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

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

Schools: The Remaining Piece of the Exchange Placement Puzzle

High school exchange is like a jigsaw puzzle: many pieces must fall into place in order for an exchange year to happen. Even more pieces have to come together for the exchange experience to be successful over the course of a semester or academic year and for it to be a positive experience for all involved.

There are many points in assembling the jigsaw puzzle where the process can encounter a problem or fall apart. Maybe a student doesn’t have high English scores, has pet allergies, is diabetic, or has other characteristics that make finding a host family more difficult. Economic hard times can make it more difficult to find host families. A host family’s medical problem or family emergency can disrupt their hosting plans; the same can disrupt a student’s plans to go abroad or require an early return home.

A placement requires not just a student and a host family, however. It requires a school. Host families and students’ families often do not fully understand the role of the host school in completing the jigsaw puzzle. Many families and students think that exchange organizations simply need to tell the school that an exchange student will be attending. It’s not that simple.

460425521First, the host family’s home address generally determines which school a student will attend (at least for J-1 visa students, the “traditional” high school cultural exchange system managed by the U.S. Department of State, which is what we’re talking about in this blog post). Host families generally cannot choose which high school their student will attend – it’s determined by school attendance maps. The “matching” process we coordinators talk about requires not only that a host family find a student that will hopefully be a good fit in the home, but also that the student will be a good fit for the  school, as well as that the school agrees to have an exchange student. There needs to be a “meeting of the minds” with a school for every student.

Many schools look forward to welcoming exchange students as a way to expand U.S. students’ horizons and adding cultural diversity to their student body. The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), working with exchange program organizations and school administrators to come up with general exchange student guidance, recommends:

American high schools should strive to accept international exchange students each year. The number of international exchange students that a high school will accept and the timing/deadlines for the process vary. These guidelines suggest a middle ground that recognizes the needs of schools and exchange programs, taking into account the increasing difficulty of securing early student applications and host family commitments. Ideally, schools should work toward a goal of 1% of the total student population being comprised of exchange students. Acknowledging that school conditions vary locally, it is important to set a personal goal that best fits each school community.

— Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, Model School Policy on International Student Exchange (2002).

But there are conflicting interests in play for schools. These are most obvious when schools face limits on teacher and financial resources. Schools may fear the extra burdens non-native speakers add to already over-worked teachers. Athletic directors and state athletic associations may express concerns about foreign students taking competition opportunities away from permanent students.

The result is that school districts and individual schools often limit how many exchange students they can accommodate. They may allocate these “slots” on a first-come first-served basis. They may assign slots to individual exchange programs they know and trust, or set limits on each exchange organization (e.g., no more than 1 student per organization at a school). They may limit how many students can come from a particular country to increase diversity. They may require language scores higher than the U.S. Department of State minimum.

Most of us working in the field think that school restrictions are perfectly reasonable. It’s reasonable, for example, to set higher criteria for language proficiency, or to ensure a diversity of country representation among exchange students.

Sometimes, however, schools go beyond the steps described above and fundamentally (if unintentionally) rearrange the jigsaw puzzle pieces required for a successful exchange student placement. Perhaps a school has encountered problems with individual exchange students in the past. Perhaps a school decides for resource reasons it will reduce the number of students it will accept in the coming year. This can lead schools to radically change how they handle exchange student applications.

Let’s look at an example of how this can come about. A school district announces it will reduce by about half the number of exchange students its schools will accept for the coming year. It will accept applications from any exchange organization, but will hold all applications until after a deadline in late Spring. The district will inform the exchange organizations a few weeks later, close to the end of the school year, which students from which exchange organizations the district will accept for the coming academic year.

The school district genuinely believes this process will address its needs. It will still have exchange students in local schools, and district officials believe that by looking at all applications before deciding, they will get the “best” students. What district officials don’t see is that by adopting this process, they are fundamentally rearranging the jigsaw puzzle pieces in a way that is incompatible with how exchange student placement works. Over time, such an approach could break the model of high school exchange. Here’s why:

  • A key constraint in placing high school exchange students is the availability of host families. The benefits of hosting a student are significant, but it’s not something that everyone is ready to do. It’s hard to find families willing to open up their home for 9-10 months and to take on the financial and other burdens of a new teenager in their home. Finding host families is a key challenge for exchange coordinators.
  • The process of looking for host families begins as early as the Fall — almost a year before students arrive. With thousands of students being placed across the country, it’s a big job. By Spring, exchange organizations have finalized the placement of a large fraction of these students and are focusing on getting remaining students placed.
  • When a school announces it will select a specific number of exchange students from all applications filed by a Spring deadline, it introduces enormous uncertainty for everyone involved. How many host families should each exchange organization try to find? What should each exchange organization tell potential host families? Please fill out all the forms, go through the interviews and background checks, and choose a student, but we can’t tell you how likely it is your student will be selected? Should host families be encouraged to pick the most physically attractive students, or just the academically most superior, in the hope they’ll have an edge in the selection process? Are these really the criteria on the basis of which host families should be choosing a student, as opposed to how good a fit the student will be for the family and the community? We would argue “no,” if we want the jigsaw puzzle pieces of a successful placement to fall into place.

Study abroad applicationIf schools all over the U.S. were to implement this kind of process, exchange organizations would suddenly have hundreds (even thousands) of “school-less” students on their hands in late Spring, just as schools all over the country are preparing to shut down for the summer. They would also have frustrated host families, and (if this were to become the pattern) many families back home wondering if their son or daughter will be headed for the U.S. after all.

Creating disruptive uncertainty around the exchange student selection process is playing with host families’ and exchange students’ lives, and far fewer students and host families are likely to pursue exchange at all. Why would potential host families go to the trouble of selecting a student and go through the host family application process if they have no idea whether they will be able to host the student? Will schools always make “better” exchange student choices than the matching done by exchange program coordinators and choices made by host families? While the students a school selects could be perfect examples of successful exchange students, they could just as likely end up being relatively poor fits for their host families, and create new problems for the school.

Hundreds of students—indeed thousands—come to the U.S. and succeed every year. And some don’t. They’re teenagers, after all, and they—and their host families—are people who sometimes do the right thing, and sometimes they don’t. We’ve learned from experience that exchange student success is almost impossible to predict from a student’s written application alone. There are better ways for schools to solve resource issues and other problems than getting into the exchange student selection business. Like everyone else involved, schools should work to understand the finely tuned nature of the exchange process jigsaw puzzle.