Sports as a Tool For International Youth Exchange

high school lacrosse players

Sports can be another great way to bridge gaps across cultures and to get people who may think they have nothing in common to start talking. So it is not a surprise that there are organizations around the world that do their best to bring young people from different countries together to meet over their favorite sport. The question arises, though, whether these organizations offer what you personally need from an exchange.

We sometimes get questions from people interested in working with exchange students through the medium of sports. In one case, an organization in Brazil contacted us, looking to find a way to send promising teen and pre-teen soccer athletes to the U.S. as exchange students to learn about the U.S. and to have an opportunity to play competitive soccer during a school year in the U.S. In another case, a small U.S. non-profit was hoping that exchange students from another country could participate in the organization’s program while studying here in the U.S. and obtain competitive level basketball training, with the possibility of being recruited for college-level play.

We also sometimes hear from parents. One email was from a father in Greece who had visited friends in Florida with his family. The friends offered to host his son so that he could go to high school in Florida and play varsity basketball at their school, and the father wanted advice on how to make that happen. Another email we received recently was from a parent in Germany. She wanted to make sure that her son would be able to play competitive soccer during his exchange year in the U.S. Should she just tell the exchange organization she wanted to go through? Should she herself search online for a family who had a teen who plays soccer, she wondered, or perhaps she should get in touch directly with high schools that have high-level soccer programs and then contact a sponsoring organization?

Great ideas. The devil, as always, is in the details. The answer we had to give these people was essentially that they could not do what they wanted to do.

What’s the Problem?

There is a great deal of concern in the U.S. about students “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons. That concern crosses over into the exchange student world, and it’s against U.S. government regulations to place an exchange student in a school specifically for the purpose of playing a particular sport. In fact, when a family finds its own host family for their student (what we call “direct placements”), those students generally cannot play sports at their school unless they get a waiver from the local high school athletics association certifying that the student was not placed at that school for sports reasons.

Many exchange students do engage in sports at their school or in their town. But there are no guarantees. An exchange student may not be able to qualify for a school team, particularly if the team is competitive; exchange students often have to try out for a team like everyone else. Some U.S. states limit exchange students to less competitive teams, keeping varsity team spots for American students who may be using their sports experience for a longer term purpose (such as trying to get a college scholarship, for example).

If an exchange student doesn’t qualify or can’t play varsity, or if he or she isn’t able to play on junior varsity for any reason, there often are local city leagues, recreational clubs, or even possibly a competitive club in the student’s desired sport. These options would be outside the school day, and would be at additional cost to the student and his or her family. It’s also important to note that these opportunities may or may not be at the competitive level the student is seeking.

What about the option of coming to the U.S. on an F-1 visa instead of a J-1 visa, since F-1 visa students apply directly to a school? We’ve been asked this question; parents have contacted us thinking that this is a way to make sure their child can play the sport of his or choice. However, because F-1 students choose the school they will attend, they generally are unable to play school sports. The concern about “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons still applies.

Are There Options?

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Sports Diplomacy Division focuses on sports-related exchanges. These are short-term exchanges and are not intended as academic programs, so these programs are not a solution, for example, for semester or year-long exchange students. The Division’s projects include:

  • Sports Envoy Program: Sports Envoys are athletes or coaches who lead overseas sports programs on behalf of the U.S. They hold sports clinics, take part in community outreach, and engage youth in dialogues on the importance of leadership and respect for diversity. Read, for example, about Neftalie Williams, who has used his love of skateboarding and his participation in the U.S. Sports Envoy program to bring skateboarding to Syrian refugees in the Netherlands and to Cambodian youth as a representative of the U.S. government.
  • Sports Visitor Program: A short-term program for young people to come to the U.S. for a two-week intensive sports-based exchange.

Other programs managed by the Division include the Global Sports Mentoring Program for women, the Sports and Sustainability Initiative, and the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange.


The bottom line is that if you are primarily interested in playing a particular sport at a competitive level, high school exchange programs are probably not the right vehicle for your student. But if you are primarily interested in the exchange experience — cultural and language immersion, growth in self-confidence, learning how to deal with new situations — then high school exchange may be the right answer, regardless of whether you can play a particular sport at a competitive level during the exchange. While on exchange, we always encourage students to take advantage of opportunities to engage in high school sports or other non-academic activities; it’s a great way to get to know other students at your school, and it can be a lot of fun. The experience is worthwhile!

It‘s hard to reach out to people of different cultures when you feel you have nothing in common. But bring out a soccer ball to a field, and kids who do not speak the same language will flock to it and play together without understanding a single word the other child says. As adults, the effects are the same. You don’t need a common language to forge friendships, just a shared love for a sport and respect for one another.

 –League Network, 6 Ways That a Shared Love for Sports Can Bring Cultures Together, February 2017.


Homework in the U.S. Educational System: How Do We Compare to Others?

Is homework a good idea? Does it have an impact on whether an educational system is successful? Will students learn better and learn more?

This infographic doesn’t provide definitive answers to those questions, but it does make one stop and think. We’re posting it not to offer an opinion, but just to say “here’s some food for thought!”

Homework Around the World [Infographic]



Homework Around the World [Infographic] brought to you by Ozicare Life Insurance

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.


The Honeymoon is Over: How to Handle Those Ds and Fs

I’ve had conversations about grades with three students over the past week. Each of them had at least one failing grade on their quarterly grade report. Each of them had “reasons” for the poor grades:

  • I didn’t know I really had to turn in assignments. I know you told me, but I didn’t think it would really matter.
  • My teacher didn’t tell me I was doing poorly.
  • I didn’t go talk to the teacher because I didn’t know that was OK, back home we can’t do that.
  • Back home I study for an hour each day, so I assumed I could do the same here. U.S. schools are so easy, everyone told me that.
  • I didn’t think being a few minutes late each day would be a big deal.

The Honeymoon is Over

U.S. government regulations require that high school exchange students pass all their classes. Students often think this will be easy; many of them have the impression that all U.S. schools are easier than their own. They are often genuinely dumbfounded when a progress report arrives at their host family’s home with a D or an F in a given class. The exchange programs take failing grades seriously; in rare cases, a student may face an early return to her home country if she cannot pick up the pace.

136222017 student studyingSome of them may be changing their perspective from “this is going to be the coolest year ever in my entire life” to, perhaps, “this is hard work . . . is it worth it? I don’t know if I can do this.”

The goal of those of us who work with high school international exchange students is to convince them that 1) yes, it is worth it; and 2) yes, they can do it. They are familiar now with their host family’s habits and general lifestyle. They know their town or city a bit, they know where things are at school. And despite those Ds and Fs – or maybe because of them – they better understand how the U.S. school system works.

The question now for the students I’ve spoken to this past week is not “what went wrong,” but “what are you going to do about it?”

Take Responsibility, Learn From Your Mistakes

So a message to students:

  • Failing a class is not the end of the world. For international students, it’s not unusual to have some difficulty in the beginning of the year. But it doesn’t make students feel any better to know this. Failing may make you feel embarrassed or even worried. But you can take control. Go to your teacher, your host parents, and your program coordinator and ask what you can do to correct the problem.
  • Own up to your mistakes. Then move on and figure out how to make things happen.
  • Talk about what is bothering you. If something is wrong – whether it be a problem at school, or a problem in your relationship with your host family — no one can fix it if you don’t talk about it. Are you having difficulty with the material? Tell someone. Are you having trouble understanding a teacher who talks too fast? Tell someone.
  • Your level of effort may matter more than your actual class grade. People will notice if you are working hard — and yes, your local program coordinator will notice, too. The U.S. government doesn’t want to send students home early – but it does want students to be ambassadors and representatives of their home country, and make a positive impression on U.S. students, teachers, and families.

Host Parents Can Help

As with our own children, communication with and information from the teachers and school contributes to a student’s success.

* Make sure your student’s teachers know he or she is an exchange student.

* Let all of your student’s teachers know you are his or her host parent and that you are open to hearing about how your student is doing at school.

* If your school has an online grading system, as many do these days, check your student’s account every couple of weeks.

* If you can help, offer such help to your student. Review his English essay, or offer some thoughts on the chapter he is reading about U.S. history.

* If your student needs extra assistance, talk to your program contact about having parents back home pay for a tutor.

If you know that your student is having difficulty in a class at school, you can better advise your student on what to do. Consult with your program liaison to see if he or she has some advice and together you can make a plan for your student’s success.

It Can Be Done

Of the students I spoke to this week, one understands now that spending an hour a day in study hall on homework isn’t enough. He also sees now that coming in late to class every day makes it hard for the teacher and disrupts class. Another has already talked to the English teacher to get some extra credit assignments. The third admitted she just thought it would be easy and so hadn’t really been trying very hard. Chances are they will all “get” it now. If not, we’ll keep talking. None of them are having difficulty in their host family or in adjusting to life generally. They just need to get over the hump.

Photo credits: ©2014 unless otherwise noted. 

Exchange Students and School: What are the Real Expectations?

At this time of year, with school having started everywhere in the U.S., our exchange students are beginning to settle into the next phase of their exchange year. Most were looking forward to the start of the school year, even if they were a bit nervous at the same time. As teens, they think they know what to expect. Of course, one of the points of the exchange program is to show them that what they think they know may not necessarily be a correct understanding of the U.S. culture or school system. That understanding may not come all at once, and may be something of a surprise; indeed, even a shock.

What are the general expectations for an exchange student at school?

Exchange programs in the U.S. generally require their high school J-1 students to enroll in a standard curriculum. This usually means enrolling in accepted “core” classes such as a regular English class (i.e., not a class designed for English as a second language) and U.S. history or government, with many students also taking mathematics and science. The student can then choose elective classes to fill in the rest of the student’s class schedule such as other science or social science classes, art, music, drama, etc. The U.S. government requires J-1 visa students to maintain passing grades in all their classes; most exchange programs interpret this to mean students must maintain a grade of C or better in every class they attend177105261 student behind books. If students are not passing a class, they are responsible for taking steps to raise their grades.

As coordinators, we look to see what steps a student is taking: is she talking to the teacher about the problems she is having in class? Does she take notes in class? Is she turning in her homework assignments? How much time is she spending on those homework assignments or on general studying? If necessary, a student may be required to find a tutor. If problems persist, exchange programs have disciplinary processes in place; in rare circumstances, it may be determined that a student cannot meet the academic challenges and may need to return to his or her home country before the end of the exchange year.

I can’t talk to the teacher!

Asking an exchange student to talk to the teacher may be more of a challenge for the student than U.S. parents realize; in many countries, the relationship between high school students and teachers is very different. Host parents can help by repeating the message that yes, you really can and should talk to your teacher.

Why am I failing the class when I do OK on the tests?

Many new host parents have a negative reaction to the idea that they should ask their student if they have turned in their homework assignments. Shouldn’t a 16 or 17 year old know something this basic? But the idea that you do have to turn in your homework may seem completely foreign to your student; in many countries, “homework” is work you do at home, on your own time, at your own choosing – and that’s it. Host parents can help here by not hesitating to ask their student if they have completed homework, and students can help themselves by accepting what their coordinators and host parents tell them about the need to turn in homework assignments, and understand that these assignments must be turned in on time. Otherwise you might do very poorly in a class even if you’re passing the tests.

177809116 student with booksHours of homework per night? You can’t be serious!

Exchange students may have to spend a significant amount of time studying to make sure that they succeed academically. This includes not just completing homework and class assignments. A difficult fact for exchange students to accept is that it is almost definitely going to take them longer – sometimes much longer – than their U.S. school friends to do most assignments. Even reading a chapter in the textbook may take an exchange student twice as long as it would take an average U.S. student. Exchange students may be selected based on meeting minimum English skills requirements – but they are not fluent when they arrive, and indeed, may be far from it. Even if their skills are on the high end, it’s unlikely they had vocabulary from U.S. history, math, or science in their English class back home.

For the students – some tips for success

Students can ask questions to make sure they understand what is expected of them regarding homework assignments. If you are not sure what you are supposed to do, ask your classmates or teacher for clarification. Ask your host parents or your coordinator for help. Don’t assume you know the answer – maybe take a look again at our blog post on the importance of communication!

Students should remember they are a representative of their home country. In our program, we consider our exchange students ambassadors who are here to show Americans what their own culture is like and to show the “best” from their home country. Host parents and teachers will not appreciate exchange students who are disruptive in class, act as though they are exempt from school work, do not try to spend enough time reading and trying to understand the material, or who don’t study for exams.

Photo credits: ©2014