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

The Beginning of the School Year: Déjà Vu or New Beginnings

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.

© 2015 Thinkstock.com
© 2015 Thinkstock.com

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!

LHK MCT Sven
Dinner in Berlin with Sven, one of our own German students, seven years after he returned home.

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.

Personal Moments in the World of International Exchange: Goodbye and Hello

Saying goodbye….

© Thinkstockphotos.com
© Thinkstockphotos.com

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 . . .

On our way to help a host family get ready for their student!
On our way to help a host family get ready for their student!

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.

© Thinkstockphotos.com
© Thinkstockphotos.com
*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.*

Let the Miscommunication Begin!

The 2014-2015 exchange students have now mostly arrived in the U.S. Most are past the jet lag phase. School has just started for some, while others have been in school for several weeks now. On the one hand, we’re still mostly in the “honeymoon phase” of the exchange year. On the other hand, we’re in a perilous period when it comes to student – host family communications.

Let’s face it — most of us aren’t great communicators, and most people of any age try to avoid conflict. To say that goes for teens arriving in a new country and into a new family is probably an understatement. So what do we tend to see each year? The answer, in a nutshell, is miscommunication.

I’m not saying this happens all the time, or even in most cases – there are many, many host families who are happy with their students from the very beginning, and many, many students who settle into their host families’ lives and adjust with little difficulty. But there are also those host families and students who don’t adjust to each other, or whose expectations are not realistic.

The source is usually multiple miscommunications

In some cases, this leads to the outright failure of a student’s exchange year; in other cases, it leads to simmering problems that will explode in the coming weeks or months. These problems, once they boil over, lead to high levels of frustration, stress, and worry. At the extreme, they can result in students being removed from their host families. In too many cases, these miscommunications leave behind lingering resentment from host families or students (or both) with feelings that no one cared and no one listened. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Here’s how it often progresses:

1. Exchange student engages in conversation and makes a point assuming they’ve been clear and understood. Sometimes it’s because they believe their English is great when it’s not; sometimes it’s just predictable teenage “half-statements” (there is something universal about teens in that they think if they say X you will know they mean X plus Y…..). It could be on almost any subject, from their life back home, their current situation, to warrows 175030805 hat they like and don’t like to do, etc. The list is endless.
2. Host parent or host sibling doesn’t understand or misunderstands student’s point, and either ignores the comment (because it’s just a small thing after all), or takes offense but just files it away for future reference (because why get into an argument or discussion about such a small thing?).
3. Neither exchange student nor host family seeks clarification: “Was I clear in saying . . . . ?” “Did I understand you correctly to say . . . . ?”
4. A small wedge is created between exchange student and host family — not a big wedge or a big problem to start. But it quickly expands with subsequent conversations and misunderstanding.

Our brains seek confirmation

Here’s the issue: once our brains think they’ve figured something out, they’ll look for more evidence to support that conclusion. This is not rocket science, nor is it something that is limited to one culture or age group. It’s human nature. Our brains are always looking for evidence that our first impression was correct, no matter how obvious it might be in retrospect that the first impression was based on a misunderstanding. Host family members might talk among each other, commiserating and reinforcing their individual perceptions about why their student is acting a certain way or saying (or not saying) the “right” things. Exchange students might log onto Facebook or other social media where each country’s exchange students often maintain gossip pages or chat groups in their native language which seem to be for the sole purpose of commiserating and spreading negative experiences and stories. And everyone’s initial impression is reinforced. Eventually, the small wedge becomes a chasm; either the student or the host family pulls in their local program coordinator, who has the role of sorting out the conflicting stories and misunderstandings that often are now solidly and perhaps permanently in place.

What’s remarkable is how many “placement problems” each year could be avoided if exchange student and host family would simply ask a few questions: “Was I clear in saying . . . . ?”, “Did I understand you correctly to say . . . . ?,” and the hardest of all for ordinary humans of all ages to admit – “I don’t understand.” We tell students and host families every year to call us — that there is no question too small, no issue too insignificant when you are dealing with people from different world views, different cultures, and different generations. And many do remember this, and do call us. But some do not.

These are our challenges. Sometimes we’re able to help sort it out successfully. Sometimes it’s too late for students or host families to change direction. The student may be labelled as a behavior problem and moved to another home, leaving a host family with a sour taste in their mouth about the entire exchange experience and a teenager who often doesn’t quite understand what went wrong. So much misunderstanding, pain, and lost opportunities could be avoided if problems are nipped in the bud. After all, it’s two very simple questions:

* Was I clear in saying . . . . ?

* Did I understand you correctly to say . . . ?

Good communication is a challenge, and can be difficult and uncomfortable. Many thousands of host families and exchange students can confirm that. Most will admit it may not be an easy process, but the end result is worth it.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com.
*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.*