Getting Ready for the New Exchange Year: What If We Don’t Like Each Other?

I read this statement recently in a blog post:

On August 12, 2016, I arrived in California. I still remember when I got off the plane, seeing unfamiliar faces holding a sign that has my name on it. I was nervous and terrified that they wouldn’t like me; I thought it would feel awkward to live with a family that I had never met before.

—Mariam Awwad from Jordan, U.S. Dept. of State YES Program student, “Experience of a Lifetime in California,” July 4, 2017.

We see similar worries from our own students every year:

“I am worried. I don’t think my host family and I have anything in common. I won’t have any host siblings.”

“I am so nervous. My host family has small children and I am not used to that. What if the kids don’t like me? What if I make mistakes, will my host parents get mad at me?”

It’s not just the students who worry that their host family won’t like them. Host families worry just as much. We hear from parents who worry that their student won’t like the food, or that they’ll be homesick and the host parents won’t know how to comfort them. We hear from host siblings worried that their new host sister or brother won’t be able to make friends — or the opposite, that their student will be so popular that the host sibling will be left out.

Everyone is excited … and everyone worries. Here’s what we tell them.

First — you are not alone. It’s exciting to step off the plane into a new adventure, and it’s exciting to host someone from another country and culture. It’s normal to be nervous about how it will work on an everyday basis. Recognize your feelings and talk about them to each other. It’s ok for students to admit they’re nervous about leaving their home for 5 or 10 months. Some of our host families, too, have admitted that they’re nervous. Clear communication — and sharing feelings — is important, even at this early stage.

Second — All students have this idea in their heads about what their host family will be like. Then the host family and the community turn out to be something different, and the student panics. Host families do the same thing! A student is different from what the family thought they saw in the student’s profile and the family wonders “will it be ok?” Students and host families express surprise to their coordinator: “I had information about my host family, and they are not like what I read about,” or “My student is not the way he seemed in his profile.”

But think about it … for students, is it really a surprise that a family you’ve never met is more complex and different from what a one-page summary told you? For families, is it really a surprise that a three- or four-page application didn’t reflect the whole picture, or that a teenager’s likes and dislikes may have changed in the 6 or 9 or more months since an application was filed? For everyone — is it really a surprise that people from another country act differently from what you are used to?

Some students are nervous because their host parents don’t have children in the home. Some students worry about whether they will have enough privacy and personal time because their host families have toddlers. Some students are nervous because their host family lives in a big city; some students are nervous because their host family lives in a small town or on a farm. Families worry for the same reasons: a student doesn’t have siblings so may have difficulty getting used to having a host brother, or comes from a small school and will be attending a school of 1,500 students here in the U.S., or will have to get used to not having public transportation just outside. They want to be the best family possible for their student, and they want to help their student have a successful and fun experience. They worry about whether their plans to do that will work.

word "unknown" with some trees and building in background

The basic thing to remember is just this: you don’t know each other yet. Be open to the experience. It takes time to get to know people! It’s hard to do that before you get here, and it’s not possible to do it in a week or two. Before students arrive, you can text, email, and Skype — but you won’t really get to know each other until you have lived with each other for a while.

Students and families may be worried about the whole adventure. A semester or academic year is a long time to live with someone you have never met. Now that the time is approaching, it feels real. Years ago, shortly before I left for my study-abroad semester in Switzerland, I, too, started to worry. I didn’t know French … maybe I shouldn’t go? I didn’t have a specific schedule since I was doing an independent study project … maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all. Our own son began asking similar questions almost five years ago as the departure date approached for his six-month exchange program in Ghana. What if I don’t get along with my host family, he said; they don’t have teenagers. Maybe it’s too expensive, he said. Maybe I shouldn’t go, he said.

I went, of course. So did our son. There were challenges, of course. But challenges are part of life, and now I can’t imagine not having gone. Our son, too, values his experience and is glad we didn’t let him change his mind.

Being an exchange student — or hosting one — is exciting, fascinating, and an amazing experience that you will all remember forever. It also takes work. Very few students have a perfect fit into their host family and their host community from Day One with no issues or conflicts. There’s no magic wand to build instant relationships. Everything takes time. That’s one of the reasons your coordinators and your exchange program are here — we want to help you build relationships and help you feel like a member of our community.

We’ll close with this statement from Mariam, the student we quoted at the beginning of this post, on how she felt at the end of her exchange year:

Now they are my second family. I have learned how to support each other no matter what, and how to always be helpful and positive. They made my exchange year way better. They showed me what it means to be a member of an American family. I am so thankful and blessed for having them in my life.

 

 

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

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