making a guess is normal for you back home — but you’re not back home. Perhaps turning in assignments at the end of the school term is normal back home — but you’re not back home. Perhaps turning in a poorly done work product is not a good thing to do back home — but you’re not back home. Students will tell us, “I was going to re-do it and turn it in at the end of the month.” They assume that’s OK — but it’s not. Students will tell us, “I didn’t turn it in because I know it was not done right, so I was going to try to fix it first.” They assume that’s OK — but it’s not. Doing poorly is better than getting a 0% and will likely get you some points for effort. The experience may teach you more than you think about the subject.

Talk to your program’s local contact person

We are not just here for if you get in trouble; students often think that until something happens, and then they’re surprised we have ideas and suggestions on how to help things get better. Your coordinator is not just here to tell you the rules about what you cannot do — we know, of course, we have to tell you that, too, but we’re here to help you with what you *can* do, and to give you ideas on how to do well and be happy. Your coordinator can answer questions and help explain how things are different from back home. Your coordinator can help you explain your feelings and perspective to your host family if you are having difficulty communicating.

Don’t suffer in silence

So what’s the most important thing you need to know as an exchange student? The answer is that you’re not alone. You’ve got help along the way, whether the question is about homework, social life, or problems at school or in your host family. But you need to ask. You need to talk. You need to explain what your feelings are and you need to remember that you might need to explain yourself in several ways and several times. Your host parents, your school, your program contact — they can’t answer your questions, help you adjust to a different world, or help you solve a problem if you don’t communicate to them anything about the problem or the question.

It will be worth it if you do:

“Many people say I went on a vacation this year. All of those people are wrong. What I learned is not comparable to what a year of regular Italian school could have taught me. I learned the meaning of setting your mind to a goal and work to reach it, I learned how to be a great leader in the community, I learned to help the others in rough times. I learned that school is not just about grades and studying but also about getting involved and participating. I learned that you don’t need to have expensive bags and shoes to be a cool person. All you need is yourself and a lot of positivity to transmit to people. I learned how much joy you can give volunteering … I learned that you always have to learn.”

–A student from Italy, 2014-2015  

Photo credits: Harsh Jadav, Andrew Neel.

International Education Week 2016

Today is the beginning of International Education Week 2016, an annual joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education to talk about the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide.

To help kick off International Education Week, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released its annual Open Doors Report today. Lots of interesting facts and figures! Among other things, the number of international students studying in the U.S. has now surpassed one million. The number of U.S. students studying abroad also increased, for a total of about 313,000 during 2014-2015.

Explore some of the data yourself at the IIE website. To find out more about the Open Doors Report or activities connected with International Education Week, check out these hashtags on social media platforms: #OpenDoorsReport and #IEW2016.

iie-graphic

Travel and Culture: The Road Trip of Exchange and Study Abroad

When I’m out and about, whether it be at a single day event or traveling for a weekend or a week, I think of all the things I like to share with students about our country and our life. A road trip, such as the one we did just a few weeks ago, brings that home.

Our trip took us from Portland, Oregon, through eastern Oregon, into Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and finally Colorado. We saw major changes even on the first day. In the space of a few hours, we left our bustling metropolitan area of more than two million people, drove through the beauty and dramatic scenery of the Columbia River Gorge, and watched the countryside change from lush green to arid rangeland — without ever leaving the state of Oregon.

Jumping Off the Cliff . . . Into an Exchange

In Twin Falls, Idaho, we watched for a while as people parachuted off the famous Perrine Bridge into the Snake River Canyon. Perrine Bridge is one of the few locations where BASE jumping (the term for this kind of parachute jumping from a fixed object such as a bridge) is permitted year-round. I thought of our students as we watched the jumpers on an incredibly clear sunny day. Our students are as prepared as they can be with their packs of knowledge and pre-arrival preparation. They can see ahead, as the jumpers can see the canyon and the river bank below them. They think they have a clear view of what will come next. They have an idea of the terrain.

BASE jumping Perrine Bridge
Photo credit: Chris McNaught, Twin Falls, Idaho. Perrine Bridge BASE Jumping, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5533192

Yet that’s all it is — an idea. Even though they can see what lies ahead, they don’t really know what kind of landing they will have. Smooth and easy, gliding straight to the desirable flat grassy area? A bit hard on the knees due to misjudgment? A water landing?

Some will give up after a bad landing (a difficult initial adjustment or tough problems at school). Some will pick themselves up and jump again, learning from their mistakes. Some will find it all exhilarating. Some will argue that a water landing is awful (a tough time in a big city when you’re used to a small town, perhaps). Some will argue, as did some of the jumpers we met, that a water landing isn’t bad. It’s just a different experience.

The Same . . . But Different

As we drove through eastern Oregon, western Idaho, a short zig in and out of Utah, northern Wyoming, and finally western Colorado, I thought of friends and colleagues who live in these places. We’re connected by common language and culture, and our students from Europe and Asia think of all of us — whether we’re from Oregon, Idaho, Utah, or anywhere else in the U.S. — as being the same. Yet we’re not — or, perhaps, more accurately we’re all the same and yet we’re all different. We are separated by different twists in the English language and different local cultural norms, resulting from different local upbringings and totally different landscapes. A day’s drive may result in our never leaving the state in which we live, and so we are still in familiar territory. But we have reached a different world and so we’re in an unfamiliar land.

Wyoming
Green River, Wyoming

It’s hard to get used to different cultural expectations and a world that does not look anything like the world you are used to seeing outside your family home. I have to honestly ask myself if I could live in the wide open spaces of Wyoming for a year, when most of my life has been with an ocean within reach. Yet we ask our students to do exactly this, and more.

We know our students sometimes have a hard time adjusting to their host family and host community. Teens from large cities don’t know what to do when they arrive in a small town. Students from small towns are often bewildered when their host family lives in an urban area. Students who grew up with multiple siblings have some difficulty living in families with no children in the home. Students with no siblings have to learn how to share space when they’ve never done that before.

We “get it” perhaps more than they know. We hope we can show them how to navigate through it and enjoy their extended “road trip.” We hope, certainly, that we can help show them something of the vastness of the world we live in — not just the size and diversity of the United States as a place, but also the differences even within a place that many characterize as a single culture. If we can teach them that it’s more complex than that, and that the same is true of people and places everywhere, we’ll have succeeded. That’s what makes travel so exhilarating and exploration of other places so much fun.

RV at wooded campsite
Home for a week . . . Golden, Colorado

 

Photos Copyright 2016 Laura Kosloff, except as noted