Sports as a Tool For International Youth Exchange

high school lacrosse players

Sports can be another great way to bridge gaps across cultures and to get people who may think they have nothing in common to start talking. So it is not a surprise that there are organizations around the world that do their best to bring young people from different countries together to meet over their favorite sport. The question arises, though, whether these organizations offer what you personally need from an exchange.

We sometimes get questions from people interested in working with exchange students through the medium of sports. In one case, an organization in Brazil contacted us, looking to find a way to send promising teen and pre-teen soccer athletes to the U.S. as exchange students to learn about the U.S. and to have an opportunity to play competitive soccer during a school year in the U.S. In another case, a small U.S. non-profit was hoping that exchange students from another country could participate in the organization’s program while studying here in the U.S. and obtain competitive level basketball training, with the possibility of being recruited for college-level play.

We also sometimes hear from parents. One email was from a father in Greece who had visited friends in Florida with his family. The friends offered to host his son so that he could go to high school in Florida and play varsity basketball at their school, and the father wanted advice on how to make that happen. Another email we received recently was from a parent in Germany. She wanted to make sure that her son would be able to play competitive soccer during his exchange year in the U.S. Should she just tell the exchange organization she wanted to go through? Should she herself search online for a family who had a teen who plays soccer, she wondered, or perhaps she should get in touch directly with high schools that have high-level soccer programs and then contact a sponsoring organization?

Great ideas. The devil, as always, is in the details. The answer we had to give these people was essentially that they could not do what they wanted to do.

What’s the Problem?

There is a great deal of concern in the U.S. about students “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons. That concern crosses over into the exchange student world, and it’s against U.S. government regulations to place an exchange student in a school specifically for the purpose of playing a particular sport. In fact, when a family finds its own host family for their student (what we call “direct placements”), those students generally cannot play sports at their school unless they get a waiver from the local high school athletics association certifying that the student was not placed at that school for sports reasons.

Many exchange students do engage in sports at their school or in their town. But there are no guarantees. An exchange student may not be able to qualify for a school team, particularly if the team is competitive; exchange students often have to try out for a team like everyone else. Some U.S. states limit exchange students to less competitive teams, keeping varsity team spots for American students who may be using their sports experience for a longer term purpose (such as trying to get a college scholarship, for example).

If an exchange student doesn’t qualify or can’t play varsity, or if he or she isn’t able to play on junior varsity for any reason, there often are local city leagues, recreational clubs, or even possibly a competitive club in the student’s desired sport. These options would be outside the school day, and would be at additional cost to the student and his or her family. It’s also important to note that these opportunities may or may not be at the competitive level the student is seeking.

What about the option of coming to the U.S. on an F-1 visa instead of a J-1 visa, since F-1 visa students apply directly to a school? We’ve been asked this question; parents have contacted us thinking that this is a way to make sure their child can play the sport of his or choice. However, because F-1 students choose the school they will attend, they generally are unable to play school sports. The concern about “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons still applies.

Are There Options?

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Sports Diplomacy Division focuses on sports-related exchanges. These are short-term exchanges and are not intended as academic programs, so these programs are not a solution, for example, for semester or year-long exchange students. The Division’s projects include:

  • Sports Envoy Program: Sports Envoys are athletes or coaches who lead overseas sports programs on behalf of the U.S. They hold sports clinics, take part in community outreach, and engage youth in dialogues on the importance of leadership and respect for diversity. Read, for example, about Neftalie Williams, who has used his love of skateboarding and his participation in the U.S. Sports Envoy program to bring skateboarding to Syrian refugees in the Netherlands and to Cambodian youth as a representative of the U.S. government.
  • Sports Visitor Program: A short-term program for young people to come to the U.S. for a two-week intensive sports-based exchange.

Other programs managed by the Division include the Global Sports Mentoring Program for women, the Sports and Sustainability Initiative, and the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange.


The bottom line is that if you are primarily interested in playing a particular sport at a competitive level, high school exchange programs are probably not the right vehicle for your student. But if you are primarily interested in the exchange experience — cultural and language immersion, growth in self-confidence, learning how to deal with new situations — then high school exchange may be the right answer, regardless of whether you can play a particular sport at a competitive level during the exchange. While on exchange, we always encourage students to take advantage of opportunities to engage in high school sports or other non-academic activities; it’s a great way to get to know other students at your school, and it can be a lot of fun. The experience is worthwhile!

It‘s hard to reach out to people of different cultures when you feel you have nothing in common. But bring out a soccer ball to a field, and kids who do not speak the same language will flock to it and play together without understanding a single word the other child says. As adults, the effects are the same. You don’t need a common language to forge friendships, just a shared love for a sport and respect for one another.

 –League Network, 6 Ways That a Shared Love for Sports Can Bring Cultures Together, February 2017.


Should I or Shouldn’t I: Why Should I Tell the Exchange Program Anything This Personal?

Students’ families back home clearly make some decisions about what to disclose when they fill out their applications for an exchange year in the U.S. In theory, anything relevant — personal interests, family situations, allergies, and medical issues — should be disclosed through the application and interview process. The exchange world is full of stories, however, about students who have showed up for their exchange with illnesses, allergies,  or difficult personal situations not mentioned in the student’s application.

Some undisclosed issues turn out to be relatively minor, and host families are able to adjust to them. Other issues, however, are more significant and can have a significant impact on a student’s life in his or her host family. At the very least, the discovery can create problems for  the student with the host family right at the beginning of the exchange when the relationship has just begun to develop. If a student is willing to hide the truth about a medical condition for which she has previously received treatment, hasn’t mentioned that he really cannot live with cats, or doesn’t disclose on the application his parents’ recent separation, will he not be able to be honest about other things? Some issues could affect whether this particular placement is the best situation for the student and the family. Some issues can result in a student becoming seriously ill while on the exchange or cause a student to have significant emotional distress that could have been avoided if dealt with in advance.

diabetes-528678_640We’ve had students show up with undisclosed allergies (“I need to get an allergy shot every month and the first one needs to be in a week!”). We’ve had students arrive right when parents are in the middle of a messy divorce. One student had been assaulted by a close relative shortly before coming to the U.S. and had not told anyone. Another student was treated for anorexia a few months before traveling to the U.S.; the student became seriously ill during her exchange and came very close to being hospitalized. We had a student in our own home who had serious emotional issues; his parents had sent him to the U.S. “to grow up.” These issues are not relevant only to high school international students, and we’re not trying to suggest it’s a majority (or even a significant minority) of students. But it does happen. When it does, it affects that student, that student’s host family, and that student’s circle of friends and community.

The issue of disclosure and the fear of how it could affect a student’s dream of going abroad is not limited to students. Host families, too, need to think about the impact of not disclosing key pieces of information during the screening process. They, too, fill out an application and have an interview. They, too are asked to self-disclose. They, too, sometimes fear that sharing certain types of personal information will affect their ability to be part of the exchange experience.

We explain it during the application process as an issue of family dynamics. It’s important for the exchange organization to know, for example, if a family has a complex joint custody situation — if the student will have host brothers one week and the next he’ll be by himself with his host parents, that affects daily life. It’s important for the organization to know if a host parent has a medical condition, such as multiple sclerosis or diabetes, both in terms of placing a student who would be appropriate and in understanding family dynamics (e.g., that’s why host dad doesn’t go on all the family hikes).

It’s equally important for the exchange program to hear about these kinds of issues as they develop later on, either before or after your student arrives. Have you received a diagnosis of cancer two months after your student has joined the family? You need to talk about this with your program representative. Is it an automatic “move the student”? Not necessarily; each case is different. When a host mother told us this diagnosis a few years ago, we talked to everyone involved: her, her husband, the student, and the student’s parents back home. He stayed in his host family. It was the right decision for him and for them — but it might not have been the right decision for another teenager and another family.

Did you learn over the summer, weeks before your student is scheduled to arrive, that you and your wife are expecting twins? Let’s talk about it; maybe it’s still OK for you to host this year, but maybe it’s not good timing. Have you learned that the strange symptoms you are experiencing are not just exhaustion but the sign of a previously unknown medical condition? Tell your coordinator. Maybe you’re still in a position to host your student. Maybe you should wait. But talk about it. Have you received a promotion at work that will require you to work additional hours? Tell the program.

friends with arms around each otherOn both sides of this equation – students/families, and host families – people are weighing the risks of disclosing or not. We know it’s difficult — we’re asking people to tell strangers personal details about their family life. But in the end, we’re working to help build relationships. Those relationships cannot be built on hiding the ball; if they’re to succeed, communication from the beginning is key.

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Direct Placements for Exchange Students: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

myths and facts - featured imageWe sometimes receive emails from parents asking us how they can find a host family for their child for his or her exchange year. We also sometimes hear from people who are seeking a host family in their area for a family friend or a niece or nephew. Direct placements such as these seem to be more popular with J-1 students than in the past, although statistics are hard to come by to prove one way or the other.

There are logical reasons for trying to arrange a placement ahead of time. Parents naturally worry about sending their child to a strange country for six months or a year, and feel that their child will be safer with someone they know. The student may prefer a particular region in the host country, perhaps because they have family or friends nearby.

A student and his or her family – and the potential host family – should consider a number of factors before jumping in and saying “this is the best idea ever!” For some situations, it might be an excellent choice. For others, it might lead to difficulties for all concerned.

What are the requirements for direct placements for J-1 visa students?

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There are always rules to follow!

In the U.S., finding your own host family does not change the U.S. Department of State requirements for screening students and families. Keep in mind the following:

  • The student must be at least 15 and no more than 18½ years old when he or she starts school in the U.S.
  • Students may not be hosted by a relative, no matter how distant the family relationship.
  • English must be the primary language spoken in the host family’s home, even if they are friends of the student’s family.
  • Parents should not choose a host family based on a desire to have their child attend a particular school for athletic reasons.
  • Students may not have previously come to the U.S. on a J-1 visa; the J-1 visa is a one-year opportunity.
  • A high school in the host family’s area must agree to accept the student; for J-1 visa students, the exchange program arranges for enrollment, not the student or the host family. A school is not required to accept an exchange student. Some schools do not accept 15-year-old exchange students. Some schools may have limits on how many students they accept from a given country, and most schools have limits on how many exchange students they accept each year.
  • The host family must go through the required screening process and be approved by the exchange program. Even if the student’s family knows the host family well, the family must submit an application, provide references, agree to an interview in the home, and show that the home is clean and safe. Adults must undergo a criminal background check and all members of the host family should be in favor of hosting.

Advantages to student and family

The primary advantage of a direct placement is the knowledge early on of where a student will be placed. Waiting for placement information makes people anxious, understandably so given the physical distances and cultural differences involved. From a parent’s point of view, knowing the people your child will live with reduces worry and fear. Parents may also feel it will give them more input into their child’s development during the exchange and more knowledge about their child’s daily life.

Disadvantages to student and family

The advantages of knowing where a student is going and who the student will live with are real. We all agree, and J-1 exchange programs work hard to place students as early as possible before students arrive. Many parents feel that trusting the exchange programs to make a match for their child is a huge gamble. Finding one’s own host family, however, also carries risks.

* “Fit” in the host family: Knowing your host family is not an automatic advantage. Friends may not have similar backgrounds. An example from our own experience: a student’s mother and host father knew each other from university days. Religion was an important part of the U.S. host family’s life, but was not a key element of the German family’s life. The student was uncomfortable, but felt caught between her host family and her parents. The conflict could have had long-term negative impacts on the two families’ relationship; it certainly caused short-term distress to everyone involved. Eventually, we were able to convince the host family and the student’s parents that moving her to a new family – even one they did not know ahead of time – would ensure a better experience for the student.

* “Distancing” from family back home: Parents may feel that knowing the host family will help them to have input into their child’s life abroad. This may be true – but it is not necessarily a good result. Students do better when they are totally immersed into their host culture and community, including in the host family itself. It can be disruptive to both the student and the host family if parents back home are saying “this is how we do it.” The student’s parents may not intend to interfere, but rather may simply feel they are helping by telling the host family the rules their son or daughter is used to following. Quite often, however, the result is that the host family feels their student’s family is telling them how to manage their family’s life.

* Inability to play on a school sports team: In the U.S., many U.S. states prohibit direct placement students from playing sports on school teams. Athletics have become “big business” in the U.S.; families will move to a specific town so that their child can attend that school specifically for sports reasons. Thus, state athletic associations often place limits on the ability to play a sport on students moving into an area, including exchange students. There may be exceptions if an exchange program matches a student with a local family through the usual anonymous process. Waivers may be possible for direct placement students, but generally cannot be arranged ahead of time.

What’s the Answer?

So many directions from which to choose
So many directions from which to choose

Parents have legitimate reasons to want to know as much as possible about where their child will end up. We simply recommend that you think carefully before making a decision that the only solution is to find a host family ahead of time. Other options include carefully researching the exchange organization you choose to work with. Researching the geographic area where your child ends up also helps parents and student feel more comfortable. Finally, when you do receive notice from your exchange organization about your child’s placement, take time to reach out and start the “getting to know you” process. It is possible to become familiar with a region and with your child’s host family even if you do not know them previously.

What about you? Are you a host parent who hosted a student who was a friend of the family, or you knew the older brother or sister who had done an exchange? Are you a parent who is nervous about sending your child on an exchange unless you know the host family? Are you a student whose exchange experience was with someone you knew? Tell us your experiences!

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