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.


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.


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 Photo credits and

Should I or Shouldn’t I: Why Should I Tell the Exchange Program Anything This Personal?

Students’ families back home clearly make some decisions about what to disclose when they fill out their applications for an exchange year in the U.S. In theory, anything relevant — personal interests, family situations, allergies, and medical issues — should be disclosed through the application and interview process. The exchange world is full of stories, however, about students who have showed up for their exchange with illnesses, allergies,  or difficult personal situations not mentioned in the student’s application.

Some undisclosed issues turn out to be relatively minor, and host families are able to adjust to them. Other issues, however, are more significant and can have a significant impact on a student’s life in his or her host family. At the very least, the discovery can create problems for  the student with the host family right at the beginning of the exchange when the relationship has just begun to develop. If a student is willing to hide the truth about a medical condition for which she has previously received treatment, hasn’t mentioned that he really cannot live with cats, or doesn’t disclose on the application his parents’ recent separation, will he not be able to be honest about other things? Some issues could affect whether this particular placement is the best situation for the student and the family. Some issues can result in a student becoming seriously ill while on the exchange or cause a student to have significant emotional distress that could have been avoided if dealt with in advance.

diabetes-528678_640We’ve had students show up with undisclosed allergies (“I need to get an allergy shot every month and the first one needs to be in a week!”). We’ve had students arrive right when parents are in the middle of a messy divorce. One student had been assaulted by a close relative shortly before coming to the U.S. and had not told anyone. Another student was treated for anorexia a few months before traveling to the U.S.; the student became seriously ill during her exchange and came very close to being hospitalized. We had a student in our own home who had serious emotional issues; his parents had sent him to the U.S. “to grow up.” These issues are not relevant only to high school international students, and we’re not trying to suggest it’s a majority (or even a significant minority) of students. But it does happen. When it does, it affects that student, that student’s host family, and that student’s circle of friends and community.

The issue of disclosure and the fear of how it could affect a student’s dream of going abroad is not limited to students. Host families, too, need to think about the impact of not disclosing key pieces of information during the screening process. They, too, fill out an application and have an interview. They, too are asked to self-disclose. They, too, sometimes fear that sharing certain types of personal information will affect their ability to be part of the exchange experience.

We explain it during the application process as an issue of family dynamics. It’s important for the exchange organization to know, for example, if a family has a complex joint custody situation — if the student will have host brothers one week and the next he’ll be by himself with his host parents, that affects daily life. It’s important for the organization to know if a host parent has a medical condition, such as multiple sclerosis or diabetes, both in terms of placing a student who would be appropriate and in understanding family dynamics (e.g., that’s why host dad doesn’t go on all the family hikes).

It’s equally important for the exchange program to hear about these kinds of issues as they develop later on, either before or after your student arrives. Have you received a diagnosis of cancer two months after your student has joined the family? You need to talk about this with your program representative. Is it an automatic “move the student”? Not necessarily; each case is different. When a host mother told us this diagnosis a few years ago, we talked to everyone involved: her, her husband, the student, and the student’s parents back home. He stayed in his host family. It was the right decision for him and for them — but it might not have been the right decision for another teenager and another family.

Did you learn over the summer, weeks before your student is scheduled to arrive, that you and your wife are expecting twins? Let’s talk about it; maybe it’s still OK for you to host this year, but maybe it’s not good timing. Have you learned that the strange symptoms you are experiencing are not just exhaustion but the sign of a previously unknown medical condition? Tell your coordinator. Maybe you’re still in a position to host your student. Maybe you should wait. But talk about it. Have you received a promotion at work that will require you to work additional hours? Tell the program.

friends with arms around each otherOn both sides of this equation – students/families, and host families – people are weighing the risks of disclosing or not. We know it’s difficult — we’re asking people to tell strangers personal details about their family life. But in the end, we’re working to help build relationships. Those relationships cannot be built on hiding the ball; if they’re to succeed, communication from the beginning is key.

Photo credits:

Is a One Semester Exchange Right for You?

We had six one-semester students in our group this year, more than ever before. It seems like we have seen more interest in shorter exchanges over time. Some one-semester students come for the first half of the U.S. school year; some come for the second semester. Our bottom line, recommendation is that if you can do a full year, do that instead. Here’s why:

  • It usually takes 2-4 months for students to figure out how the American school system works. It often takes that long or longer to make friends. It can take that long to really adjust to your host family’s lifestyle and family rules, as well as to feel comfortable in a totally new environment. One-semester students don’t miraculously learn or adjust faster than full-year students.
  • Students who come for the first semester often ask in November or December if they can extend their exchange for the full year. At that point, however, it may be too late to extend a student’s visa.
  • Students who start in the middle of the U.S. school year often have more difficulty adjusting than first semester students or full-year students. It’s not that hard to figure out why. When these students arrive, most students—both exchange students and permanent residents—have settled into the school year. Other exchange students who may also be attending the new student’s school have learned how the school system works, know the local community, and feel comfortable in their host family. There’s no one else who really understands the adjustment feelings of the new students; for other students, that’s in the past.
  • Students starting at the beginning of the second semester often have little time after they arrive before school starts. They don’t have a week or two before school starts to enjoy a short vacation with their new host family or to learn where things are in their community. They arrive, and school is likely to start within days.
  • The nature of short-term exchange makes it less likely that students and host family will develop the kind of long-lasting relationship that everyone hopes for — the kind where the host family visits their student back home in the future, or a host brother or sister spends vacation time with their exchange sibling’s family.
  • One-semester students may be less able to be able to take advantage of extracurricular activities like sports, drama, or band/orchestra. Music activities such as band, orchestra, and choir are often year-long activities for which a student needs to sign up at the beginning of the school year. Drama and theater activities and classes, and sports teams, may or may not be available for one semester students. Yet these activities are among the best ways to meet other students and learn how to “fit” into a new school.

These reasons are why we tend to recommend that students take advantage of a full year for their exchange.

We recognize, of course, that a full year is not always possible. If it isn’t possible for you, then it’s critical to work even harder to accelerate your adjustment process as much as possible. Suggestions:

  • Don’t be shy. Force yourself to talk from Day One. Make sure you start a conversation every single day to get yourself involved and to meet people.
  • Join a club, join drama or choir, or join a sports team. If you can’t do that at school (which may well be the case for a student entering mid-year), join a city sports league or sign up for an activity in the community. Most cities and many towns, even smaller ones, will have yoga classes, martial arts clubs, dance studios, and other opportunities.
  • Do NOT hang out in your bedroom. It doesn’t matter if all you are doing is reading a book in the living room, doing your math homework at the kitchen table, or watching TV with your host family — as long as you take advantage of opportunities. These are all places and activities that could get you started in a conversation. These conversations will help you become familiar with local culture and get to know your host family.
  • Limit your conversations—both spoken and in online messaging—with friends and family back home. Every 15 minutes you spend talking to friends and family back home is 15 minutes you’re not using to your advantage in your host family and host country, and probably takes you 30 minutes backward in terms of your adjustment process.

EF exchange 2014 on beachMost of our readers will note that we make these recommendations for full year students, too. Absolutely true! It’s just even more critical for half-year students, who do not have the luxury of time. A full-year student can observe the school scene for a few months before deciding on a sport or other extra-curricular activity. She can listen rather than talk for a while at the host family dinner table. A half-year student doesn’t have those few extra months, if she wants to be successful in her exchange, learn the culture, get to know people, and develop a relationship with her host family. Get started from Day One, and you’ll stand a much better chance of having a good half-year exchange experience.

Photo credits:; Jan Hück (German exchange student 2014-2015).

Scaring Exchange Students Straight

“Scared straight” programs were encouraged in the U.S. in the 1970s as a way of deterring juvenile crime. The idea was to show kids what prison looks like, and maybe they’ll decide “that’s not where I want to be.”

Taking high school exchange students to visit your local prison probably doesn’t serve much purpose. But there certainly are exchange students who need to be “scared straight.” We had such a student in our home for about two weeks over Thanksgiving. We’re not really following the “scared straight” model, not literally; hopefully, we come across “nicer” than that. But we do focus on giving the teens advice, a lot of it compacted into a short period of time.

In this case, the student was in the midst of the first part of a move – namely being asked to leave her initial host family. There are many reasons why a student might need to be moved. While not a precise figure, perhaps 15-20% of exchange students move during their year. Host parents lose a job, a host parent becomes ill, the students develops allergies to a host families’ pets. Sometimes, the “match” just doesn’t work, and the students doesn’t fit into the host family’s lifestyle. Sometimes miscommunications snowball from small things into bigger things, to the point where trying to fix it doesn’t make sense.

In the case of our Thanksgiving student, several factors contributed: miscommunications, poor language skills, a student’s “slowness” to adapt to local and family lifestyles, and student expectations that were not reasonable. The student’s expectation that it was the host family’s job to make the exchange year a success contributed to the problem. The host family tried to encourage the student, and the student tried to adapt. But she came from a city, and had difficulty adapting to a small town of 6,000 and a high school of 700 students.

Eventually, the host family reached their limit, and asked their local coordinator to come get the student. Because the local coordinators were already hosting a student from the same country, they could not legally have the student living in their home. So she came to us, shortly before Thanksgiving.

We’re not always popular with the 30+ students for whom we’re ultimately responsible. We’re the “boss.” We’re the ones who call you when you are in trouble. We’re the ones the kids don’t want to talk to.

We’re the ones who can, hopefully, help keep you from being sent home early.

What happened in the two weeks we shared our home with this teenage miscreant? Well, we think we scared her straight. She’s now in a new family, and seems to be doing very well. Fingers crossed.

In addition to the many students we’ve hosted for a full year, we have had many students come through our home for one week, two weeks, a month, or two months, while we or others look for a new host family. We teach these kids how to adapt, how to adjust, how to be a good ambassador of the exchange program and their country. We explain what they can do to change their behavior, and we are direct and honest in what they should not do in interacting with their host family. We help them see what they did wrong, if that is why they lost their host family. We show compassion. We repeat, again and again, the things they should do to be an exemplary exchange student – to be an “ambassador” of their country.

How does this translate into practical terms? It means we’re constantly talking; indeed, we have a reputation for talking all the time. We talk about everything and anything, ranging from small talk to big issues. It means we talk about table manners. We insist on “please” and “thank you.” It means, if a student is on his smartphone while we’re all watching TV, gently saying “please turn it off.” If the student says he is texting with his mom or a friend, we smile and repeat that there are times to talk to friends and mom – and there are times to focus on your host family. It means that we explain that if you go out, you ask first. You tell us where you are going, and you text to say when you will be back, because we’re “training” you for what to expect from an American host family. It means we expect you to help set the table, fill the dishwasher, and to do your own laundry (and to first ask how to do that).

It means we expect our students – and while they are with us, they are “our” students – to be at their best. The hope is, that the practice will become the reality in a new host family

In this case, we started out facing negativity. “I don’t like being in such a small town,” and “The people at my school are not friendly,” and “I don’t know why my host family asked me to move, I didn’t do anything wrong.” “No one likes me,” and “it’s a boring place.”

Two weeks later, our “miscreant” is in a new family. By the time we moved her, she was asking questions like: “when can I move? I want to get back to school!” and “have they finished the paperwork yet? How long will it take?” She was smiling a lot, and made jokes.

Success happens. But it takes effort. That’s what we do — or try to do, at least. The hoped-for happiness of the new placement is balanced by the sadness of the first host family. Due to no fault of their own, they lost a student, with whom they had hoped to have a long-term relationship. Moreover, we don’t enjoy being the “bad guy.” But hopefully we’ve saved the exchange year for the student, and avoided an early trip home. If so, we’ve done our job.

Photo credit: Joshua Earle