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…
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