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.
The article has so many valid points about why international cultural exchanges are valuable, perhaps even more today than ever before. It’s not just about an American teenager learning about a culture outside our own borders, although it is about that. It’s not just about the value of a young American woman learning about a majority Muslim county’s culture, although it is about that.
It’s about stepping outside our comfort zones and realizing that you need to be somewhere in order to really understand it. It’s about realizing that our own misconceptions about other cultures and countries are bouncing right back at us, when we have students coming in this direction who are asking whether the U.S. is a safe place. It’s about finding out the reality of who we all are.
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.
We receive questions from current or future exchange students asking for advice on … well, almost everything. An increasingly common question is whether students should ask for a particular state or region of the U.S. for their exchange year. We have seen an increase in the past couple of years in these “state requests” from student applicants, often for well-known states like California, New York, and Florida.
What does this mean? Is it a good idea?
What It Means
The idea makes sense at first glance. If you are going to spend 5 or 10 months somewhere, why not have some say about where? The reality, though, is more complex.
High school students come to the U.S. on one of two visas: F-1 or J-1. (We’ve written about some of the differences between F-1 and J-1 visas for high school exchange here and here.) If you have an F-1 visa, you must apply to and be accepted by a particular school. Many schools have academic and language requirements as well as limits on how many international students they can accept each year. F-1 students also generally pay tuition to the school they attend, even if it is a public school. Certainly, you can apply to schools in states that appeal to you. But even an F-1 visa student may face limitations on where to attend school.
Students coming to the U.S. on the more traditional J-1 visa generally do not choose where they will be placed. The exchange organization works to find a host family, and informs students where they will live once the host family has been screened for suitability and the local school has confirmed that there is an available exchange student opening. Some programs do allow students to express a preference for a particular state or region of the country (for example, “Southwestern U.S.”). We don’t have solid data, but it does seem that students may be taking advantage of this opportunity more often than in the past.
Is it a Good Idea?
The primary advantage that students and their families see in expressing a geographic preference is that the program will focus on that state or region when working to place the student. Students and their parents sometimes feel they know that certain regions in the country are better to live in — or else they feel they know which regions are worse to live in. Perhaps they have visited Florida on vacation, or perhaps a friend spent time in New York, and so they feel those are good places. They have not heard much if anything about Iowa or South Carolina, and don’t want to go somewhere they know nothing about. Parents want their child to spend the semester or year in an “interesting” location.
We think, sometimes, that both parents and teens are missing the big picture. What does it mean to be “interesting,” after all? The truth is that what people “know” is not always accurate. Teens and parents from other parts of the world may feel that they “know” that Texas could be interesting and a positive experience. They think they “know” that Missouri will be boring and a negative experience. They have heard of one and not the other — and as humans, we tend to make decisions based only on what we think we know. We all do this. It’s human nature not to reach out and embrace what we don’t know. Those misperceptions and misunderstandings, after all, are part of the reason why the U.S. Department of State so strongly encourages cultural exchanges.
Those misperceptions explain why we see that broad areas of the U.S. do not receive many state request preferences. California, New York, and Florida are considered cool; Iowa, Kentucky, and Arkansas are not. Students will often list states on either of the U.S. coasts, but avoid most states in-between. That’s a large percentage of the country going unnoticed — or being ignored.
It’s important to understand, when evaluating geographic preferences, that host families are not easy to find. For students who have listed preferences, the exchange organization will limit the search for a host family to that state or region, which means a smaller pool of possible host family opportunities. Could this work out so you are placed with a great host family exactly where you want to spend a year? Yes. Are you taking a risk? Absolutely.
In our experience, the likelihood of a successful exchange year can increase dramatically when a student and host family start out with similar interests. It’s part of the matching process that local coordinators work on for months before students arrive, seeking—as much as possible—to find the “right” family for each student. By telling the exchange organization not to look in most of the country, a student may miss being matched with an ideal host family based on interests and other characteristics.
It’s also important to recognize that students often do not end up going to the state or region they expressed a preference for. It’s a preference, not a guarantee. At some point during the placement season, the program will cancel the preferences to try and make sure they find a host family for every student.
You might ask: if every student does end up being placed, why are geographic preferences a risk?
As noted, a great match might have been passed over during the months that the geographic preferences were in effect.
Once the preference is dropped, many host families worry about choosing a student who has said they want to be placed somewhere else. They see it as a bad omen.
Students sometimes start their exchange year so disappointed that they didn’t get to live where they had requested that they have difficulty accepting their eventual host family and host community assignment.
We recommend that if you are considering a geographic preference, do some research. Ask yourself why you want to list a particular state or region. Research the state to find out more about it. Research states and regions you don’t know anything about to find out how great they can be. Don’t assume you know what you need to know.
Talk to your exchange program and make sure you understand the implications of selecting a geographic preference. Ask the hard questions! Even if you get the state you think you want, it might not be the place you think it is. If you like cities, you might think, “I’ll ask for New York so I can be near New York City, or I’ll ask for California so I can live in Los Angeles.” Yet the truth is that most host families do not live in larger cities. Students who ask for California generally end up in suburbs, small towns, or farming communities, perhaps hundreds of miles from San Francisco or Los Angeles. Students who ask for Florida generally don’t live near Disney World®. Students who ask for New York may be placed near the Canadian border.
In our experience, the best way to increase the chance of a successful exchange year is to take the experience as it comes. Exchange students are here to learn about U.S. culture, see what school is like for U.S. teenagers, and learn what it is like to be a normal teenager in ordinary U.S. families. If you’re willing to make the decision to leave your home for a semester or school year, you’ve shown that you are willing to leap into the unknown. You might end up in Alabama, Iowa, Oregon, or Arizona — and you might find out that those are interesting places, where you can have experiences you never dreamed about. Allow yourself to be open to the new experience. Make the leap!
But returning home can be more complicated than you might think.
We see these complications in the high school exchange students we work with each year. They feel comfortable now in their host families and in their host communities, but they’re still “foreigners.” Yet they don’t feel exactly German, Brazilian, or Australian anymore, either. They don’t really know what to expect when they return home. Will their friends be jealous of the experiences they have had? Will their parents be upset that their teen is more independent than before? Will their boyfriend/girlfriend have moved on? They miss their parents and friends, but they know they will miss their host families and new friends here. Yes, they look forward to going back home. They also want to hold on to the life they have developed in their host country.
The disorientation often begins before a traveler returns home. Many of our students are beginning even now—three months before most of them will leave the U.S.—to share their confusion and anxiety. The mixed feelings can continue for a long time afterwards, as well.
Many people have written about “reverse” culture shock, a term pinned to the disorientation people feel about re-immersion into life back home after a significant amount of time abroad. You might think that one more book couldn’t add anything new. Perhaps that’s true. H.E. Rybol’s new book, Reverse Culture Shock, may not add anything new. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t add anything useful. It does, and there’s a difference.
“Reverse culture shock” does not have a simple, one-sentence definition or solution. Rybol explores what this concept means through reflections and personal stories. It’s an easy read – and at the same time a difficult one. Rybol covers her own experience, as perhaps is the best way to explore an issue that is deeply personal. She covers the challenges of living abroad, as you cannot talk about the impacts of returning home without bringing in what happens before you go home. She talks about comparing cultures when you’ve experienced cultures that seem so different. She looks at the impacts on friendships. She talks about how immersion in a second language can confuse the brain (have you ever switched languages several times in the same sentence?).
Our students, who come to the U.S. to spend 5 or 10 months immersing themselves in our culture, often tell us what Rybol describes. They go home and friends tell them they have an American accent — something that they have perhaps worked hard to achieve during their time here, but which now seems like something negative. They struggle to express themselves in their own language after being immersed in English for so long; one of our own students related to us a few years ago how he got off the plane and walked into the airport terminal to a circle of family and friends — and for a moment, could not remember a word of German.
Upon returning home, our students—like Rybol—say they think about things differently. This can range from different ways of problem solving that is a natural outgrowth of being compelled to deal with new and sometimes challenging situations, to having a changed perspective of what “America” is all about after having lived in an American city, small town, or farm. They are not American, of course. But in a way they are no longer German, Thai, or Brazilian. They’re something more.
The return home is not seamless. This transition into “something more” can be a difficult process. Rybol talks about the return as being part of a mirror:
“When you visit your country of origin. . ., it can feel disconcerting when you realize you don’t fit in as you used to. You feel disconnected. There’s no mirror, no one reflecting that new part of you.”
Re-entry, the way I see it, is a more holistic way of looking at the part of your abroad journey that occurs once you go “home.” Your abroad journey doesn’t end when you step off the plane. Your journey simply transitions from being abroad to being in re-entry.
I don’t know if Rybol would characterize it exactly the same way. But she does describe this transition as something that can be a positive experience. She talks about ways that have helped her to readjust to life back home after long periods abroad. She feels the process can teach you that going outside your comfort zone can expand your thinking and teach you new skills. It can help you understand your own culture better than you did before. It can remind you that “[f]eeling vulnerable and lost is a way to learn about the need for kindness and compassion.” In other words, it’s really part of the entire cross-cultural experience.
Reverse Culture Shock is a different kind of book. It’s not a “how-to.” It’s reflective and personal. You may not get the answers you seek on how to deal with your feeling of anxiety, confusion, happiness, and sadness, although Rybol does give some suggestions. What you will gain, however is the perspective of somebody who has been there, who has herself experienced the ups and downs, unclear feelings, uncertainty — and the feeling that the rest of your life is better for having had this experience:
This trip helped me realize that connecting across cultures can make us kinder, more compassionate, grateful and understanding. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. Instead, we should be aware of how the effects of connecting across cultures can positively impact the lives of everyone involved. It has a ripple effect.