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

 

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

Host Family Tips: How Can I Help My New Exchange Student in The First Few Weeks?

airplane with welcome words

Bringing a student into the home is not an automatic “we will live happily ever after” situation. It requires work and time to build a good relationship. It amazes us every year to see the lengths that families go to welcome their students: taking them on excursions around the community, showing them the local high school, and just spending time with them. Even with such enthusiasm, however, it can be helpful to think a bit about how to direct your efforts.

Here are some of our basic recommendations.

Exhaustion

Your student may not be up for a major tour of the city when you pick him or her up. She may have just come from her home country, or she may have spent several days at an exchange program’s post-arrival orientation. Either way, she won’t have slept much. Food is generally appreciated; you might want to stop at a favorite eating spot on the way home or make sure to have something tasty ready at home.

camouflage-1297384_640Even if your student seems alert and says he/she is not tired, the change in time zones will cause fatigue and confusion in ways the student may not realize, and not just the first day or two after arrival. Listening and talking in a foreign language is physically exhausting, too. Don’t be surprised if your student wants to take naps for awhile even if she has had a full night’s sleep; this can continue for several weeks.

If you are thinking about inviting family friends and neighbors to a welcome party, you might want to wait a few days. You might think a party is a great idea, and the extended family may be excited about meeting your new family member. We’ve found, however, that meeting all those new people — with their many different voices speaking English in many different ways — can be overwhelming to teens struggling to stay on their feet and desperately trying to understand what is going on around them.

Confusion and Hesitation

It’s normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. Many students arrive thinking they will not have adjustment difficulties. They think they know the US from having been here on a vacation, perhaps, or from watching so many TV shows and movies. They arrive … and suddenly they realize that streets are different, stories are different, houses are different, and the way people walk and talk are different. They panic, sometimes consciously but sometimes at a deeper level.

Let your student know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that you can help them. Encourage your student to talk about how he or she is feeling. Try to get them involved in something to keep busy: read a book, watch movies or TV shows in English to work on language, talk walks to get used to the neighborhood, go to the mall. Ask your local contact if it’s possible for your student and others in the program to get together.

Language

Students must have a reasonable command of English in order to be eligible to be an exchange student. That doesn’t mean they are fluent.

Students in the beginning will likely understand anywhere from 70–80% of what you and others say. It’s the 20-30% they don’t understand that causes miscommunication and results in host families and students complaining about each other. Your student may nod at everything you say, either because he is sure he understands (and he probably really believes he has understood the important parts) or because he doesn’t have a clue but is too polite to say so. Speak slowly, be careful about using slang or idioms, and be prepared to repeat yourself on the same subject several times. Your student’s brain is literally working full-time trying to translate. Feel free to ask your student to restate a key point back to you to make sure it got through.

Start Conversations

Host families often tell us in the beginning of the year that they think their student is quieter than he or she comes across in the student’s application. The same students will tell us they are too nervous to talk and so remain quiet. Don’t assume that the quiet hesitant student you may see the first few days is the “real” person.

You can help your student to start talking. Have you heard of a conversation jar? Put possible conversation topics onto strips of paper and put the topics into a jar. In the evenings at dinner, pull one out at random and make everyone say something about the topic. You can easily find conversation jar lists online (sample lists here and here), or come up with your own! Another idea is to ask your student to come to the dinner table prepared to talk about a “story of the day” from the news.

Start Small

Take your student on errands. Things that may not feel like a major excursion for you — or a fun one — will be new for your student. Grocery shopping can be an event in itself. See if your community has a store specializing in products from your student’s home country; perhaps you can buy ingredients to make his favorite meal and learn something about your student’s culture and cuisine at the same time.

Show your student around the house and begin to explain how things “work” in your family. Does he have laundry yet? Talk about the washer and dryer. When do you want him to change the sheets on his bed? Explain where you keep the sheets and where to put dirty ones. If your student goes for a walk or takes the bus into town while you are work, do you expect her to tell you ahead of time? Explain, and tell her why it’s important.

ice-cream-1101396_640Take a walk with your student around the neighborhood and show him key spots and interesting places. Is there a park nearby, and is it OK if she goes for a walk or run on her own through the park? How far is the grocery store — can she walk there? Do you have an extra bike she can ride (with a bike helmet)? Show her the way. Where are the post office and the library? For teens, snacks and “hangouts” are important; show them where to get ice cream or frozen yogurt, if you have a good place nearby.

In short, think about what you might want to know in a brand-new place, and try not to make assumptions about your student’s personality or what he or she knows or understands. Watch her, listen to her, and get her involved at school. Talk about conflicts early. Following these recommendations now can help you set the tone for the whole year.

Is Culture Shock A Good Thing?

We’ve written before (see here and here, for example) about the impacts of culture shock as our students arrive on our shores thinking exchange student life will be easy and then realizing — rather suddenly — that life is harder than they thought. We’ve also shared thoughts (see here and here) on what it’s like when our students return home.

We recently came across the infographic below, which argues that we should not only anticipate culture shock, we should embrace it. We agree! Culture shock isn’t a bad thing or a good thing. It’s a neutral term, used to describe how people feel when they arrive in a place far different from the place they are used to. “Shock” probably isn’t the best word to use, since it implies something negative has happened. The experience is more “culture engagement” than “culture shock,” whether we’re talking about landing in a foreign place for the first time or returning home feeling like a stranger.

world connected
Becoming connected is a process that takes time and effort

As the infographic notes, this transition experience is “entirely normal, usually unavoidable, and is nothing to feel embarrassed about.” Embrace the differences you see and keep yourself busy as you get used to new things. Think about the idea that the confusion and anxiety starts even before you leave home; we reported a few weeks ago about students who were already nervous about their new host family and whether they would be able to adjust to their new life.

What can students and host families do?

Communicate (with each other!).

  • words share your storyStudents: Of course, you will want to communicate with your family back home. But think about the connections you are trying to make here in your host country. Start conversations with your host parents and host siblings. If you won’t have any host siblings, ask if there are ways to meet people of your own age before school starts.
  • Families: Help your student to get to know you and to open up by starting conversations. Conversations can be on issues as small as “what’s your normal dinner time? Let’s compare!” to political issues of the day. Want some conversation starter ideas? Find some suggestions here and here.

Do something with each other to help get past the initial awkwardness.

  • Students: Offer to cook some meals from your home country. Ask your mom or dad for a recipe. Ask your host sister/brother, host mom/dad if they can help. They will probably be excited about the idea of cooking something new. Go anywhere and everywhere you can with your host family. If your host parents ask if you want to run errands with them, say yes even if it doesn’t sound exciting — it might be more interesting than you think, since it will be new to you. Watch TV with them, even if you’ve never watched that show before or have some trouble understanding new voices.
  • Families: Do all of the above in reverse! Have a meal or two based on recipes from your student’s home country. Take your student grocery shopping and on other errands. Explain the plot of your favorite TV show when everyone sits down to watch. Involve your student in as much as possible.

Stay busy.

As a new exchange student, think about getting involved in something in your host country — a sport, drama, music, art. Take walks. Go for a run. Offer to take the dog for a walk. Take the bus into the downtown area. Ask your coordinator if you can meet other students in your area. Families can help with all of this; show your student local walking trails or where it’s OK to go for a run. Show your student local public transit. Call other host families and arrange movie nights or excursions.

Embrace culture shock; it’s why you’re here!

why culture shock is a good thingThe original infographic can be found at ExpatChild.com. Photo credits Pixabay.com and Thinkstock.com.