Behind the Scenes: A Day in the Life of an Exchange Coordinator

People who are involved with hosting exchange students — whether it be as a host family, student, parent back home, teacher or counselor at school — know the basic rule that their coordinator will be contacting them by phone or in person at least once every month. It’s right there in the regulations.

Sometimes, it really is just one time during the month. But often the “at least” part comes into play with additional phone calls on a particular issue or question, text messages and emails, or public comments on non-confidential issues on Facebook or Instagram.

What families and students often don’t realize is how much time can go into being an exchange coordinator and the full scope of their involvement. Local coordinators usually do receive some payment from the exchange organization. The reality, however, is that most coordinators spend a lot more time than they are compensated for in order to help “make it work” — the “it” being the success of our students, the bonding we want to see between student and host families, and the benefits to our own children and local schools. That takes more than a monthly phone call or visit.

Exchange coordinators are full-time moms or dads with children of their own, parents who teach high school and work on exchange in the evenings, school bus drivers, grade school principals, or lawyers. Coordinators might try to consolidate their exchange program tasks, but it doesn’t always work out; if a student is upset about something back home or about something that just happened at school, he or she isn’t going to wait until the weekend. If a host family has a major concern, we hope they will call, too.

But if we do set aside a Saturday to catch up, and if it was to be combined with the usual calls out of the blue, it might look something like this…..

10:00 am. Regular monthly check in call with student. Talk about school, how are things with his host family, what activities/fun stuff has he done lately. He’s a happy guy, and promises he’ll call if he has any problems.

10:15 am. Text from a host mom. Exchange student was injured at soccer, taking him to urgent care and will circle back once she knows more.

11:00 am. Monthly check in call with another host mom. She’s a bit concerned about her student, who is struggling in two classes. We talk about things the student can do and suggestions on how the host parents can help. It’s early in the year, so we’re not too concerned yet; the issue now will be what action the student takes.

word study background of textbooks

11:30 am. Work on issues related to the program: write emails to people who have asked for information about hosting, make some phone calls. Mostly I leave phone messages, but I do talk to a mom who has expressed interest in the past and who thinks this next year might be good timing for the family, and I make a note to send her some additional information.

12:30 pm. Text from host mom whose student was injured at soccer. They are at the emergency room waiting for X-rays. Student still cheerful, not complaining. She includes a photo of a grinning student.

12:45 pm. Following up on 11:30 phone call, check organization database for student applications to send based on the description the potential host mom gave me about the family’s interests and lifestyle. Pull applications of a few girls who like dance and theater since that seems to be a key family interest.

1:00 pm. Receive call from a coordinator asking how many students have signed up for our next group excursion in two weeks, and can a student she is supervising still join the activity. We agree that if the student’s host parents are OK with the trip, if she can get the natural parent permission form signed in the next couple of days, and if she immediately sends in the required payment, she can go.

1:15 pm. Call from host mom. Student has hairline fracture. No soccer for a while!

2:00 pm. Text from a student I just spoke to a week ago. It’s a bit like getting a phone call at midnight from your child in college — your first thought is “what has happened?” I cautiously ask, how are things? The student asks if she can get a job to earn some money; homecoming cost more than she expected. I explain to her that the U.S. government does not allow J-1 visa exchange students to get a regular job, but she can occasionally babysit or do yard work to earn a little cash. She’s not thrilled, but seems to understand.

3:00 pm. Text from student asking if it is ok if her parents visit at Christmas. Her host parents suggested that it might be better if her parents visited at the end of the exchange year and the student texts that this is not reasonable, this is her family. I call the student (I don’t want to have this conversation by text), and I explain that Christmas really is a time to spend with her American host family, so that she can learn about our customs and her host family’s traditions. I tell her that I know that her host family is really looking forward to sharing that with her. At the end of the year, she won’t have school or other obligations and she can really show her parents around the area. She says she understands this better now. I send an email to our main office asking them if they can get in touch with the student’s family in her home country and ask them not to visit at Christmas.

4:00 pm. Text from student asking if she can go on one of the trips our group is organizing. I ask her if she has asked her parents back home, her host parents, and her coordinator. She says her host parents and her coordinator told her she couldn’t go unless she brings her math and biology grades up and she doesn’t think this is fair. She isn’t going to be able to travel much this year because her host family doesn’t have plans to go on any big trips, so the trip is really important to her. I explain that she does have to be passing all her classes before she can go on the trip. She has several months to bring her grades up. We talk about what she can do to show she is making a strong effort. I make a note to talk to her coordinator to make sure she, too, is in the loop on this.

5:00 pm. Turn off the phone and go for a walk with the dogs.

Why do we do it? Sometimes we ask ourselves that question … especially if one of these calls is telling us about a particularly poor teenage decision that may result in a student’s early return home, or if a host family has a personal emergency that requires us to move a happy student out of his or her host family home. But then there’s this from a host parent after her student returned home:

I am trying to tell myself that nothing changes — that no matter where we all are, she remains family. And yet…no more having her come out to give a sleepy good morning hug. No more dinnertime conversations, or card games, or quick rides to the store. All that stopped as she walked down the security line at the airport tonight….I believe it. Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.

And this from a student:

I love you all so so much and words cannot explain how much it hurts me to leave this wonderful place. … I know for sure that my way will take me back here sooner or later – after all, I have family here now and lots of amazing friends. I want to especially thank my family for having me this year and making me feel less like “the exchange student” but like “our family member.”

That’s why.

boy with open arms and beautiful rainbow

Why We Believe

person holding globe in front of them

Our new year starts this weekend, with one student arriving this Saturday . . . and then next week about a dozen more . . . and almost a dozen more over the following two weeks. Host families they have never met will be waiting for these teens. Families have gone to great lengths to make their new family members feel welcome — perhaps repainting bedrooms, re-arranging space in homes, making personal welcome signs, and making plans for showing their student the community in which he or she will be living. They will greet these strangers walking out of the airport’s security area with the kind of the enthusiasm usually reserved for immediate family members.

With the stroke of a pen (well, the clickety clack of a few keystrokes), we exchange coordinators create new bonds and create paths to new friendships and relationships. It’s a joy to watch and an awesome responsibility. We know there’s a ton of work to do; our role doesn’t end the day the students arrive. Indeed, you could say it’s just beginning.

We believe in the value of these exchanges, and that the work is worthwhile. We’ll end today with this video … yes, it’s a promotional video, but it’s a darn good one, and makes some good statements on why we believe in hosting, in the words of host families who have done it and students who have experienced it.

See you at the airport!

 

Feature photo credit: Slava Bowman

More Beginnings: New Goals!

one sign over here other sign no this way with sky in background

Over the years, we have learned so much about the challenges involved when students leave their countries to experience a different culture. It’s difficult for parents to see their children fly away, often for their first lengthy absence from home. It can be difficult for the students to adapt to different behaviors and expectations in the United States (as when one student confused Spam with cat food…). And host families may not know how to successfully welcome a student into their home. We’re proud to be a part of this — to be able to send more mature students home to their parents and to be able to help facilitate Americans learning about other cultures, one person at a time.

It’s not always an easy path from August to June — 10 months is a long time. The reality is that everyone involved is human, and humans make mistakes. Most of these mistakes don’t have to lead to big problems, but sometimes they do. Small misunderstandings and cultural differences blossom into conflicts for many students and their host families every year. We started The Exchange Mom blog and website several years ago with the goal of helping to tackle these kinds of misunderstandings on a broader level than just our own local exchange student community. We hope it’s playing that role, and we’re gratified by the followers that The Exchange Mom has on Facebook and Twitter. We would like to make it something more, though.

That’s why we have set up a Patreon page. For those who are not familiar with it, Patreon is a crowdfunding platform for people creating all kinds of work: written work as well as podcasts, videos, artwork, music, and more. Instead of gathering up funds in one sitting and then moving forward like Kickstarter, Patreon’s “creators” are paid by patrons who pledge an ongoing amount. A patron can be anyone who believes in the item being created, and contribution amounts can range from $1/month and up — you can choose!

With your support, we can take our role as “exchange year information source” further. We’re not charging for our content; our website is still here and we’re still blogging, and that’s still free. We’re just asking for your support. We would like to be able to post more often, as well as provide tips on a more regular basis. We would like to be able to update and add to our website. We have goals of doing videos and perhaps even pulling together thoughts for another book. We don’t know yet exactly the direction this will take us … it makes us nervous but hopefully it will be fun, too!

roads going off to right and left with question mark in the middle

I remember a few short months ago going to the home of one of our host families to say goodbye to their student from the Netherlands, who was getting ready to return home after her one-semester adventure here in the U.S. We both began to cry. But it was a good cry…recognizing all the ups and downs during the past six months, the things she has learned, the “stepping outside your comfort zone.” She has grown so much! And seeing that growth — and being a small part of it — is why we do what we do.

We couldn’t even dream of this project without you — our followers here on the blog and website. We welcome your support at any level.

 

Support the Exchange Mom on Patreon!

 

Patreon in black on red background

How Do U.S. Prom and Graduation Ceremonies Differ From Those in Our Students’ Home Countries?

graduation and senior written all over

At this time of year, many of our students are thinking about prom and other American end-of-year school customs. Prom itself is a custom that many students find strange. Those who are classified as seniors at their U.S. high schools look forward to the graduation ceremony and post-graduation parties.

I found this infographic the other day, which I thought might be fun to share and compare with our own traditions here in the U.S. Fun — and interesting. Elaborate traditions are not common in many countries (note the graphic’s comment about Germany); imagine how our complex prom rituals must come across to students! In the United Kingdom, it appears that high school graduation ceremonies are unusual; imagine what fun it must be for students from such countries to experience one.

The original infographic can be found at Graduation Traditions Around the World at Daily Infographic.

infographic worldwide graduation traditions
Source: Graduation Traditions Around The World, Daily Infographic, Aug. 2015

A Student’s Question: Should I be an Exchange Student?

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The real question “is not whether you should do an exchange year or not, because you should. Everyone should. … The real question is, when should you do an exchange?”

6 Reasons Why You Should Do An Exchange While Still in High School (Nationality Unknown, Dec. 2014)

Yes. If you can make it happen, you should.

The purpose of educational exchange and cultural programs is to support personal growth, lead to a deeper understanding about foreign cultures, and improve international relationships. What better way to do that than to go to school in a foreign country, live with a family, and learn what daily life is like?

There is a saying in the international exchange community, “exchange is not a year in one’s life, but a life in a year.” Students return home with more maturity after having lived for so long without the cushion of family and long-time friends. They also have a better understanding of what their host country is all about, and perhaps a better idea of what the world is all about. They’ve learned about another culture, and the differences and the similarities. They know better than to believe everything they see in the media — wherever they have gone, the media coverage has no doubt not been completely accurate.

USA, Oregon,Portland, man with bicycle There are some practical reasons as well that students might find more intuitive. Thinking about what you want to do with your life after high school or college can be daunting. Spending a half or full year abroad during high school or college may help you formulate your thoughts more clearly. You can pursue interests and activities you might not have done back home; you might find out you want to pursue theater or art simply because you took an acting class at your U.S. high school. You might discover you do not, in fact, want to be a research scientist after spending six month doing a particular kind of research.

Is There Evidence That It Will Help Me?

There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that studying abroad in high school will help you in college applications, graduate school admissions, and job applications. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan (author of Student Guide to Study Abroad and Preparing to Study in the USA) wrote in 2013 that when she asked employers what they liked about potential applicants who had studied abroad, employers noted the ability to solve problems in situations the applicant had not dealt with, adaptability, communication skills, and knowledge of another culture.

For U.S. teens, study abroad in high school certainly would help you to stand out from the crowd in your college application process. It takes guts to choose to spend a semester or academic year abroad at any age; college admissions counselors are going to look carefully at a student who has shown he or she can do it in high school. It shows a willingness to try new things, an ability to deal with the unexpected, and a desire to learn. Similar arguments apply to college students considering a study abroad program during their undergraduate career.

Patrick Stephenson, former speechwriter for the NATO secretary-general, wrote this about his junior year of high school in Spain:

Inspired by an ancient and noble culture, I turned from a mediocre sophomore with average grades into an accomplished high school senior with an impressive academic record. The experience paved my way to Yale and a career in international politics.

He argues that U.S. students should study abroad in high school. Benefits from his point of view include learning another language and culture, improving one’s resume for college and future job prospects, learning about one’s own capabilities, and more. He emphasizes the importance in today’s global economy of having citizens who understand the world and how we all fit into the bigger picture.

What About My Parents?

High school students sometimes ask us how they can convince their parents that study abroad is a good idea. We suggest that they recognize that their parents have valid concerns and reasonable questions. Parents may well be worried about all the unknowns — a normal human response. Students can educate their parents — and themselves — by doing the research and providing parents with real information about what is involved in studying abroad.

  • Read materials on blogs (like this one!) and study abroad websites.
  • Read carefully through the websites of some of the exchange programs. Call and talk to someone and ask for details about programs and countries that interest you.
  • For some students, starting out with a short-term study abroad or exchange program might be a good way to go. Going abroad for 3-4 weeks can be one way to get used to the idea and help a nervous teen — and a nervous parent — feel more comfortable with being in a different culture and living in a strange place.

But Things Can Go Wrong!

Of course. Going to live in a foreign country in a culture that may be very different from what you are used to. Life will not be the same as getting up and going to school at home. The experience will challenge you in ways you cannot imagine ahead of time. Things will not go the way they do in the movies or on a television show. Unexpected problems can arise. That is, after all, life. Things may not go the way you want them to in your ordinary home country life, either.

passport and knapsack* You might “fail” in the sense that you do poorly academically, for example, no matter how hard you try. That does not necessarily mean that you have really “failed.” In many cases, academics are not the point of the experience. Indeed, many students don’t receive academic credit for their exchange year.

* Getting used to a different school system can be a challenge and can contribute to poor grades simply because you don’t know what is expected of you. The confusion can cause anxiety and worry that you may not do things correctly.

* Communicating in a different language on a daily basis is likely to be harder and more exhausting than you think it will before you go. You may think you understand what people around you are saying, but it will turn out you have missed key concepts. This can contribute to poor academics and difficulties in your relationships with people around you, including the people you live with.

* Making friends may be much more difficult than you thought it would be. If you’re used to having the same group of friends for years, or if you are not the most talkative person, having to make outreach to make friends can be a challenge. Foreign students often start out thinking that everyone knows they are an international student, and wonder why don’t my teachers know? Why aren’t people coming up to me to introduce themselves? Exchange students often feel that they have “failed” if they have not made friends after a month or two. We hope you can recognize that this can take time.

* Something bad could happen. Yes. Don’t live your life, however, in the fear that something could possibly happen someday, somewhere. Bad things can happen anywhere, at any time. Bad things can also happen at home, and if you stay home, you won’t meet people who could change your life, or see wonders that could affect how you view the world – or learn about other cultures and customs.

Studying abroad is, first and foremost, an instructive exercise in failure. . . . the lesson you learn — that initial setbacks, patience and work are the prerequisites for eventual success — is more important than an A in Calculus.  That lesson can’t be taught. It must be learned firsthand.  A high school year abroad is a quick and dirty way to discover just how ignorant you are. As such, it’s the door to a lifetime of learning and discovery.

Why High School Students Should Study Abroad (Patrick Stephenson, Huffington Post, March 2015)

 

 

Photo credits: Thinkstock.com, Daniel Sankowski/Unsplash