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.*

Reflections: Moving Up the Ladder?

Last weekend, my husband and I returned from a weekend of additional exchange program training, reflecting the fact that we will be managing other exchange coordinators and their students in the future.

We’re not doing it for the money. We’re not employees of the exchange program, a fact that often comes as a surprise to students and host families. Exchange coordinators are independent contractors under the J-1 visa high school program overseen by the U.S. Department of State. The amount of money coordinators receive for the students we place and supervise does not generally add up to a significant sum; it’s supplemental income, not primary income. The precise amount differs from company to company, but the concept is the same.

Because we do get paid — something — the U.S. government does not allow exchange program local coordinators to say they are volunteers. That’s OK, but it’s important to remember that coordinators are not really getting paid for what they do. Is that a contradiction in terms? Perhaps. But life is full of contradictions.

colored hands in circle 150863845There are times when we all wonder if it’s worth it. When a parent back home complains about us when we support a particular action that we believe will help their child succeed and which they may believe is unwarranted. When a student who has gotten in trouble at school, or who is having difficulty adjusting to his host family’s life or community, starts saying negative things to anyone who will listen. When a student or host family accuses local coordinators of treating them unfairly when the coordinator has made strong efforts to listen to all parties and come to a fair solution. After we have moved a student out of his or her host family home, and everyone is upset.  These things do happen; we’re dealing with people, after all, and people don’t always do what’s logical or “right” (and what’s “right” isn’t always all that clear).

Most of us who do this — year after year, repeatedly saying goodbye to kids we may never see or hear from again — really don’t do it for the income. We do it for the host families who cry when their students leave, and who immediately make plans to visit Norway, Thailand, or Italy. We do it for the kids who do tell us what our assistance meant to them during their year here in the U.S. and who send us notes when they return home thanking us. We do it for the parents from countries around the world who take us out to dinner or lunch when they visit at the end of the year and who are in awe by how much their teen has changed in 10 months, and who say they know that part of that is due to the supervision and advice their child received. We do it for the kids who return to visit; they don’t always contact us, the coordinators, when they return, but if they are visiting their host families, we have succeeded in our mission to create long-term, lifetime relationships.

So my husband and I are looking forward, albeit with some trepidation, to taking on some new responsibilities this coming year. We know that there will be times when students or families will feel that we are the evil face of authority, and that we will have to deliver messages students or families do not want to hear. We know there will be times when parents back home will expect more than we can deliver. And like so many of the other exchange coordinators in all 100 or so companies listed by the Council on Standards of International Education and Travel (CSIET), we know that this is in addition to our “normal” jobs.

But we believe in the mission: cultural and citizen diplomacy at the individual, family, and local level can improve relationships around the world, one person at a time. We can learn from the kids from Taiwan, Thailand, Slovakia, and Denmark. And they can learn from us.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted