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.

Note From an Exchange Student: I’m Homesick…How Long Will it Take Me to Settle In?

I’ve been in the U.S. for more than two months now and I don’t have any friends here. It makes me sad. I talk to my friends back home a lot since I don’t have anyone to talk to here in my host country. What else can I do?

It’s around this time of year that students express feelings such as that expressed by the comment above. Students arrive in August in an excited mood, and think that everything will fall into place quickly. How hard can it be to make friends?

Making new friendships and establishing relationships with host family, teachers, and others, however, is more of a challenge than many students realize. One of the reasons we encourage students to join a sports team (even if they’ve never played the sport) or band or drama (even if they’ve never been in band or acted in a play) is that these activities help bring abigail-keenan-sports-huddlestudents into the community and form immediate bonds with a group of students at school. It helps them feel like they belong. Even those students, however, may sometimes feel lonely, left out of an activity, or just generally homesick due to how different life is in the host home and community.

One of our students last year told us that he thinks the most important piece of advice he can give to other high school exchange students or college study abroad students is “Don’t suffer alone! Talk to someone here in your host country, talk to your host family!” We talk to our students about things that they can do to get their minds off how they are feeling. Think about what do you do back home when you are sad. Keep active. Don’t stay in your bedroom; it’s better to hang out in your host family’s living room or family room, so that you can have conversations (which can further help get your mind off how you are feeling). Go for a run. Get involved in a sport, art/music/theater. Do things with your host family, even ordinary things: watch your host family’s favorite TV show with them, go to the grocery store with your host dad, go for a walk with the dog with your host mom.

Students sometimes tell us, “but I don’t like doing any of those activities.” We tell them how any activity will help them focus on something else. Moreover, ordinary activities can help you to get to know the area where you are living, and—perhaps most importantly—host parents will appreciate the fact that their student is showing interest. That last item may seem like a small thing, but it’s those small things that add up, eventually, to real relationships.

J-1 visa students have a local contact person from their exchange program; F-1 visa students may have a local program contact or at least someone at their school who is responsible for exchange students. We encourage students to call that contact person when they are feeling a bit low. Be honest about how you are feeling. Your local coordinator will be happy to sit down with you and help you think of ways to feel like you belong.

Students sometimes think that the answer to their difficulties is to find a new host family. Teens have a tendency to think things happen quickly, so if they don’t immediately feel that they are making friends or becoming close to their host family, they think it means that they need a new school or that they and their host family are not a good “match.” We try to encourage students to think differently — to recognize that making friends, feeling like you belong, and being comfortable in a new environment takes time no matter where you live and who you live with.

Students also often feel that talking to family or friends in their home country will make them feel better. We find that usually the opposite is true. We work with students to get them to spend less time communicating with friends and family back home. If you are spending a lot of time on your smartphone or laptop with friends and family back home — think about cutting that time down. The more time you spend talking to people you know back home, the more you are thinking about what is going on back home — and the less time you are spending getting used to your life in your host country.girl on laptop and phone

The key advice to succeed, in our opinion, is becoming involved and truly part of your host culture. The above examples are ways to do that. Students might be able to think of more ways based on their own personal interests, and host parents might have ideas, too. Hang in there!

Photo credits: Abigail Keenan and Steinar La Engeland

When the Teenage Brain Attacks

Impacts on a Student’s Exchange Year

An exchange student in the Portland metro area was sent home this past weekend, two months early.

What did he do? The student’s host sister found him smoking a marijuana joint in the host family home. The host parents found the joint where he had left it sitting on the roof outside his bedroom window. Once they began to look, they found a half-dozen others in other easy-to-find locations around the home. Thirty-six hours later, he was on a plane.

It sounds simple on the face of it, doesn’t it? A 17 year old uses an illegal drug. The rule is zero tolerance. End of story.

Simple…yes. But there’s a host family who do miss a student they cared about. There is a young person who has lost the opportunity to finish his exchange year, and he may well not receive credit for this school year. His decision to experiment could have long-term implications.

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 students make bad decisions. These bad decisions are ones that any teen could make. A fellow student comes up to you at school and asks if you want to buy a small amount of pot. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about trying it, as many teens do. Perhaps you happen to have cash in your pocket that day. Perhaps the seller, sensing the possibility of a buy, offers you a discount.

Perhaps you just don’t think about what might happen next.

Our students and our teenage children want trust. They feel confident. They believe they are capable of making good decisions. Many of us have personal experience with teenagers who do make smart decisions. There is danger, however, in relying on that experience and concluding that teens can consistently make good decisions. Research shows that the teenage brain is a work in progress. On the one hand, teens understand right from wrong and are beginning to grasp moral complexities. They generally know what the law says on important issues. They know that X is the right thing to do in a particular circumstance and that Y is the wrong thing. Yet sometimes they make decisions that flabbergast adults. As Cory Turner notes in the quote below, the teenage  brain is in constant conflict between rational thinking and irrational behavior:

“When adolescents are playing this [car driving scientific experiment] game by themselves, they don’t take any more chances than adults do when they’re playing it by themselves,” Steinberg says.

And that’s a big deal. Because the adolescent brain gets a bad rep for being consistently impulsive. ….Being 12 (or 17) doesn’t mean a kid’s hard-wired to always make bad choices.

Why, then, do adolescents still make so many bad choices? To find out, Steinberg added a twist to his experiment.

He gave his subjects an adolescent crowd.

“This doubles the number of chances that adolescents take,” Steinberg says, “but has no effect on the number of chances adults take.”

–Cory Turner, The Teenage Brain: Spock Vs. Captain Kirk (NPR, March 11, 2015)

Teenagers often just don’t think about the consequences, especially when they are with other teens.

The teens we work with are exchange students. They are in this country with permission from the U.S. Department of State. They know they are required to obey the law. Their programs tell them before they leave their home country that drugs and alcohol are to be avoided at all costs. The programs warn them when they arrive. Coordinators and local program representatives remind the students during the year. We work hard to get the rational part of the brain to dominate teens’ behavior, at least on these critical topics.

Inevitably, someone does not listen.

We can deal with many of the bad choices our students might make — at least, the ordinary ones. Does a student rebel at curfews? We can address that. Does a student constantly forget to take out the trash? We can address that. We can understand the lack of full development in our teens’ brains. We can understand and sympathize with the influence of group thinking. Yet that doesn’t mean there is no individual responsibility. That’s part of what teaching, mentoring, and advising teens is all about.

“Want to buy some pot, I’ve got some right here?” The answer needs to be “no” for all teenagers. Perhaps this is especially true for students studying abroad who face the extreme consequences of losing their exchange year and in some cases, who will also face legal consequences in a foreign country.

Is Instantaneous Communication a Good Thing for Cultural Immersion?

We had a meeting a few days ago with one of our students and her host parents to talk about concerns the host parents had expressed about behavior. The student had also expressed frustrations. We learned that the student was spending so much time online with friends and family back home that she has not really integrated into her host family or community. If she has a question, she asks someone back home. When she is upset or anxious, she confides in someone back home. Whenever she just wants to chat about life, she talks to someone back home. She texts or talks to friends back home first thing in the morning before she leaves for school, and she texts them during the day.

This isn’t unusual in our experience, and we don’t intend to single out this student for any particular reason other than it’s just the latest example. We’ve written about technology concerns before — close to two years ago. We thought it is a subject that is worth reviewing again for our readers. We all assume that advances in technology are positive and talk excitedly about how we can do things that were not possible just a few years ago. But are new capabilities always an “advance”?

This week, we have published an updated version of the original blog post on BlogHer, a blogging platform, research hub, and social media publisher. Host families, students, and parents back home can all benefit from reviewing the pros and cons of having so much technology and instantaneous communication at our fingertips.

You can read our new post here: Technology is the Best Thing to Ever Happen to High School Exchange … or is it?

We welcome your comments and thoughts!

Young man with computer and phont Alejandro Escamilla

Scaring Exchange Students Straight

“Scared straight” programs were encouraged in the U.S. in the 1970s as a way of deterring juvenile crime. The idea was to show kids what prison looks like, and maybe they’ll decide “that’s not where I want to be.”

Taking high school exchange students to visit your local prison probably doesn’t serve much purpose. But there certainly are exchange students who need to be “scared straight.” We had such a student in our home for about two weeks over Thanksgiving. We’re not really following the “scared straight” model, not literally; hopefully, we come across “nicer” than that. But we do focus on giving the teens advice, a lot of it compacted into a short period of time.

In this case, the student was in the midst of the first part of a move – namely being asked to leave her initial host family. There are many reasons why a student might need to be moved. While not a precise figure, perhaps 15-20% of exchange students move during their year. Host parents lose a job, a host parent becomes ill, the students develops allergies to a host families’ pets. Sometimes, the “match” just doesn’t work, and the students doesn’t fit into the host family’s lifestyle. Sometimes miscommunications snowball from small things into bigger things, to the point where trying to fix it doesn’t make sense.

In the case of our Thanksgiving student, several factors contributed: miscommunications, poor language skills, a student’s “slowness” to adapt to local and family lifestyles, and student expectations that were not reasonable. The student’s expectation that it was the host family’s job to make the exchange year a success contributed to the problem. The host family tried to encourage the student, and the student tried to adapt. But she came from a city, and had difficulty adapting to a small town of 6,000 and a high school of 700 students.

Eventually, the host family reached their limit, and asked their local coordinator to come get the student. Because the local coordinators were already hosting a student from the same country, they could not legally have the student living in their home. So she came to us, shortly before Thanksgiving.

We’re not always popular with the 30+ students for whom we’re ultimately responsible. We’re the “boss.” We’re the ones who call you when you are in trouble. We’re the ones the kids don’t want to talk to.

We’re the ones who can, hopefully, help keep you from being sent home early.

What happened in the two weeks we shared our home with this teenage miscreant? Well, we think we scared her straight. She’s now in a new family, and seems to be doing very well. Fingers crossed.

In addition to the many students we’ve hosted for a full year, we have had many students come through our home for one week, two weeks, a month, or two months, while we or others look for a new host family. We teach these kids how to adapt, how to adjust, how to be a good ambassador of the exchange program and their country. We explain what they can do to change their behavior, and we are direct and honest in what they should not do in interacting with their host family. We help them see what they did wrong, if that is why they lost their host family. We show compassion. We repeat, again and again, the things they should do to be an exemplary exchange student – to be an “ambassador” of their country.

How does this translate into practical terms? It means we’re constantly talking; indeed, we have a reputation for talking all the time. We talk about everything and anything, ranging from small talk to big issues. It means we talk about table manners. We insist on “please” and “thank you.” It means, if a student is on his smartphone while we’re all watching TV, gently saying “please turn it off.” If the student says he is texting with his mom or a friend, we smile and repeat that there are times to talk to friends and mom – and there are times to focus on your host family. It means that we explain that if you go out, you ask first. You tell us where you are going, and you text to say when you will be back, because we’re “training” you for what to expect from an American host family. It means we expect you to help set the table, fill the dishwasher, and to do your own laundry (and to first ask how to do that).

It means we expect our students – and while they are with us, they are “our” students – to be at their best. The hope is, that the practice will become the reality in a new host family

In this case, we started out facing negativity. “I don’t like being in such a small town,” and “The people at my school are not friendly,” and “I don’t know why my host family asked me to move, I didn’t do anything wrong.” “No one likes me,” and “it’s a boring place.”

Two weeks later, our “miscreant” is in a new family. By the time we moved her, she was asking questions like: “when can I move? I want to get back to school!” and “have they finished the paperwork yet? How long will it take?” She was smiling a lot, and made jokes.

Success happens. But it takes effort. That’s what we do — or try to do, at least. The hoped-for happiness of the new placement is balanced by the sadness of the first host family. Due to no fault of their own, they lost a student, with whom they had hoped to have a long-term relationship. Moreover, we don’t enjoy being the “bad guy.” But hopefully we’ve saved the exchange year for the student, and avoided an early trip home. If so, we’ve done our job.

Photo credit: Joshua Earle