Hosting If You Don’t Have Children: Why Not?

ivy covered home with bicycle in front

An acquaintance asked me recently, “what is it like to host an exchange student if you don’t have any children in the home?” It’s a question we get sometimes. People worry that perhaps they are not qualified to be a host family if they don’t have children living at home.

What’s the answer? Well, it’s like any family that has one child in the home who happens to be a teenager. That’s the nutshell response.

The longer answer is that every family is different, and every host family is different. So hosting an exchange student is different for every family, regardless of whether you have teens in the home already, whether you have young children, whether you have adult children who no longer live in the home, or whether you have no children at all. If you are reading this blog post, I’m sure you can think of families you know who have one child in the home. Are all of those families alike? Of course not. Are they still a family, with one child? Of course they are.

For some people who don’t have children in the home, having an exchange student means having an excuse to travel around their region when they haven’t done that before (or at least haven’t done it in a while) and showing the area to their student. Another host family will host a student and maybe cannot travel much for a variety of reasons — and they and their student will still have a positive experience, learning about each others’ world. For some parents, having an exchange student when you don’t have children in the home is a way to learn what having a teenager is like. For others, it’s a way to keep liveliness in the home; perhaps their children are adults and the parents like having the energy of teens in the home. Other parents enjoy having their student to themselves and being able to have deep personal conversations that might not be possible with multiple children running around; many students find that having their host parents to themselves has benefits as well.

We’ve hosted over a dozen exchange students, starting when our children were in elementary school and continuing when they were in college and beyond. As a result, we’ve had students whose memories of our family is that of being the older teen with younger host siblings, students whose memories are that of having host siblings close to their own age, and students who remember a family with adult children who sometimes come to visit.

Our life with each exchange student was different every year — and our life was different from other host families in similar circumstances. One year with younger children, maybe we traveled quite a bit. The next year, maybe not. One year with no children in the home, we did lots of things as a family. Another year, our student would be very active at school and in the community. The dynamics, activities, and relationships differ for so many reasons — not just due to whether there are multiple children in the home.

Each family is unique, and your relationship with your student will be unique. Don’t host just because you do or do not have children in the home. Host because it opens up your world, teaches you about another culture, and helps you establish new relationships. Host because you want to share your home and your world.

Photo credits: Christopher Harris, Pixabay

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: Pixabay.com

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

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

 


So What Do We Talk About With Your Exchange Students At the Beginning of the Year?

Practical Tips for Host Families (and Students, Too!)

The U.S. government requires that J-1 visa high school exchange students have both pre-departure and post-arrival orientations. These meetings cover U.S laws, program rules and regulations, expectations for behavior, how to ensure students’ health and safety, and practical tips for success.

We’ve been having our post-arrival welcome orientations with exchange students in our region over the past couple of weeks, including a larger group meeting last week. It occurred to us that our readers might find some of these “tips” useful. What follows is a summary of what we talk about with the students in these arrival entry meetings. Details on meeting content may vary from program to program; while U.S. laws remain the same, some program rules vary, so check with your own program contact representative.

What’s the overall theme?

We ask students if they can give us one word to describe the key message for success, or one phrase that they think would describe everything. Usually, they’re pretty good at getting it, and this group did not disappoint us:

** One word: Communication.

** One phrase: “Don’t suffer in silence!”

Who do you talk to if you have a problem?

We try to make sure students understand that it is not rude to ask questions about house rules, family customs, and the local way of doing things. It is good to ask your host family these questions, so that students will know what to do and how to act. Moreover, it can be a great way to start a conversation about cultural similarities and differences.

** If students are uncomfortable talking to host parents, or feel they might hurt someone’s feelings, or don’t understand a particular rule, we encourage them to contact their local coordinators and ask them the question.

** We explain to students what the local coordinators do (also sometimes called local representatives or local liaisons depending on the program). We describe how they help support students and host families during the exchange year.

** We repeat several times to please not hide issues, no matter how small. Talk to someone. Don’t say to yourself “it’s too small to bother my host parents, my coordinator, and my counselor at school.” It’s never too small, and we don’t want small issues to become big issues.

Culture shock and homesickness

We explain to the students what we mean by culture shock. We talk about how it is normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. We let them know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that we can help them get past the feelings. We encourage the students to talk about how they are feeling with their host families and their coordinators, and to let the adults around them know if they are feeling stressed or anxious. Most of the students in our group last week admitted they have felt some element of culture shock and a few admitted they have been a bit homesick. As coordinators, we were pleased rather than disturbed at these admissions, as it suggests the students are trying to be honest about how they are feeling (and were willing to talk about it even a little bit).

** We tell them (and host parents, too) that homesickness can occur at any time.

** We talk about what they can do if they are feeling anxious or sad. Talk to host parents about it, stay busy! Go out for a run or a walk. Do something with your host family. Get involved with activities, clubs, or sports at school. Share something from your culture with your host family.

** We talk about limiting time spent talking with or chatting with friends and family back home. Host parents can help with this. It’s OK to limit Internet time, for example, or to require students to turn off their smartphones at a certain hour. We get questions every year -– and have had a few already this year -– to the effect of “but she’s not my child, can I require her to do what I require my own children to do?”

Cultural differences that students may find to be a challenge

We ask the students to tell us what they find to be the strangest and the most difficult things to get used to in the time that they have been in the U.S. so far; we usually hold the meetings about a month or so after students have arrived, so they have had time to see some of these “strange” differences. We get the expected comments about cars in the U.S. are bigger than back home and grocery stores have so many more choices that students don’t know how to make a decision on which toiletry item to buy. On the more difficult issues:

** We talk about curfews. In the U.S., curfews for teens are common; indeed, in many cities and towns curfews are set by law. Most of the students in our group said that this is different from back home, and admitted that it is hard to get used to the idea that you must be home by a certain time or you will get in trouble. They found it difficult to accept that host parents can tell them they are “grounded” if they don’t follow the curfew rules.

** In the U.S., parents often expect their children to tell them where they are going and to ask (not announce) before a teen goes out with friends. Many exchange students are not used to doing this. We talk about how customs are different, and that “freedom” as they define it may need to be earned by developing trust.

496619997 teen and gadgets** We explain to the students that Internet, computer use, and cell phones are privileges, not rights. Their host parents have the right to set limits on how long they stay on the Internet in the evenings, for example. If students don’t follow host family rules, host parents can take away their cell phone or their laptop for a while, as they might well do if their own children did not follow family rules. Students sometimes feel that no one can take away their laptop or their phone, because those items belong to them, not to their host family. We explain that taking those items away for a day or a few days if a teenager doesn’t follow a family’s rules is a common consequence in the U.S., and that if they believe a particular punishment is unfair they should talk about it with their coordinator.

School Differences

At the beginning of the school year, many exchange students think school is easy. This group was no different. They were positive and enthusiastic, did not feel they had very much school work, and were confident school would be easier than it is back home. Many of them admitted they do not understand everything the teachers are telling them, but did not feel they were missing anything significant. We tried to help the students understand that they probably are missing key parts of the conversation.

** We encourage students to go over syllabuses and class requirements. A note to host parents: in our experience, students often do not understand how important this is, and they do not understand that requirements may be different in different classes (how much a mid-term is worth, how much homework is worth, does participation count? etc.).

467588985 homework** We talk about how homework here in the U.S. is work you do at home AND how most of the time you have to turn it in to be graded.

** We talk about how they are required to pass every class. We explain to students how they can help get those passing grades. We remind them that if they understand 80% of what the teacher is saying, that’s great – but they need to find out about the other 20%, because they might be missing the key points of every lecture, when a major assignment is due, or what’s on the next test.

Getting your driving license

Getting a driver’s license is an issue dear to teenage hearts everywhere. Teens from other countries often are not aware of how difficult it can be to get a driver’s license here in the U.S. They often feel that it’s worth it even if it is a challenge. Some exchange programs prohibit any student on their program to get a driver’s permit or license. Since our program allows it, we go over the guidelines. We explain that some school districts prohibit exchange students from getting a drivers’ permit. Students who are permitted to get a driving permit must pay for their own insurance. We explain that this could be expensive for a teenager.

We’ve previously written a blog post on this specific issue; interested students and host parents might find the additional detail useful.

Traveling without your host family

Travel rules differ from program to program,  For our students, we explain that students generally may not travel overnight alone, that they must travel with an adult over the age of 25, and that the adult must be approved by the program. This generally requires criminal background checks, and for longer trips may require that the adult(s) go through the entire host family screening process. School trips are generally allowed, with appropriate permissions from parents. Host parents and students should contact their own program for the rules that may apply to them.

Program Rules and Regulations

At our welcome meetings, we review the U.S. government and program rules and regulations. The students should have heard these rules before in their home country; we cheerfully repeat them again! Key points we make at these meetings include:

** Students need to be an active member of their host family. We tell them to participate in the activities their host family does – not just go along, but also actively participate and show interest.

** Do their chores around the house, and do them well! If they have never cleaned a bathroom before — ask host parents how to do it right. If they have never cooked before — maybe start with something easy, like spaghetti.

** No drugs, no alcohol. We always spend some time on this one. It can be a difficult concept for students who may be allowed to legally drink at the age of 16 or 18 in their home country. We try to help them understand that the consequences of breaking U.S. law can be severe; in their case, they can be sent home and lose the school year.

Emergencies and Issues No One Likes to Talk About

This is always a difficult part of the entry meeting. It’s difficult because no one, either adults or teens, like to talk about things going really wrong during the exchange year, such as medical emergencies, teens being diagnosed with serious long-term health issues, or any kind of abuse.

** We remind students that their host parents are there to talk to and that we hope that they are beginning to feel comfortable talking to their host parents and host siblings. If there is a problem they cannot talk to their host parents about for any reason, please call us. If there is an emergency or serious issue, please call no matter what time it is.

** We talk about how it is important to speak up if they feel they are being mistreated in serious ways — physical violence, feeling unsafe, and sexual harassment/abuse.

** We talk about their health. We talk about how having a balanced diet, and how their bodies may need to adjust to different foods here. We ask them how much Coke or Pepsi do they drink, and do they know about the effects of caffeine. We encourage them to get some exercise and to get enough sleep.

Communicate, talk, and speak English!

We end with what we start with – the concept that communicating is the key to their success. Some will have listened to everything we talked about; some will forget until they get one of those progress reports from school or their host parents get upset. We will be there to help!

*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com. Check it out and visit some new blogs you may not have seen before on international travel, education, and more!*
**Photos copyright Thinkstock.com