Behind the Scenes: A Day in the Life of an Exchange Coordinator

People who are involved with hosting exchange students — whether it be as a host family, student, parent back home, teacher or counselor at school — know the basic rule that their coordinator will be contacting them by phone or in person at least once every month. It’s right there in the regulations.

Sometimes, it really is just one time during the month. But often the “at least” part comes into play with additional phone calls on a particular issue or question, text messages and emails, or public comments on non-confidential issues on Facebook or Instagram.

What families and students often don’t realize is how much time can go into being an exchange coordinator and the full scope of their involvement. Local coordinators usually do receive some payment from the exchange organization. The reality, however, is that most coordinators spend a lot more time than they are compensated for in order to help “make it work” — the “it” being the success of our students, the bonding we want to see between student and host families, and the benefits to our own children and local schools. That takes more than a monthly phone call or visit.

Exchange coordinators are full-time moms or dads with children of their own, parents who teach high school and work on exchange in the evenings, school bus drivers, grade school principals, or lawyers. Coordinators might try to consolidate their exchange program tasks, but it doesn’t always work out; if a student is upset about something back home or about something that just happened at school, he or she isn’t going to wait until the weekend. If a host family has a major concern, we hope they will call, too.

But if we do set aside a Saturday to catch up, and if it was to be combined with the usual calls out of the blue, it might look something like this…..

10:00 am. Regular monthly check in call with student. Talk about school, how are things with his host family, what activities/fun stuff has he done lately. He’s a happy guy, and promises he’ll call if he has any problems.

10:15 am. Text from a host mom. Exchange student was injured at soccer, taking him to urgent care and will circle back once she knows more.

11:00 am. Monthly check in call with another host mom. She’s a bit concerned about her student, who is struggling in two classes. We talk about things the student can do and suggestions on how the host parents can help. It’s early in the year, so we’re not too concerned yet; the issue now will be what action the student takes.

word study background of textbooks

11:30 am. Work on issues related to the program: write emails to people who have asked for information about hosting, make some phone calls. Mostly I leave phone messages, but I do talk to a mom who has expressed interest in the past and who thinks this next year might be good timing for the family, and I make a note to send her some additional information.

12:30 pm. Text from host mom whose student was injured at soccer. They are at the emergency room waiting for X-rays. Student still cheerful, not complaining. She includes a photo of a grinning student.

12:45 pm. Following up on 11:30 phone call, check organization database for student applications to send based on the description the potential host mom gave me about the family’s interests and lifestyle. Pull applications of a few girls who like dance and theater since that seems to be a key family interest.

1:00 pm. Receive call from a coordinator asking how many students have signed up for our next group excursion in two weeks, and can a student she is supervising still join the activity. We agree that if the student’s host parents are OK with the trip, if she can get the natural parent permission form signed in the next couple of days, and if she immediately sends in the required payment, she can go.

1:15 pm. Call from host mom. Student has hairline fracture. No soccer for a while!

2:00 pm. Text from a student I just spoke to a week ago. It’s a bit like getting a phone call at midnight from your child in college — your first thought is “what has happened?” I cautiously ask, how are things? The student asks if she can get a job to earn some money; homecoming cost more than she expected. I explain to her that the U.S. government does not allow J-1 visa exchange students to get a regular job, but she can occasionally babysit or do yard work to earn a little cash. She’s not thrilled, but seems to understand.

3:00 pm. Text from student asking if it is ok if her parents visit at Christmas. Her host parents suggested that it might be better if her parents visited at the end of the exchange year and the student texts that this is not reasonable, this is her family. I call the student (I don’t want to have this conversation by text), and I explain that Christmas really is a time to spend with her American host family, so that she can learn about our customs and her host family’s traditions. I tell her that I know that her host family is really looking forward to sharing that with her. At the end of the year, she won’t have school or other obligations and she can really show her parents around the area. She says she understands this better now. I send an email to our main office asking them if they can get in touch with the student’s family in her home country and ask them not to visit at Christmas.

4:00 pm. Text from student asking if she can go on one of the trips our group is organizing. I ask her if she has asked her parents back home, her host parents, and her coordinator. She says her host parents and her coordinator told her she couldn’t go unless she brings her math and biology grades up and she doesn’t think this is fair. She isn’t going to be able to travel much this year because her host family doesn’t have plans to go on any big trips, so the trip is really important to her. I explain that she does have to be passing all her classes before she can go on the trip. She has several months to bring her grades up. We talk about what she can do to show she is making a strong effort. I make a note to talk to her coordinator to make sure she, too, is in the loop on this.

5:00 pm. Turn off the phone and go for a walk with the dogs.

Why do we do it? Sometimes we ask ourselves that question … especially if one of these calls is telling us about a particularly poor teenage decision that may result in a student’s early return home, or if a host family has a personal emergency that requires us to move a happy student out of his or her host family home. But then there’s this from a host parent after her student returned home:

I am trying to tell myself that nothing changes — that no matter where we all are, she remains family. And yet…no more having her come out to give a sleepy good morning hug. No more dinnertime conversations, or card games, or quick rides to the store. All that stopped as she walked down the security line at the airport tonight….I believe it. Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.

And this from a student:

I love you all so so much and words cannot explain how much it hurts me to leave this wonderful place. … I know for sure that my way will take me back here sooner or later – after all, I have family here now and lots of amazing friends. I want to especially thank my family for having me this year and making me feel less like “the exchange student” but like “our family member.”

That’s why.

boy with open arms and beautiful rainbow

Dear Host Parents, This is Why I Call Every Month: A Note From Your Exchange Coordinator

globe with figures holding hands around globe

The  single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

– George Bernard Shaw

Today’s post describes a not-uncommon situation many coordinators face with new host families.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear New Host Parents,

As you know, I am the local representative for your exchange student program. I know you are excited to have your student here, and I’m happy to see that you are keeping him busy — that’s exactly what he needs to get used to the community and not be homesick!

Many new host parents feel that now that the exchange program has approved them as a host family, the program and the local representative should step aside and let you handle parenting for the coming academic year. I know that it can feel like an invasion of privacy when I call and ask what classes your student is signed up for, and how the student is doing in those classes. I know it can feel strange to explain to me as a relative stranger what you did as a family last week, and what activities you are planning in the near future. I know it can feel unreasonable to help me set up a meeting with your student on short notice. After all, if nothing is wrong, why do I need to come over?

I know you may be experienced parents. But I would ask you to remember and understand two things. First, the exchange program is responsible for your exchange student while he or she is in the United States. Also, exchange organizations operating in the U.S. face certain minimum requirements established by the U.S. Department of State for how we communicate with all our exchange students and their host families.

I’m also here to help your student succeed in a foreign environment — and to help you, too. Some of us have worked with dozens of exchange students; we know that hosting an exchange student isn’t always the same thing as raising your own children. For a student from another culture and country and a host family to become close is not just a matter of making sure the student has similar interests to your family. There’s a lot more involved.

two people chatting in coffee shop

Every year, many students have to be placed into new host families. There are many reasons for that, some that are unavoidable (a host parent becomes ill or loses their job, for example). But many problems arise out of miscommunications, and some of those communications difficulties are the result of host parents (or students) not sharing with their coordinator what’s going on in their lives. My communications with you and the student are intended to help nip that outcome in the bud.

I understand that you have the best interests of your student at heart, and I have no wish to interfere in your home life with your exchange student. My goal is for you to have a successful hosting experience and for your student to have a great exchange year in the United States and in your family. Work with me — we’re a team.

Sincerely,

Your coordinator

 


Photo credit Christin Hume

 

Communicating is Even More Important Than You Think

broken wooden bridge over water

One of the hardest things an exchange student or a host family may face is sharing information that might result in the student moving to a new family. We are talking about real life things. Things like a host parent or sibling being very ill. A host parent losing his or her job. Students discovering they have an allergy to the family’s pet — a pet they may already love. At the harder end of the scale, a student may find that a host sibling is involved with drugs or alcohol, or learn that a host parent has a drug or alcohol problem.

These are some of the hardest relationship issues that we as exchange coordinators have to deal with. A student or host parent coming forward to talk to us may not know what the result will be. Students may be shocked when we tell them that we may have to move them out of their host family. They think, somehow, that by telling us about the issue we can simply make it go away.

Oh, how we wish that could always be the case! Much as we would like to wave a magic wand and have the problem disappear, however, it’s just not possible. Even if a local coordinator believes, based on what the issue seems to be and what the coordinator knows about the student and family, that it should be fine to leave the student in the family, we can’t just assume that is the case. We have to look into it. The Department of State requires detailed communication and investigation to help make sure that students are safe.

We do take every case individually. Students and families may not see what goes on behind the scenes. They sometimes feel as though exchange organizations make snap judgments. This is far from the truth. Rather, we talk to the people involved, and often program staff in the organization’s main office will also talk to everyone as well. A program counselor or the student’s school might be involved, depending on the issue.

Not all cases will end with the student remaining in the family even if that is what students or families want. Sometimes, the investigation will result in a conclusion that it’s best for everyone if we move the student. If a host parent or a host sibling really does have an alcohol problem, for example, our student could be put into jeopardy, and that obviously is critical to the decision. We’re also concerned about whether a family needs to focus on their child’s or the parent’s health.

When a host mom of ours got breast cancer a few years back, we talked to her and asked her how she felt about having the exchange student remain in the home during her treatment. We talked to her husband and asked him what he thought about taking care of her and their children as well as their exchange student. We talked to the student, who said that this was his family. And we talked to his host siblings, who said “he’s our brother.” The program talked to the student’s parents back home. In this case, the decision was for the student to stay in the home.

These tough issues aren’t theoretical for us, or just situations that happened in the past. Even in the past two weeks, we’ve had cases going in both directions. In one case, the facts resulted in a decision to move the student. In the other, the responses of the host parents, student, host siblings, and parents back home resulted in a conclusion that it was all right for the student to remain in the home.

In both cases, we give credit to our students, who knew that the important thing was to talk to their coordinator about their concern. We know how hard that was for them…at this time of year, after less than two months, they don’t really know their coordinators yet. They may only have seen them a couple of times, perhaps talked on the phone once or twice as well. But they had listened to the program telling them before they left their home country about the importance of communicating, and what the role was of their local contact. They listened, it seems, when we talked about that at our beginning-of-the-year welcome meeting.

It always comes back to that one simple word: communication. The sooner the better in these cases, since that offers more opportunities to (hopefully) fix whatever the issue might be. We urge students and host families to talk to your coordinator as soon as you find out about any issue. Let us help you to have a positive exchange experience!

 

Photo courtesy of Tom Butler on Unsplash.com.

This is Why We Work With Exchange Students

We have worked with high school exchange students for 10 years now — 14 if you count the several years we were “just” host parents and not coordinators! Working with teens going through cultural shock and host families going through the excitement of learning about another culture can be exhilarating. It can be frustrating. It can, at times, be disappointing. This year, two of our 39 students have had to return home early — and we’re just halfway through the academic year. A few students in our group have changed host families, each situation being completely different. Several more students and host families have concerns we are helping to (hopefully…) resolve successfully.

So why do we bother?

We bother because of the relationships we develop with students (and host families) every year. Not every student becomes a friend for life; that would not be a realistic expectation. But enough do so that we see what the experience can do for them, their host families, their teachers, and others. Teachers understand; they teach for the students who care — and for those who eventually learn to care.

I’ve included here just a few examples of those relationships. These are students who “pushed back” and students who did not. The common thread is that after the fact, they could all see some of what they gained during their exchange. (I’ve changed their names for privacy reasons.)

  • Sean lived with us for about six weeks at the beginning of the school year while we found him a permanent home in our school district. During those six weeks, he learned that we loved good European chocolate and Haribo gummies. Every year since, he and his family have sent a small annual Christmas gift containing a box of chocolate and a couple of packages of Haribo treats. He and his parents include a Christmas card with a “happy holidays” note.

This year — five years later — Sean included a hand-written note:

“It now has been five years since you allowed me to stay at your home, and yet I still don’t know how to properly express my gratitude for your many acts of kindness, even though I do think that my English has improved at least a bit!

And even though I probably gave you quite a bit of sorrow with my lack of discipline, I hope I was also able to leave behind something positive (or a deeper appreciation of Haribo!). So, once more, I hope you are all doing well and your wishes come true.”

  • Maria faced some struggles in adjusting to life in the U.S., and had to change host families during her year. By the end of the year, though, this is what she had to say:

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….

  • Andrea lived in a small town in Oregon in a host family with two small children. As she left, she wrote:

The past ten months have been the best time of my life so far and never ever will I forget the memories I made here or the friends I’ve made. I love you all so so much and words cannot explain how much it hurts me to leave this wonderful place. … I know for sure that my way will take me back here sooner or later – after all, I have family here now and lots of amazing friends. I want to especially thank my family for having me this year and making me feel less like “the exchange student” but like “our family member.” … I will never forget how [my two little sisters] went from calling me their exchange student to their sister….They know I will always be their sister and I promised them that we will see each other again soon.

  • Ending with again, one of our own … Andrew constantly pushed back during his exchange year. He conveniently “forgot” house rules time and time again. We had a lot of fun, he got along with our boys, and we enjoyed having him around — those arguments could be spirited political discussions! But he argued all the time. Five or six years later, in a Skype chat on one holiday or another, Andrew said completely out of the blue:

I wanted you to know … I know how much you tried to help me. The things you said then, they make a lot more sense now. I just want you to know how much I appreciate it. It just took me a while.

So to our young friend Sean who is now (unbelievably, to a host mom…) 21 years old: We are doing well, and you have shown us that wishes do come true. One student, one teenager at a time, as expressed by a host parent after her student returned home at the end of her year:

… no matter where we all are, she remains family, [and] our mutual love and admiration continues. … Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.

Deciding on a Host Student: Let’s Wave a Magic Wand!

The “matching” of an exchange student with his or her host family is a key factor in the likely success of student’s exchange year in the U.S. How does that process actually work? Can we make it work in a better way?

The “matching” we are talking about is the process in which host families look at student applications and try to figure out who would fit best into their families. This isn’t a 2-3 week vacation visitor, after all; it’s a person who will be living in your home for up to 10-11 months and with whom you hope to have a long-term relationship. Exchange program coordinators like us work to get to know our host families a little bit, so we can recommend students we think will fit into the family’s personal lifestyle and the nature of the school community. In the “ideal” case, we might send a potential host family 3-4 applications; they pick one of them, and everyone lives happily ever after.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes a host family looks at a few dozen applications (or even more!) in search of the perfect exchange student. Here’s the thing, though: there is no such thing as a perfect exchange student, any more than there is a “perfect” host family. We’re all people, with strengths and weaknesses, maturity in some respects, selfishness in others, abilities to adapt easily to some things and less so to other circumstances. Even under the best of circumstances, the process of choosing a student is more of an art than a science. Choosing a student is only the first step in the longer process that leads to a successful exchange year. Think about how much uncertainty remains when you hire an employee, even after carefully reviewing their resume, checking references, and conducting an in-person interview. Whether that employee and the company are a good “match” is not something you know on Day One. You need to train her, show her the ropes, explain your system of doing things, and introduce her to all the right people. You can improve the odds of success through a careful hiring process–but that’s only the beginning.

Study abroad applicationHost families can’t personally check the references of the exchange students whose applications they are reviewing, although they can review the teacher and staff recommendations in a student’s file. They can’t do in-person interviews, although the exchange organization will have done that. All host families have is the written application and perhaps a short student-prepared video.

Nevertheless, host families tell us all the time that they want to find the “best” student for their family. That’s a good goal and of course, we do, too! The question is, of course, what does “best” mean? We urge potential host families to question several common but not necessarily helpful assumptions.

With enough effort, we  can get the “right” student.

We would urge host families to reconsider this assumption. In the end, it’s a matter of probabilities (does this teen really likes gymnastics as much as she says in her application? Is this teen as outgoing as he seems to be?). It’s a matter of motivation and effort once a student arrives and finds that being an international student does have some challenges. It’s a matter of host family expectations and ability to follow through (yes, you *can* take away computer privileges for a day!). The selection process is  a matter of trying to bias the outcome in favor of success rather than against success. But that’s about as much as you can hope for.

179139156 right wrongI can pick the right student by myself.

First-time host parents could possibly look at a series of student profiles and find a great student for their family. But using the hiring example introduced above, it’s a long shot. Families who have hosted multiple times may know how to read student applications and know what to look for. In most cases, though, we urge families to work closely with their local program coordinator. In our case, we take time to screen students before sending applications to potential host families. We look at the family’s host family application for information about the family’s interests, nature of the school and local community, and family members. Are there young children in the family? Perhaps a student with no siblings would not be the best fit. Does the family spend a lot of time outdoors? A student who seems to like to spend time inside might not be a good choice. Our goal is to make sure that any student the host family might pick from the selection we send would turn out to be a good “fit.”

We’ll apply to several exchange programs because having a larger pool makes it more likely we will get “the right” student.

If you absolutely want a student with very specific characteristics, e.g. a Norwegian ski team member, then looking for potential students from multiple exchange programs might work for you. Generally, however, any major exchange program will likely have enough students to choose from so that we can find a good match. Simply expanding the size of the pool is unlikely to make it any more likely that you’ll get a successful match. We have also seen the exact opposite – host families frozen in the headlights like a deer with too many choices and not knowing how to make a decision. Potentially great matches then slip away (placed elsewhere) while you are still working your way through dozens of student files.

We urge host families not to focus on the size of the pool. It’s unlikely to have much of a relationship to a future student’s success and the likelihood of you and your student being happy together.

The exchange organizations are all the same, so it doesn’t matter whom we work with.

Host families routinely think much more about choosing a student than the nature of the support structure an exchange program offers during the placement process and during the exchange year itself. In practice, these two elements are equally important to the likelihood of a successful year.

We occasionally get calls or emails from host families who are working with other programs, who are referred to us by other families, schools, or through our blog. Some are trying to figure out how to solve a problem on their own because they feel they are not receiving appropriate support from their exchange program. Some report on previous experiences and want to know what we would do. Some schools that we work with refer potential host families to us because we have developed a reputation (we hope!) for fairness and trustworthiness in our dealings with students, families, and the schools.

We can’t solve every problem that arises in the way a student, host family, or school may want. It’s more complicated than that. We’re not dealing with nuts and bolts — we’re dealing with people. The support structure and the specific relationship you develop with your local program representatives can matter as much as choosing “the right” student. We recommend that host families research the exchange organizations active in their area. If you have a particular country or cultural background that interests you, which organizations have more students from that region? Does the organization have a good reputation in your community? What does the local school think about the organization’s representatives and their commitment to working with the student and the host family during the school year? 

Maybe I should go eeny meeny miny mo.

We wouldn’t go that far! Work with your local coordinator and make sure he or she knows what is important to you and your family. No vegetarians? Say so. Prefer a vegetarian? Say so! Do you have big dogs? Chickens in the back yard? Go skiing a lot? Go skiing just occasionally? Help your exchange organization to help you — and then keep that up during the exchange year. Choosing a successful  student is just the beginning!

Photo credits: ©2016 Thinkstock.com