We try to avoid making “political” comments here on The Exchange Mom blog, knowing that audiences involved in cultural exchange and international education come from all walks of life and all political persuasions. President Trump’s proposed budget, however, is so potentially game-changing that we feel compelled to speak up.
There are many impacts of the President’s budget proposal beyond international education and exchange. I’m not even going to go into what the proposed budget cuts would do to environmental programs and the environment. Let’s just stick with the one agency that we’re involved with in high school cultural exchange — the U.S. Department of State.
It would be a mistake to assume that other cultural exchange programs — even if they do not primarily rely on Department of State funding for students — would come through this with no significant impacts. If the relevant oversight offices at the Department of State are defunded, for example, what happens then? Can the cultural exchange programs exist without a partnership with the Department of State?
Less direct but just as important is the additional pressure that public schools may face in coming years. The new Administration has plans to implement voucher and other programs. If attendance at public schools decreases as a result of such programs, the public school system will be increasingly squeezed. Will they still be receptive to high school exchange students on J-1 visas, who do not pay tuition? Will they be able to afford those students?
It’s hard to know how this will all play out. We can all see, however, that the Trump Administration has made clear that these are its priorities. The Administration’s proposed budget reflects a “hard power” approach to the future, not the “soft power” approach generally attributed to diplomacy and the State Department, and which most cultural exchange programs clearly support.
“Educational and cultural exchange programs have been a critical component of our national security policy since the end of World War II. ….the State Department reports that 1 in 3 current world leaders have been on an exchange program in the United States. In another Department study, 92 percent of participants from Muslim majority countries reported having a more favorable view of the United States.”
Shutting down these programs in favor of buying more guns and bombs ultimately will prove both shortsighted and “penny wise, pound foolish.” We hope that the high school, college, and post-graduate exchange community will make this clear to congressional and other representatives.
An acquaintance asked me recently, “what is it like to host an exchange student if you don’t have any children in the home?” It’s a question we get sometimes. People worry that perhaps they are not qualified to be a host family if they don’t have children living at home.
What’s the answer? Well, it’s like any family that has one child in the home who happens to be a teenager. That’s the nutshell response.
The longer answer is that every family is different, and every host family is different. So hosting an exchange student is different for every family, regardless of whether you have teens in the home already, whether you have young children, whether you have adult children who no longer live in the home, or whether you have no children at all. If you are reading this blog post, I’m sure you can think of families you know who have one child in the home. Are all of those families alike? Of course not. Are they still a family, with one child? Of course they are.
For some people who don’t have children in the home, having an exchange student means having an excuse to travel around their region when they haven’t done that before (or at least haven’t done it in a while) and showing the area to their student. Another host family will host a student and maybe cannot travel much for a variety of reasons — and they and their student will still have a positive experience, learning about each others’ world. For some parents, having an exchange student when you don’t have children in the home is a way to learn what having a teenager is like. For others, it’s a way to keep liveliness in the home; perhaps their children are adults and the parents like having the energy of teens in the home. Other parents enjoy having their student to themselves and being able to have deep personal conversations that might not be possible with multiple children running around; many students find that having their host parents to themselves has benefits as well.
We’ve hosted over a dozen exchange students, starting when our children were in elementary school and continuing when they were in college and beyond. As a result, we’ve had students whose memories of our family is that of being the older teen with younger host siblings, students whose memories are that of having host siblings close to their own age, and students who remember a family with adult children who sometimes come to visit.
Our life with each exchange student was different every year — and our life was different from other host families in similar circumstances. One year with younger children, maybe we traveled quite a bit. The next year, maybe not. One year with no children in the home, we did lots of things as a family. Another year, our student would be very active at school and in the community. The dynamics, activities, and relationships differ for so many reasons — not just due to whether there are multiple children in the home.
Each family is unique, and your relationship with your student will be unique. Don’t host just because you do or do not have children in the home. Host because it opens up your world, teaches you about another culture, and helps you establish new relationships. Host because you want to share your home and your world.
We wanted to share a message we sent to the exchange students in our region this morning…
The U.S. presidential election is over. It’s been a wild ride, one that you have been privileged to witness — yes, privileged, no matter which candidate you were hoping would win. It has been one of the most contentious, divisive campaigns this country has seen…believe it or not, it’s not the most contentious or the most divisive election in our history. It has brought to the surface the “high’s” of living in a democracy, and, we’re sad to say, it also has brought out some “low’s.” You may live with a host family who are rejoicing this morning, or you may live with a host family who are worrying about the future. All of your host families, regardless of who they voted for, are citizens of this democracy.
It’s the future we want you to think about, as well as the present. Now, the next phase begins. This, too, is part of the “American experiment” — what happens after a major election, even when half the population voted for someone else? You are here to witness that. Over the next few months, you will see the peaceful transition of power to a completely different group of leaders; President Obama noted this morning in his address to the nation that “the peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks our democracy.”
You will see peaceful disagreement with the policies of those leaders. You will, no doubt, also see less-than-peaceful disagreements. As President Obama also noted, democracy can be “messy.” The divisiveness mentioned above is significant, and it’s serious. It means we have a lot of work to do, both here in the U.S. as the new Administration takes office — as well as abroad, with you, your families, and your home cultures. You are part of what it’s all about.
We encourage all our students to talk to their host families about the meaning of the U.S. election and the meaning of democracy, open political discussion, free speech, and civil disobedience. All of these issues are part of what we hope you are learning during your exchange. Talk to your local program coordinator. Talk to us, too. As you no doubt have learned, Americans love to talk about these issues. What’s most important after yesterday is that it we all must continue to talk about these issues, and more.
I wasn’t surprised. Well, yes, I was . . . I certainly had no idea that President Ghani ever lived in Oregon, much less that he had attended high school here. But I wasn’t surprised to hear that he had been an exchange student, or to hear that he thought it was a profound experience that fundamentally changed his life.
We know that immersion in another culture as a teen or young adult can have amazing long-term impacts – effects that the students themselves may not see for quite some time. Their parents see it when they return home after six or ten months as more confident, more independent, more “worldly” young adults. “He left as an insecure teenager and came home as a young man. How does that happen?” a parent told me a few years ago in wonder. We see it, as the host parents and as the program coordinators who compare the nervous teenagers we pick up at the airport with the self-assured ones we bring back to the airport 10-11 months later. We saw it in our own son, who spent six months in Ghana at the age of 18.
President Ghani has praised the opportunities he had at Lake Oswego High School almost 50 years ago. He credited his exchange student experiences as “opening his eyes to the power of citizenship.” He reflected on serving on the student council: “It was the first time I ever saw students entrusted to make decisions, to decide how money should be spent. And we were held accountable for our decisions.”
So keep an eye on that bright young teenager from Germany, Thailand, Australia, or Slovakia who has made friends with your son or daughter, plays on the school soccer team, or has a role in the school play. Watch the students from Brazil, South Korea, or Taiwan as their English improves during the school year. Listen to the ones in the school orchestra and the ones who participate in Model United Nations and the debate team. Admire their courage in stepping out into the unknown, and encourage your own children to do the same. Most of them won’t become president of their country, of course. But some might – after all, some certainly have. The rest will help change the world, one person at a time, in many other ways.
Labor Day weekend marks a transition – from Summer to Fall, and from Vacation to School. True, some schools in our area started a week or so earlier this year to add instruction days. But that’s a distinction without a difference. The beginning of the school year – the “real deal” – starts this week.
Teachers understand this – the feeling that it’s the same cycle starting over, and yet at the same time, it’s completely different. That’s part of why teachers return to their classroom at this time every year, starting the cycle again – it’s different. Each student is different, even if we can see teenager trends and generalities. Each group of students is different when they are together, even if they are a group of athletes that may tend to act a certain way or a group of student debaters that may tend to act a different way. The combinations are unique.
Perhaps that’s why we’re here each year, too. The new school year is perhaps also a good time to reflect on that.
I’m a local exchange program coordinator. My husband and I work with teenaged exchange students between the ages of 15-18 from other countries who come to the United States for one semester or a full academic year to live with an American family and go to high school here. We help find host families, “match” students to a family, and supervise/guide/mentor students and host families during the exchange year. We have also hosted students ourselves, having shared our home with more than a dozen students over the past 12 years.
I started this blog just over four years ago with vague notions of sharing with others our family’s experiences as a host family and Mark’s and my experiences as coordinators, and maybe getting a few ideas from others so we could do better in both categories. It’s far surpassed my expectations. We have received emails from host parents around the world who share a few thoughts, ask for advice, and let us know how their student is doing. We have heard from parents wondering how to help their child succeed on an exchange many miles from home. We have heard from teens asking for advice on how to talk to a host parent on sensitive issues as well as asking where they should go on exchange before they’ve made any decisions. There is a large community out there!
The emails and comments have added to the personal connections we have made with former students who have returned to their home countries, and sometimes their parents as well. We have been given tours of the city in Berlin by one of our German sons’ parents. Parents of students we supervised – students who didn’t even live with us, we just talked to or met with them every month – have offered us seven-course dinners at their restaurant, invited us to their home for family dinner, and sent us heartfelt thank-yous for helping their child develop into young adults.
It reminds us what it’s all about. The U.S. Department of State encourages international cultural exchanges as a means to improve relations between our country and others. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the goodwill and exposure to other cultures that exchange programs foster are “critical to meeting the challenges of today’s world,” and Secretary of State John Kerry has said that “international education creates life-long friendships between students and strengthens the bonds between nations.”
In a way, it’s even simpler. It’s making friends across borders, one person at a time. In a world where we continue to see destruction of cultural treasures, mass mistreatment of individuals for varied reasons, and a worldwide refugee disaster of massive proportions – perhaps continuing to take one step at a time, and helping to create change one person at a time, still has value.
Welcome to 2015-2016, another year in the world of high school exchange. We will continue to post on issues related to teen communications, cultural misunderstandings, the fun in sharing even small experiences, and offer tips on ideas for developing relationships that we hope will last far longer than the 5 or 10 months that the students live in the U.S. We hope you will continue to visit us here on the blog from time and time and share in the adventures. We welcome your thoughts and comments.
“I’m going to use my experiences and skills to help bring positive changes to Ghana my motherland, Africa my home, and the world as a whole.
Dear friend, what do you think you can also do to promote change?”
Emmanuel Kwabena Tetteh, August 2015
Emmanuel’s comments made me think about the old proverb about the boy and the starfish:
A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked, he could see a boy in the distance. As he drew nearer, he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water. Time and again, he kept hurling things into the ocean.
As the man approached, he could see that the boy was picking up starfish that had washed up on the beach and, one at a time, he was throwing them back into the water.
The man asked the boy what he was doing. The boy replied, “I am throwing these starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen.” The man said, “You can’t possibly save them all. There are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can’t make a difference.”
The boy looked down, frowning for a moment. Then he bent down to pick up another starfish, smiling as he threw it back into the sea. He replied,
“I made a huge difference to that one.”
You can follow Emmanuel’s path — and be an element of change, one person at a time. Participate in cultural exchange. Study abroad yourself, to learn about others; in so doing, you will learn about yourself. Do some extensive traveling, which could include travel in your own country but in a different “cultural” setting from anything you’ve experienced before. Connect with people along the way. Host an exchange student — make a difference to that one person.
Emmanuel was born and raised in Ghana. He is currently studying medicine at the Volgograd State Medical University in Russia. Read Emmanuel’s blog post to hear his story: Beautiful Green and White Balloons.
As I write this, the exchange students in our group in northwest Oregon and southern Washington are preparing to return home; most are leaving next week, with a few the following week. Two will remain for the summer – more on that in a moment. I have watched teenagers who arrived anxious, nervous, and afraid to speak in English grow into confident young adults who can talk a mile-a-minute and squabble with their host siblings as if they had done it for years. They are more mature, have gained independence, and have a whole different understanding of the world.
The year has not always been easy; it would be foolish to promise students or host families that bringing someone new into the family is always going to be a walk in the park. For some, the transition was not difficult. They jumped right in, found a niche in a sport or program at school, and became close to their host family with little outside guidance.
Many students faced bumps along the way. These bumps are the normal bumps of life, perhaps compounded by cultural issues and the challenges of living in a strange home and culture. Some students had a hard time adjusting to life without the family and friends they had left behind. Some families struggled with issues that happen to families everywhere: difficulties between teens and parents, changes and stresses at a parent’s workplace. Their students lived through those issues with them, and learned something from these “ordinary” stresses that they will take home with them. There were some painful times; a few students changed host families (an occurrence that more often than not, does not mean that either the host family or student did something “bad” – more likely than not, small miscommunications became big ones, and eventually too big to solve).
Some personal pride
Most students consider their year here a success, even with the occasional bumps. (We hope that even the students who are feeling negative about their experience will see, with time, what they have gained.) As with every year, we include many things among our students’ successes, ranging from those who fit right in, to those who faced significant challenges, to those who have won awards or other achievements. A very small sampling:
* From a student who fit right in, and had the additional experience of having another exchange student in her host family so she had to get used to two sets of cultural differences that were not her own Dutch experience:
Roughly 9 months ago the greatest adventure of my life started! I learned a lot, made some great memories and found my second family, who I will love forever! …. I’ll see you in 10 months again!
* From an Italian student whose first host family experience was less than successful, and who we moved in the Fall:
“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….”
* Two of the students in our Oregon group have been chosen by the exchange program to serve as “ambassadors” to the new students coming to the U.S. this summer. They will remain here through the summer, heading to the East Coast in mid-July to start their camp counseling experience. The selection process is competitive, and we do have a note of personal pride that two students from our group are among the 25 selected from across the country. (In the interests of full disclosure: one of these two is our own student, so there is a bit of the “proud parent” thing …)
But at the same time that we say goodbye, we say hello.
It’s a strange time of year because while we are calling or seeing all our students to say goodbye, we are also still scrambling to find host families for incoming students. Under Department of State regulations for J-1 visa exchange students, exchange programs cannot make flight arrangements or finalize travel documentation for students until both a host family and a school slot are confirmed, with all necessary paperwork complete. At this time of year, that can be a challenge, with school officials focusing on end of year needs and closing up for the summer, and potential families themselves looking forward to vacations rather than thinking about the start of the next school year.
As part of that process, we help new host families get ready for their students arriving in August. That “help” can mean different things to different families:
Answering questions about how to register a student for classes or how to sign up for a sports team.
Trying to make sure students obtain all state-required vaccinations before they arrive, since the students’ insurance generally does not cover immunizations and it can be expensive to get shots here.
Helping to arrange permission ahead of time from a student’s family in the home country, as well as obtaining necessary documents, so that a student can travel with his or her host family to Canada within a few days after the student arrives.
Offering to pick up a student at the airport in August, because the host family will be out of town on the scheduled date.
Being “on call” for students whose flights may be delayed or canceled, and being available in the event an emergency pickup is needed late at night to keep a student overnight until a flight the next day.
And more . . .
A few weeks ago, we were wracking our brains on how we could get a bed to a new host family quickly so they could be “legal” and we could complete the paperwork. Almost as if she had heard us talking about it, a former host mom across town contacted me asking “I don’t suppose you would have need of a bed, would you?” She had bought the bed for her German exchange student several years ago, and had realized she really had no further need for it.
We mentioned this to some of our coordinator colleagues in the program, and the response told us that many of them have done the same — including one person who delivered a set of bunk beds a couple of years ago!
So we say goodbye – or “see you later” – to our Class of 2015. It’s bittersweet in many ways, and we know we will not see many of these young people again. But we’re connected now, and look forward to hearing from them – and seeing some of them – as they continue to grow into global citizens. And now we say hello and welcome to the Class of 2016.