Just A Thought on Why We’re Here on This Blog

Sometimes we write more often, sometimes we write less often. I know according to the “rules” for blogs, one of us should be writing something every week. We don’t follow that “rule”; we write when we think we have something to say — sometimes several times/month, sometimes less often. Sometimes we write something major, and sometimes we share an article or graphic we think useful. Sometimes it’s something small.

I don’t exactly where my thoughts today fall in that spectrum. This isn’t a long detailed analytical post, true. But there are some serious issues beneath my thinking. Today, I’ve been thinking about why families choose to host. I’m thinking about it because it’s that time of year when the various exchange organizations are focusing on matching students to host families and submitting student applications to local U.S. high schools for approval for the coming academic year. We’ve got a few students “assigned” to our group for whom we’re responsible for finding host families, and I’ve been working on that today.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion both within and outside the international education field about the future of international youth exchange in this country. I’m not going there today — anyone following this blog will know we’re in favor of more international exchange, not less. And that’s the point of my thoughts today.

For those who can’t do much international traveling – and for those who can as well – hosting an international student in your home is a way to become a little familiar with another culture. Hosting isn’t just about the teenager or young adult having an adventure. It’s about learning the differences in how people around the world communicate. It’s about making a large, impersonal world a smaller, more connected place. It’s about our future.

old fashioned globe partial viewContact us at info@exchangemom.com or read through our blog archives to learn more about hosting. Do some research in your area and call a few exchange organizations operating in your region. Take the plunge, and host a student. Will you develop a long-lasting relationship? We hope so. What’s really important is that you will learn something. You’ll learn about communication, flexibility, adapting to another person, how other people think, and more.

I’m an Exchange Student Headed for the U.S. — What Do I Need to Know?

Students will sometimes ask us this question: what’s the most important thing to know about the United States?

To some extent, the answer to this question will differ depending on where in the U.S. a student ends up living and studying. The United States is a big country, and there are definite regional differences. This is one of the (many) things we want exchange students coming to the U.S. to learn — that we are not just one single group of people who are all the same just because we share a particular citizenship.

There are some general things, however, that students can keep in mind which will help them to adjust to life in their host family and host community.

Politeness in ordinary conversation

Saying “please” and “thank you,” especially to adults, is important. This can feel strange if you come from a culture or community where appreciation may be implied and you don’t have to say this often.

Directness and “honesty”

Americans consider themselves to be “direct.” There are different degrees of “directness,” however. The graphic below, created by Erin Meyer, a professor at the global business school INSEAD, shows cultural differences in two key categories — degree of “directness” or being “confrontational” in normal everyday life and degree of emotional expressiveness. (Her 2015 Harvard Business Review a­­rticle, Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da, is worth reading for anyone who deals with other cultures in either a personal or professional setting.)

culture map
©2015 Erin Meyer and Harvard Business Review

Here in the U.S., we tend to mix some of that directness with the ordinary everyday politeness mentioned above; according to Erin Meyer, the U.S. is somewhere towards the middle of the different characteristics. We’ve heard students from expressive and “talkative” cultures say that Americans get to the point too quickly; we’ve also had students from “direct” cultures tell us that Americans never get to the point at all! This combination can be confusing to students from other cultures as they try to figure out what, exactly, does someone mean when they say something.

Here’s an example (and a hint…). When your U.S. host mom or dad asks, “Could you take out the garbage?,” that generally means “take out the garbage” (and sooner rather than later!). Students who are used to a more direct culture often interpret this language as meaning they have a choice. In return, those students tend to speak in a way that may come across as demanding rather than requesting. Those students might announce, “I am going out to see friends,” rather than phrasing it as a question: “Would it be OK if I went out to see my friends?” The question format would be preferred in many U.S. homes.

Small talk and social conversation

Social conversations are those in which one talks about what’s going on in the community, what movie is showing at the local theater, which teacher is annoying and which one is just fun to have a class with, and even the weather. Many students find these conversations difficult. “Why does the cashier at the grocery store ask me how I am doing?” asked one of my Austrian students last year. “Why would she care how my day is going? She doesn’t know me and I don’t know her.”

School system differences

U.S. high schools are quite different from schools in many other countries. High school students in the U.S. change classrooms for every class. Students usually receive grades not only on exams at the end of the term, but also on in-between quizzes, class participation, and homework assignments that must be turned in. Some of this may also apply at the college level. At both the high school and college level, teachers are more approachable than in many countries (although that doesn’t mean you call them by their first name). Students ask teachers questions, visit teachers during office hours before or after school, and generally are encouraged to have a dialogue with teachers.

Sports, music, and art activities are a key element of school life

In U.S. schools, students become involved in many activities beyond traditional academics, activities that in many countries have no connection to the school system. Some U.S. states and schools may have limits on activities in which exchange students can participate. But if it’s possible, participating in a sport, music, or art activity at your school is an excellent way to become part of the school and host community.

Sports are also a part of everyday life. Almost everyone will have a favorite sports team. This could be a nearby professional team (football, soccer, baseball, basketball), or it might be a college team. Rivalries exist between neighboring high schools, college teams within the state, and with professional teams in nearby cities. Here in Oregon, for example, we have a long-standing rivalry between the yellow-and-green University of Oregon Ducks and the orange-and-black Oregon State University Beavers. You’re either one or the other. On days when the two teams play each other, neighborhoods come alive with team colors plastered in windows, on flags and banners, and on cars. We also are quite proud of our professional soccer team, the Portland Timbers, who, of course, are better than the Seattle Sounders. (Darn straight!)

UO and OSU ice cream
You can even get ice cream honoring your favorite team!

Wherever you are going, you will find “your” team — not just your new favorite sports team, but also your host family team, your school friends and teachers team, and your program’s support team. Enjoy the experience!

Will Study Abroad Make You Smarter?

I like infographics; they’re a different way of presenting information. Sometimes images and graphics help us remember data better. Many people find it to be a more efficient way to learn something. I thought readers of our blog might like this infographic that I came across the other day. Of course, who can resist the title — Six Reasons Why Living Abroad Will Make You Smarter. Seriously, though, it presents some interesting facts and statistics, and I learned a few new things.

Work the World, which created the infographic below, offers international internships for students in health care fields. The organization is based in London.


An Exchange Student Wedding

My wife, Jenn, and I spent this past Saturday at the marriage of my former exchange student, Nha, from Vietnam. Nha spent the 2003-04 school year with my family through EF High School Exchange Year. She returned to the U.S. to go to college and recently started working at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU).

It was a lovely ceremony, held mostly in Vietnamese. It was followed by a wonderful reception, with all sorts of tasty and interesting dishes from Nha’s homeland.

weddingThe only phrase I remember in Vietnamese from my year with Nha was “cam an,” which means “thank you.” Some of the food was familiar, but some—being celebration food—was new, such as the chicken dish and two whole roasted pigs. The ceremony itself had some differences from what I’m used to, including a sort of karaoke performed by the wedding party.

After we left, Jenn pointed out that our experience in a crowd full of happy, talkative, outgoing strangers, separated by a language barrier, was probably a good deal like the experience of a new exchange student. There was no shortage of good will and desire to communicate, but it was very hard to understand everything that was going on in overwhelmingly unfamiliar surroundings.

We realized that this is what it must feel like to students who have just arrived in their host country.

I found—the way a person who has one sense dulled notices other senses strengthening—that I was paying closer attention than usual to body language to figure out what people were doing. Smiles and gestures got us through most everything; things like table assignments at the reception required more careful and detailed translation.

New students go through this same process as their English skills develop. Misinterpretations are part of the learning process.

The wedding ceremony was held under the auspices of a relatively familiar religious affiliation, so its rhythms and progress were relatively easy to follow. However, the language barrier wiped away any distinctions between what might have been a cultural practice and what was there simply because the two young people at the altar wanted it that way.

That confusion is what we see with our exchange students. What’s culturally American and what is peculiar to our households becomes indistinguishable, and can cause students to make assumptions that they later find to be invalid.

The ingredients in the wedding food were largely familiar, but prepared and seasoned in unfamiliar ways. The overall flavor and texture palette were at turns delightful and off-putting. Hunger, and a desire to be gracious, overcame some of our nervousness…but some differences are just too much to overcome. Chicken feet are past my limits.

A student sitting down to her first few American meals must experience the same thing. Processed cheese slices may be beyond our students’ ability to deal with unfamiliar tastes.

By the end of the evening, watching Nha dance with her new husband (I stayed dry-eyed up until I saw her starting to cry during that dance, I swear!), and seeing the joy in the little interactions between friends and family, it was clear that no matter how different they were from us, it was far easier to see the humanity that unites us all than to focus on the cultural and individual differences between us.

Our students have the same experience, as they grow to know the warmth of our hearts and our homes.

Nha’s wedding offered a powerful lesson in understanding the struggles—and the rewards—our students face, particularly in the early days of their time with us. It was a reminder to Jenn and me to be patient and compassionate in helping them through the period of culture shock and of the shared joy that awaits on the far side.

Lars D. H. Hedbor is an amateur historian, home brewer, astronomer, fiddler, linguist, and baker. His fascination with the central question of how the populace of the American Colonies made the transition from being subjects of the Crown to citizens of the Republic drives him to tell the stories of those people, whether in television appearances, classroom presentations, or in the pages of his Tales From a Revolution novels. Hedbor lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Jennifer Mendenhall, and five daughters. Lars and Jennifer are exchange student coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year.

What’s More Important, Our Differences or Our Similarities?

I found myself agreeing with an article I read this morning and thought it was worth a quick share on this Friday afternoon. We work hard in our role as exchange coordinators to get our students to recognize differences between their home country’s culture and their host culture here in Oregon and the United States. It’s important, for example, to know how to approach someone new appropriately, and to recognize if your own culture and language are direct or indirect in communication style. But we also try to get the teens and their host families to see similarities and common interests. It’s a good way to start communication and to begin developing relationships.

Image courtesy of Andy Molinsky
Image courtesy of Andy Molinsky

Read the article, and let us know what you think!

Focusing on Similarities – not Differences – is the Key To Crossing Cultures

Another Way to Raise a Strong Child

“Raising strong kids.” That was the theme recently for a website inviting writers’ submissions. I don’t know what articles the website organizers ended up choosing from the proposals they received. I do know that I’ve got a way to raise strong children that most people just don’t think about.

One way to raise a “strong child” is to expose them early to other cultures. There are several ways to do that, and families can and should choose what works best for them. Readers of my blog can guess that I will advocate hosting an exchange student as one way to expose your own children – and yourselves – to other cultures. You can also encourage your child to study abroad in high school, college, or graduate school to immerse themselves in another culture.

How does study abroad or becoming a volunteer host family for a foreign teenager contribute to the development of strong children? They learn how others think, which makes them realize the world does not always think as they do. They learn how to deal with difficult situations, whether it be through living with someone adjusting to life in a foreign country or through being the student experiencing culture shock themselves. They learn the value of tolerance of other cultures.

We have raised two children who are growing into strong young adults. There certainly are many reasons why they are maturing into decent, strong human beings. But I believe one factor that contributed to who they are today has been their exposure, one-on-one, to people from other countries in a personal living situation. Our children – now aged 21 and 23 – spent their pre-teen and teenaged years living with students from Europe, Asia, and South America. Daily life with someone from Germany, Colombia, and Hong Kong forced them to think about how people from Germany, Colombia, and Hong Kong communicate and live. It caused them to revise how they themselves communicate to others and, I hope, instilled a sense of tolerance towards people who are different.

BASICS International, where Marcus worked

We saw the positive changes that resulted from living abroad – resulting in a “stronger” young man — in our younger son, an African-American who grew up in a Caucasian family. At the age of 18, shortly after graduating from high school, Marcus went on an exchange program to Ghana in West Africa. He worked as a teaching assistant in an after-school program in a truly poverty-stricken area and lived with a host family in Accra, the capital city. Even his living situation, in a middle-class section of the city, was a complete “culture shock” as compared to his life in Oregon. When we went to visit towards the end of his six-month exchange, we watched as our quiet, avoid-conflict, don’t-talk-if-you-can-avoid-it son haggled loudly and insistently with a taxi driver who he felt was cheating his American parents. In the three years since, we have seen more evidence of the impacts of his experience in his growing self-confidence, increased ability to deal with tough issues at college, determination to succeed in spite of learning disabilities, and less fear of unknown situations.

He won’t succeed at everything in life; none of us do. But this is definitely a win-win for him and for us as a family.

American families should consider hosting an exchange student, and American students should make study abroad a priority themselves. Understanding how it can benefit your family is not something that writers and bloggers on international cultural exchange usually focus on. Instead, I see quite a bit of what a wonderful experience it can be to share one’s culture. This is true, and I’ve written about that myself. But the benefits to one’s own family are significant, too. Hosting a student, or studying abroad yourself – or both — teaches you how to adapt to life in a new environment on your own. You learn how to share, how to communicate in difficult situations, and how to deal with homesickness or to help someone who is homesick or struggling in a foreign environment. You learn appreciation for your own world, your own family, and your own community. Our students and our host families deal with these issues on a daily basis. It sticks with you.

“Studying abroad is, first and foremost, an instructive exercise in failure. . . . the lesson you learn — that initial setbacks, patience and work are the prerequisites for eventual success — is more important than an A in Calculus. That lesson can’t be taught. It must be learned firsthand.“

— Patrick Stephenson, former speechwriter for the NATO secretary-general, Why High School Students Should Study Abroad.

Photo credits: Greg Rakozy and BASICS International

Today, An Exchange Student: Tomorrow . . . ?

“There’s no more important skill to succeed in the 21st century than a global mindset, and there’s no better way to develop a global mindset than studying abroad.”

—Ángel Cabrera, President, George Mason University, Fulbright Scholar; author of Being Global: How to Think, Act, and Lead in a Transformed World


I learned something interesting the other day: the president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, attended Lake Oswego High School as an exchange student. That’s where I live, where my own sons attended and graduated from high school. It’s where a dozen of our own exchange students “sons” and “daughters” and students we have supervised have attended school for a semester or academic year. It’s our home.

Lake Oswego High School as it looks today

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.”

President Ghani is not the only well-known political leader whose life demonstrates the value of studying (or living) abroad and learning about how others live. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is among those from other countries who studied abroad, receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees from King’s College in London. In the U.S. former U.S. President Bill Clinton studied at Oxford University in England on a Rhodes scholarship, and has said “[n]o one who has lived through the second half of the 20th century could possibly be blind to the enormous impact of exchange programs on the future of countries.” At the high school level, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) spent three months in Ghana as an exchange student, an experience he has said led to his choice of studying international relations at Stanford University as well as decisions to spend time in India and Mexico. Living in Ghana, Sen. Merkley has said, “was a huge door to the diversity of the world, and the struggles that people have.’’

country road trees both sides
Where will the road take our students?

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.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash.com, Joshua Earle, Sébastien Marchand, and Google Maps