How To Be A Parent When Your Child Is On An International Student Exchange Program

wooden bridge on path in woods

by Jana Grobbelaar, Moomie, South Africa

Regardless of whether your child is in secondary school or university, an international exchange program will be an enriching experience. There are many benefits for parents: your child will return with added maturity, a more serious approach to their studies, improved language fluency, and a greater comprehension of human nature and the experience of making new friends.  Parents will discover that allowing their child to be an exchange student will be among the best experiences of the child’s entire life.

Of course, you will dearly miss your son or daughter. But the homecoming and the awareness that your child has grown up so much that they can become your friend, as well as be your child, is enough reward to consider this route, even with the challenges that your child will face and the difficulties it poses for parents. As parents, we strive to do anything and everything to enhance our children’s future, but this long distance arrangement doesn’t come without its share of parenting challenges.

Let’s face the facts: it’s not easy being a parent. We often battle with ourselves, questioning if we’re doing the best we can for our children. It’s a lot of pressure realizing that you only get a limited window of time to prepare them to develop into dependable, balanced, and emotionally healthy adults. When your child is away for six or ten months in a different country, there is the extra challenge of being geographically distant from them. But it’s not impossible to parent from halfway around the world. The key is laying the groundwork correctly, both with yourself and with your child.

Here are some suggestions on how to be a parent when your child is in an international student exchange program:

Communication is key

Probably the most valuable approach to ensure you have a secure connection with your kids is to do everything possible to keep communication lines open. This isn’t always easy, but it’s among the best strategies to keep up with what’s happening in your child’s life.  Find out when a good time is to get in touch with them on weekends and set a particular time to contact them. Try not to bother them much during the week, as they will be at school and in a completely different time zone. You can connect with the host parents, as they might be aware of any challenges that your child could be having in school or at home. Your child might not want to burden you with their struggles or may not be keen to share any information that might lead to conflict. Speaking to the host parents might just put your mind at ease for a few days at least.

Technology is your friend

Nowadays it’s easier to stay connected over a distance. Besides telephones, there are many ways to connect that aren’t that expensive. If you have internet access at home, make use of text messages, email, instant messaging, and Skype, to mention a few — but not too often! Reserve time weekly to ‘visit’ for ten to fifteen minutes. Video calls make it possible to not only verbally correspond, but also to see each other occasionally. You may also want to follow your child’s social media posts as they will probably be sharing a lot of pictures on these platforms.

Send a care package

Children of all ages would love to receive some homemade cookies or other treats. A note or a card to tell them that you’re thinking of them and that you love them, carries much weight. But nothing says I love you like a thoughtful package from back home. Never follow up your packages with phone calls. These calls might make it look like you are fishing for a thank-you. Gifts are most efficient as relationship builders when there aren’t any strings attached.

yellow DHL package unopened

Don’t forget to discipline

Parenting your child from a distance can make you feel as though you’re losing control over your everyday responsibilities as a mother. This doesn’t have to be the reality. Don’t stop disciplining your child because you feel guilty, you need things to be “nice and comfortable,” or because you are worried your child will rebel and push you away. Now, more than ever, your child must fully accept that distance doesn’t affect the “rules” at home. Being away from home is not a reason to break the rules and take advantage of the situation. You should continue being consistent about family morals, and loving your child does occasionally mean saying “No.” If your child is living with a host family, it’s also important for your son or daughter to understand that they have to follow the rules of the family they are living with. This can be hard for parents, especially if the rules are different — which is certainly common in a different country!

Teach respect

In the same way as discipline, your child needs to recognize that the host family takes care of them on your behalf. Thus they should respect them as if it were you.

Visit your child

Something that can be fun both for you and your child is if you get to visit them during their exchange period. This could give you a better understanding of their experience, and you might even get to partake in it. Talk to the host-family and find out if a visit will suit them. Don’t proposed a visit in the middle of the exchange, because you don’t want to interfere with your child’s experience. Wait until towards the end! If they have space and are comfortable with it, you might be able to stay with your child or in the alternative you can book a hotel nearby.

In summary

The world is getting smaller, faster and much more complex. Approaches to learning and teaching are shifting. To be successful in tomorrow’s world, young people need the skills essential for a consistently growing number of industries, and possible career paths. They need an understanding of different cultures, a chance to interact with people from various linguistic backgrounds, flexibility and tolerance, an appreciation for alternative perspectives and the maturity to make sensible choices and decisions. Never before has studying a second language been so crucial.

By allowing your child to travel on exchange, you are helping them discover a whole new world. Even though it’s hard to parent from far away, it’s possible to maintain a great relationship with your child and enjoy this experience with them.

 

Jana Grobbelaar is an entrepreneur, editor, and mother of three. She is the founder of Moomie, a popular online parenting forum in South Africa.

Getting Ready for the New Exchange Year: What If We Don’t Like Each Other?

I read this statement recently in a blog post:

On August 12, 2016, I arrived in California. I still remember when I got off the plane, seeing unfamiliar faces holding a sign that has my name on it. I was nervous and terrified that they wouldn’t like me; I thought it would feel awkward to live with a family that I had never met before.

—Mariam Awwad from Jordan, U.S. Dept. of State YES Program student, “Experience of a Lifetime in California,” July 4, 2017.

We see similar worries from our own students every year:

“I am worried. I don’t think my host family and I have anything in common. I won’t have any host siblings.”

“I am so nervous. My host family has small children and I am not used to that. What if the kids don’t like me? What if I make mistakes, will my host parents get mad at me?”

It’s not just the students who worry that their host family won’t like them. Host families worry just as much. We hear from parents who worry that their student won’t like the food, or that they’ll be homesick and the host parents won’t know how to comfort them. We hear from host siblings worried that their new host sister or brother won’t be able to make friends — or the opposite, that their student will be so popular that the host sibling will be left out.

Everyone is excited … and everyone worries. Here’s what we tell them.

First — you are not alone. It’s exciting to step off the plane into a new adventure, and it’s exciting to host someone from another country and culture. It’s normal to be nervous about how it will work on an everyday basis. Recognize your feelings and talk about them to each other. It’s ok for students to admit they’re nervous about leaving their home for 5 or 10 months. Some of our host families, too, have admitted that they’re nervous. Clear communication — and sharing feelings — is important, even at this early stage.

Second — All students have this idea in their heads about what their host family will be like. Then the host family and the community turn out to be something different, and the student panics. Host families do the same thing! A student is different from what the family thought they saw in the student’s profile and the family wonders “will it be ok?” Students and host families express surprise to their coordinator: “I had information about my host family, and they are not like what I read about,” or “My student is not the way he seemed in his profile.”

But think about it … for students, is it really a surprise that a family you’ve never met is more complex and different from what a one-page summary told you? For families, is it really a surprise that a three- or four-page application didn’t reflect the whole picture, or that a teenager’s likes and dislikes may have changed in the 6 or 9 or more months since an application was filed? For everyone — is it really a surprise that people from another country act differently from what you are used to?

Some students are nervous because their host parents don’t have children in the home. Some students worry about whether they will have enough privacy and personal time because their host families have toddlers. Some students are nervous because their host family lives in a big city; some students are nervous because their host family lives in a small town or on a farm. Families worry for the same reasons: a student doesn’t have siblings so may have difficulty getting used to having a host brother, or comes from a small school and will be attending a school of 1,500 students here in the U.S., or will have to get used to not having public transportation just outside. They want to be the best family possible for their student, and they want to help their student have a successful and fun experience. They worry about whether their plans to do that will work.

word "unknown" with some trees and building in background

The basic thing to remember is just this: you don’t know each other yet. Be open to the experience. It takes time to get to know people! It’s hard to do that before you get here, and it’s not possible to do it in a week or two. Before students arrive, you can text, email, and Skype — but you won’t really get to know each other until you have lived with each other for a while.

Students and families may be worried about the whole adventure. A semester or academic year is a long time to live with someone you have never met. Now that the time is approaching, it feels real. Years ago, shortly before I left for my study-abroad semester in Switzerland, I, too, started to worry. I didn’t know French … maybe I shouldn’t go? I didn’t have a specific schedule since I was doing an independent study project … maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all. Our own son began asking similar questions almost five years ago as the departure date approached for his six-month exchange program in Ghana. What if I don’t get along with my host family, he said; they don’t have teenagers. Maybe it’s too expensive, he said. Maybe I shouldn’t go, he said.

I went, of course. So did our son. There were challenges, of course. But challenges are part of life, and now I can’t imagine not having gone. Our son, too, values his experience and is glad we didn’t let him change his mind.

Being an exchange student — or hosting one — is exciting, fascinating, and an amazing experience that you will all remember forever. It also takes work. Very few students have a perfect fit into their host family and their host community from Day One with no issues or conflicts. There’s no magic wand to build instant relationships. Everything takes time. That’s one of the reasons your coordinators and your exchange program are here — we want to help you build relationships and help you feel like a member of our community.

We’ll close with this statement from Mariam, the student we quoted at the beginning of this post, on how she felt at the end of her exchange year:

Now they are my second family. I have learned how to support each other no matter what, and how to always be helpful and positive. They made my exchange year way better. They showed me what it means to be a member of an American family. I am so thankful and blessed for having them in my life.

 

 

We Had a Bad Hosting Experience . . . Why Should We Host Again?

Woman leaping over chasm at dusk

From an email we received during the last school year:

We are currently hosting an exchange student. We are not enjoying it. The student is not as she described herself in her application. Our student is lazy, grumpy, and moody. Our home has felt awkward for months and we are anxious for her to leave. My wife is against the idea of ever doing this again. I am against it too, at this point … Given that we’ve had such a bad time, am I crazy to consider it again?

Hosting an international student can be a ton of fun. You will view your community and the world around you a bit  differently after you’ve seen them through the eyes of someone new to your community and the United States. Hosting an exchange student can open you up to new ways of looking at the world, make you appreciate your own culture more than before, and help you make long-term friendships around the world.

But it’s not automatic. We can’t wave a magic wand and say “this new person will fit into your family perfectly as of Day One!” It takes work by both the family and the student. Teachers and counselors at the school will help (and often are under-appreciated). What parents back home do and say can either help adjustment or hinder it. Finally, the exchange organization should be part of the working mix — your local representative can be a lifesaver!

Often, when we as coordinators realize that there is a problem, we find that there are things going on that neither the student nor the family have talked about. The students are teenagers, so it’s not a surprise that they either believe they can solve everything themselves or think they’ll get in trouble for “complaining.” Interestingly, though, we sometimes find the same pattern among adults. We often find host families do not contact their coordinator because they feel as adults they should be able to deal with a teenager with no outside help, or they worry about bothering their organizational contact about “little” things. Sometimes, it takes a student move for the student and the host family to learn that open communications are critical to a successful hosting experience — perhaps more open and more direct than they may be used to within their own family.

Moving a student out of the host family home is usually not a reflection on the student’s personality or on the host family’s ability to provide a suitable home. Most of the time, it’s a communication issue (or a combination of communication issues that build up — see this prior blog post). This is a “people to people” experience, and you are not just dealing with different cultures but different personalities. No one can promise you that it will be a perfect experience, or an easy one. That’s not how relationships work.

Last year, we moved a student out of one host family home into another. The student did fabulously in the new family. The original family is now considering hosting again. They realize that while they wished their student had done some things differently, they could have done things differently as well. They chose their first student without asking many questions, and know now the kind of personality that might fit better in their family. They have learned that trying to solve problems by themselves without bothering their program coordinator isn’t always a good idea (the student learned this as well). The little things became big things, like a snowball rolling downhill.

We urge host families to host again if they feel they had a negative experience the first time. If you are ever in that situation yourself, we urge you to brainstorm with your coordinator right away. Your coordinator can help you see what might be going on with your student — maybe he or she is lonely, homesick, having problems at school, having trouble making friends, or worried about something going on back home. Remember that dealing with people is complicated. Learn from the experience. You might want to choose a student based on personality type rather than focusing on specific student interests, for example; what a teenager likes when they fill out their application may not be what they are interested in 6 or 9 months later when they leave for their exchange year. So think about what type of personality would fit into your home. Are there cultures and countries that might fit your family’s personality better? Think about what you could do differently, not just what you wish your student had done differently. Should you impose more structure early on this time around, whether on the level of communications with back home, or the amount of  Internet use?

Even we coordinators sometimes have hosting experiences that result in moving a student out of our home. We choose not to use the words “negative” or “bad” to describe those experiences, to try and get readers (whether you are a host family, student, or worried parent back home) to look at the situation differently. Moving a student out of a host family is a tough decision for family, student, and coordinator. We don’t do it lightly, because we know that working at a relationship can improve it, and we don’t want to encourage the idea that if it’s not perfect from Day One you can wave a magic wand and start over with a new perfect host family or student.

Sometimes, however, it’s best for the student and host family to start again. We don’t send students home just because their first host family didn’t work out the way we had planned, and we have seen how the second time around can be a huge success. It can be the same on the host family’s side as well, and we urge anyone who feels they had a “bad” experience to not let that determine the future. Don’t avoid experiences . . . learn from them!

 

words never a failure always a lesson on chalkboard

Host Family Tips: How Can I Help My New Exchange Student in The First Few Weeks?

airplane with welcome words

Bringing a student into the home is not an automatic “we will live happily ever after” situation. It requires work and time to build a good relationship. It amazes us every year to see the lengths that families go to welcome their students: taking them on excursions around the community, showing them the local high school, and just spending time with them. Even with such enthusiasm, however, it can be helpful to think a bit about how to direct your efforts.

Here are some of our basic recommendations.

Exhaustion

Your student may not be up for a major tour of the city when you pick him or her up. She may have just come from her home country, or she may have spent several days at an exchange program’s post-arrival orientation. Either way, she won’t have slept much. Food is generally appreciated; you might want to stop at a favorite eating spot on the way home or make sure to have something tasty ready at home.

camouflage-1297384_640Even if your student seems alert and says he/she is not tired, the change in time zones will cause fatigue and confusion in ways the student may not realize, and not just the first day or two after arrival. Listening and talking in a foreign language is physically exhausting, too. Don’t be surprised if your student wants to take naps for awhile even if she has had a full night’s sleep; this can continue for several weeks.

If you are thinking about inviting family friends and neighbors to a welcome party, you might want to wait a few days. You might think a party is a great idea, and the extended family may be excited about meeting your new family member. We’ve found, however, that meeting all those new people — with their many different voices speaking English in many different ways — can be overwhelming to teens struggling to stay on their feet and desperately trying to understand what is going on around them.

Confusion and Hesitation

It’s normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. Many students arrive thinking they will not have adjustment difficulties. They think they know the US from having been here on a vacation, perhaps, or from watching so many TV shows and movies. They arrive … and suddenly they realize that streets are different, stories are different, houses are different, and the way people walk and talk are different. They panic, sometimes consciously but sometimes at a deeper level.

Let your student know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that you can help them. Encourage your student to talk about how he or she is feeling. Try to get them involved in something to keep busy: read a book, watch movies or TV shows in English to work on language, talk walks to get used to the neighborhood, go to the mall. Ask your local contact if it’s possible for your student and others in the program to get together.

Language

Students must have a reasonable command of English in order to be eligible to be an exchange student. That doesn’t mean they are fluent.

Students in the beginning will likely understand anywhere from 70–80% of what you and others say. It’s the 20-30% they don’t understand that causes miscommunication and results in host families and students complaining about each other. Your student may nod at everything you say, either because he is sure he understands (and he probably really believes he has understood the important parts) or because he doesn’t have a clue but is too polite to say so. Speak slowly, be careful about using slang or idioms, and be prepared to repeat yourself on the same subject several times. Your student’s brain is literally working full-time trying to translate. Feel free to ask your student to restate a key point back to you to make sure it got through.

Start Conversations

Host families often tell us in the beginning of the year that they think their student is quieter than he or she comes across in the student’s application. The same students will tell us they are too nervous to talk and so remain quiet. Don’t assume that the quiet hesitant student you may see the first few days is the “real” person.

You can help your student to start talking. Have you heard of a conversation jar? Put possible conversation topics onto strips of paper and put the topics into a jar. In the evenings at dinner, pull one out at random and make everyone say something about the topic. You can easily find conversation jar lists online (sample lists here and here), or come up with your own! Another idea is to ask your student to come to the dinner table prepared to talk about a “story of the day” from the news.

Start Small

Take your student on errands. Things that may not feel like a major excursion for you — or a fun one — will be new for your student. Grocery shopping can be an event in itself. See if your community has a store specializing in products from your student’s home country; perhaps you can buy ingredients to make his favorite meal and learn something about your student’s culture and cuisine at the same time.

Show your student around the house and begin to explain how things “work” in your family. Does he have laundry yet? Talk about the washer and dryer. When do you want him to change the sheets on his bed? Explain where you keep the sheets and where to put dirty ones. If your student goes for a walk or takes the bus into town while you are work, do you expect her to tell you ahead of time? Explain, and tell her why it’s important.

ice-cream-1101396_640Take a walk with your student around the neighborhood and show him key spots and interesting places. Is there a park nearby, and is it OK if she goes for a walk or run on her own through the park? How far is the grocery store — can she walk there? Do you have an extra bike she can ride (with a bike helmet)? Show her the way. Where are the post office and the library? For teens, snacks and “hangouts” are important; show them where to get ice cream or frozen yogurt, if you have a good place nearby.

In short, think about what you might want to know in a brand-new place, and try not to make assumptions about your student’s personality or what he or she knows or understands. Watch her, listen to her, and get her involved at school. Talk about conflicts early. Following these recommendations now can help you set the tone for the whole year.

Is Culture Shock A Good Thing?

We’ve written before (see here and here, for example) about the impacts of culture shock as our students arrive on our shores thinking exchange student life will be easy and then realizing — rather suddenly — that life is harder than they thought. We’ve also shared thoughts (see here and here) on what it’s like when our students return home.

We recently came across the infographic below, which argues that we should not only anticipate culture shock, we should embrace it. We agree! Culture shock isn’t a bad thing or a good thing. It’s a neutral term, used to describe how people feel when they arrive in a place far different from the place they are used to. “Shock” probably isn’t the best word to use, since it implies something negative has happened. The experience is more “culture engagement” than “culture shock,” whether we’re talking about landing in a foreign place for the first time or returning home feeling like a stranger.

world connected
Becoming connected is a process that takes time and effort

As the infographic notes, this transition experience is “entirely normal, usually unavoidable, and is nothing to feel embarrassed about.” Embrace the differences you see and keep yourself busy as you get used to new things. Think about the idea that the confusion and anxiety starts even before you leave home; we reported a few weeks ago about students who were already nervous about their new host family and whether they would be able to adjust to their new life.

What can students and host families do?

Communicate (with each other!).

  • words share your storyStudents: Of course, you will want to communicate with your family back home. But think about the connections you are trying to make here in your host country. Start conversations with your host parents and host siblings. If you won’t have any host siblings, ask if there are ways to meet people of your own age before school starts.
  • Families: Help your student to get to know you and to open up by starting conversations. Conversations can be on issues as small as “what’s your normal dinner time? Let’s compare!” to political issues of the day. Want some conversation starter ideas? Find some suggestions here and here.

Do something with each other to help get past the initial awkwardness.

  • Students: Offer to cook some meals from your home country. Ask your mom or dad for a recipe. Ask your host sister/brother, host mom/dad if they can help. They will probably be excited about the idea of cooking something new. Go anywhere and everywhere you can with your host family. If your host parents ask if you want to run errands with them, say yes even if it doesn’t sound exciting — it might be more interesting than you think, since it will be new to you. Watch TV with them, even if you’ve never watched that show before or have some trouble understanding new voices.
  • Families: Do all of the above in reverse! Have a meal or two based on recipes from your student’s home country. Take your student grocery shopping and on other errands. Explain the plot of your favorite TV show when everyone sits down to watch. Involve your student in as much as possible.

Stay busy.

As a new exchange student, think about getting involved in something in your host country — a sport, drama, music, art. Take walks. Go for a run. Offer to take the dog for a walk. Take the bus into the downtown area. Ask your coordinator if you can meet other students in your area. Families can help with all of this; show your student local walking trails or where it’s OK to go for a run. Show your student local public transit. Call other host families and arrange movie nights or excursions.

Embrace culture shock; it’s why you’re here!

why culture shock is a good thingThe original infographic can be found at ExpatChild.com. Photo credits Pixabay.com and Thinkstock.com.