I met some of my new exchange students at the airport this weekend; six of my new group arrived in Portland on Saturday, as well as students who will be supervised and guided by other local coordinators in NW Oregon and SW Washington. Host families waited excitedly in the waiting room with colorful signs, balloons, and lots of excited murmuring.
You could feel the excitement in the air. People would ask anxiously, “has the plane landed yet?” and “where are they, shouldn’t they be coming out by now?” and “is that them?” And eventually — “there they are!” The excitement is contagious — I felt just as excited and nervous about it as our host families, I think!
The students, on the other hand, looked a bit frazzled and bedraggled, although they tried to smile for their arrival photos. They dragged their carry-on luggage or looking hunched over with packs on their backs, and dragging their feet. They can be forgiven for this; this group came from a 10-day language and culture immersion camp in New England, and had to leave camp shortly after midnight to make it to the airport for their cross-country trek to the West Coast.
Some of the host families have many things planned for August: trips to family elsewhere in the state, visits to Seattle or San Francisco, excursions to summer farmers’ and crafts markets, perhaps the State Fair or the Oregon coast. There will be visits to local landmarks: the families’ local high school, of course, where their student will attend school for a semester or academic year; their town or city’s downtown center; places where teens hang out. In Portland, favorite places to “show off” the city include Powell’s Books, the Portland Saturday Market, and Niketown, among other fun attractions. We will have an entry meeting to talk about rules and expectations (perhaps not so exciting) and a “get to know each other” meeting with pizza or a sleepover (perhaps more exciting).
But all that can wait. For this weekend, as the students arrive, it’s a blurry whiz of a ride to a place they do not yet call “home,” but will; a whirlwind tour of their new home provided by excited family members; something to eat other than airplane snacks, and a long night’s sleep. And with that, our year begins. It may take a few days (or a few weeks….) for the students to really be themselves, and then the year really begins!
Every year, I send my new students some pieces of advice for them to think about before they travel to the U.S. for their exchange semester or year. Here are some tips that expand on recent advice I’ve given to my new student group, as they prepare to leave their home for their host countries in a few weeks for the new school year. Host families might find these tips useful, too, for thinking about how to get communications started with their new student.
Contact your host family as soon as your program gives you their contact information, and send them some photos, too.
Don’t hesitate when you get the message that you have a host family – contact them right away! You may feel that you are very busy with the end of your school year and preparations for your travels. You may be nervous about your language skills, and you may not know what to say — you don’t know them yet, after all, so where do you start?
Keep in mind that your host family is aware of those things; in fact, they may be nervous, too! But they are as excited to start to get to know you as you are about your upcoming exchange. And think about how it might look to them if you don’t contact them right away, or if you do not respond to an email from them. I think this is something teens may not think about in their excitement about all the things they need to do before they leave home. If you do not respond to a note from your host family, they may think you don’t care very much about them, and you don’t want the semester or year to start that way. So send them a note. It’s OK if your first note is a short one, they will understand. Include a couple of photos!
Get used to using email!
Many teens don’t use email as much as even a couple of years ago. Certainly, communication styles are changing. Contacting people through text messages, Facebook posts and messages, and Twitter is more common; for many teens these methods are their primary means of communication with friends and, sometimes, family. But many exchange programs (at least in the U.S.) discourage host families and students from making first contact through Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, directing new host families to email or call their students first. Even after students arrive, communication through social media sites may be limited by program rules or host family lifestyle and customs. Email is a good way to establish contact with your host family and tell them about yourself and your family, and may be one of the ways your exchange program contacts you through your exchange period.
Ask your host family about their house rules and lifestyle now, before you arrive.
Ask your host family about how they live – if you have two host parents, do they both work? How do they get to work, and what do they do? If you will have host brothers or sisters, how old are they? Ask your host parents for advice on small gifts you could bring for your host siblings. Will you walk to school, or will there be a bus? How far is your host home from the city center in your community? What chores do children in the family have? What are typical meal times in your host country culture and in your host family? What does your host family typically do on weekends? These are all good ways to start a conversation, too, and will help show your interest in your host family’s way of life.
Learn something about your host county/city/community now, even before you go.
With the power of modern technology, you can find out so many things! How big is the city or town where you will live? Where is it located in your host country? What is the weather like? How far is the high school from your host home? Look up your high school on the Internet and find out as much as you can about the school; perhaps you can even download a list of classes offered that you could look at before you arrive. Find a book about the region of the country where you will be living — you could read it on the plane! Here are a couple of examples for students coming to the Pacific Northwest, where I live — one practical guide, and one that is “off the beaten path.” You can find something equivalent for whatever your destination!
What are your goals for your exchange semester/year?
Now that your exchange is feeling very real to you – think about what you might want to do (in addition to going to school, of course!).
* For students going to the U.S. or the U.K., are you hoping to improve your English? It’s pretty much guaranteed that you will, when every conversation and every class will be in English. But there are ways you can move that process along faster and more completely; for example, you can invest in a self-study program (such as Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, or Berlitz, or check out language podcasts, videos, and apps for your smartphone) that you can work on to focus on grammar and vocabulary. You can force yourself to start conversations in English, even when you are not sure what to say – don’t worry about stumbling over words.
* At your host high school, do you have classes you are required to take, either to get credit back home or because your exchange program requires them? Get those classes on your list, and then look at everything else — take classes you would not have the opportunity to take back home.
* Do you want to learn a new sport and find ways to make friends in your host country? Join a sport team at school if it’s allowed, or sign up for a sport through a city or town league. Join a club. If your host family goes to church, join a youth group (or perhaps you can join such a group even if your host family doesn’t attend church).
Finally – speak up, ask questions, talk.
Communication is perhaps the most important thing you can learn and do during your exchange. I’m talking about all kinds of communication –
* basic questions about where things are located, how appliances work, and basic family rules in your host home.
* any time you do not understand even just a portion of what someone has just said to you – don’t assume you get it just because you understood half of it. You may have missed the critical half.
* talking to your host parents or your program representative when you do not know or do not understand a particular host family or program rule. They may not be able or willing to change the rule, but they should be able to explain to you why the rule exists.
* talking to your program representative if something is just not going right in your host family. Perhaps you feel you are not getting along with a host sibling, or you feel your host parents are mad at you. Chances are it’s something that can be worked out – but not unless you tell someone and ask for help.
No teenager about to leave for their exchange year is going to do all of these recommendations – we know that! The point is to help get things started on the right foot, and that doesn’t take a lot of work. So think about these suggestions and do your best – ask questions, send an email or two – and pack your bags!