Endings and Beginnings: Saying “See You Later”

home is where the heart is on colorful background

It’s June again. This past week, and over the next two weeks, our 2016-2017 group of students will return to their home countries. It’s such a bittersweet time of year. And we’re “just” the program coordinators — we’re not the ones who lived the experience day-to-day! It just goes to show you how these cultural exchanges have ripple effects . . . the relationships are what it’s all about.

Some students have fit into their host communities and families seamlessly, as if they were born to it. Some have faced challenges they did not expect. One thing they all have in common is that they have had an experience that has changed them forever. How that will translate into their future lives, how it will shape them as adults — that remains to be seen.

We can see, though, the current effects, having watched over the past 10 months the development of relationships and heard about the daily lives of our students and their host families. We see the teens who are leaving more confident, more mature, more independent, and more tolerant of others. The teens who can navigate public transit confidently who may not have done so before, who can do their own laundry, and who can cook dinner. The teens who can speak more fluently in a language in which they were hesitant last summer. The teens who have gone on stage never having done that before, who have won praise (well-deserved) in public piano recitals and competitions, and who have participated in state-level athletic competitions.

We have seen the effects on our host families, too, and on our students’ families back home. Host siblings who are already planning trips to their new brother or sister’s home. Parents and siblings from back home who are visiting at the end of the year and finding a new “family” here. One of our host parents describes her feelings about her student:

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.

We believe that, too … our students all now have a second home and second family. This video sums it up for how we all feel as the students return to their “first” home:

The Transition Back Home: Easier Said Than Done

The students from our 2015-2016 exchange student group have returned home to Austria, Germany, Italy, Thailand, Japan … countries the world over. Many think it will be easy to slide back into their old life.

For some, perhaps that will be true. Many students, however, are finding that their old life doesn’t exist. We’ve already heard from a few of them, students who have reached out to their host families or us, their coordinators, as the people who might understand. I don’t know that we can truly understand unless we’ve been in that position. But we all try to help when our students reach out to us.

Here’s our recent letter to one of our students.

writing with fountain penYour host mom told us that things are tough for you right now. We wanted to follow up with some thoughts.

The first thing to know is that you are NOT alone. What you are feeling is very, very normal. A lot of people have gone through this kind of transition. We know that may not make you feel better right away…but we hope it helps.

Here a few suggestions about what might work for you to get used to life back home.

  1. Spend time with your friends back home. It will take time to get used to your friends again. We know that may not make sense to you at first. You’re thinking you’ve known them for years, what’s there to get used to? Think about this: you’ve had a different life from them for almost a year! You have had experiences they have not had; share them with your friends. They have had experiences you haven’t; ask them to share some of those experiences with you.

Maybe the first time you hang out with your long-time friends it feels awkward or different. That’s not a reason to stop — one time, two times, three times aren’t enough to get back into the “swing” of things. Just hang out and be patient. Think about how you felt at the beginning of the year here in the U.S.; you didn’t feel comfortable with people at school and you felt it was hard to make friends. We’re asking to you to remember that it took time. It’s going to take time again back home. In a way, you are getting to know your friends all over again.

  1. Spend time with your family (and maybe especially your parents!). This is kind of the same as with your friends. Try to remember that you’ve changed. When we told you the last time we talked before you went home that you had grown up during this past year, that you seemed a lot more confident — we weren’t just saying that to make you feel better. It’s 100% true. The thing is — your parents don’t quite know that yet. Of course you talked to them during the year and of course they can see some of it. Try to remember they’re your parents — and you are their child. For parents, our children are always our “kids.” They are never our “adults.”

So spend time with your mom and with your dad. Go for a hike with them, go to the grocery store with them, go on a bike ride. Even more importantly, talk to them about how you feel, including how you are feeling now. They need to hear from you about how your life here went. They also do need to hear how you feel you have changed. Start having those hard conversations — the ones we made you have with your host parents and with us all the time!

  1. Stay busy! Go for a run, take a walk, read a book. (Sounds like the same thing we suggested to you at the beginning of your exchange year, when you were just getting used to life here, doesn’t it?) Try to do things you normally used to do, but maybe not all at once. Maybe easing back into your “old” life would be less of a shock if you do it gradually.
  1. Stay in touch with friends and family from your exchange year. This isn’t a period of your life that suddenly ends just because you got on a plane. You have developed new friendships and relationships. Keep them. It might not make sense to contact everyone every day, but think about reaching out several times a month, once a month, or whenever the thought pops into your head. Post occasional comments on friends and host family Facebook pages. Send messages on WhatsApp. Did you and your host brother watch soccer games together? Text him when your favorite team is playing and ask if he is going to watch the game. Text your host mom periodically to just say hi. Text us sometimes, too!

Sending good thoughts and hugs,

Laura and Mark

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Additional posts on this issue from our blog:

*Re-entry for the Parents Back Home
*Reverse Culture Shock: What Language Do You Dream In?
*Culture Shock Revisited

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Reentry for the Parents Back Home

It’s the beginning of June as I write this. Three of the students in our group have returned home … a trickle that will expand in the next 2-3 weeks as the rest of the students leave. We are in the “final stretch” before all the students in Oregon and Washington return to their home countries by mid to late June.

We talk a lot at this time of year about “re-entry” issues, how to “transition” back into one’s home life, and the more familiar term — “reverse culture shock.” But it’s not just the students who need to think about re-entry. Their parents back home need to be part of this picture.

We’ve talked before about how the parents back home are part of the cultural exchange success puzzle. Parents play a key role in preparing their children before teens and young adults leave home for their exchange; students whose parents have talked to them about budgets, communication, and adjustments issues tend to adjust more easily to a different way of life. Parents can have a significant impact during the exchange year as well. Students may naturally tend to ask parents how to do something, or confide in parents regarding events happening in the host family, or share the student’s feelings about how the exchange is going. How a parent reacts to those conversations can dramatically affect how successfully a student deals with the issue.

But let’s not forget that the exchange experience doesn’t end when a student gets off an airplane back home. Just as you must prepare your student for studying abroad at the beginning of the process and support him or her while he or she is away, parents must also be sensitive to the likelihood that their child will experience “reverse culture shock” when he or she returns home.

Some basic suggestions and guidelines for parents include:

  • Allow your child a period of adjustment when first getting home.
  • Don’t just assume life will restart where it left off before your son or daughter left home 5 or 10 months ago.
  • Students are used to being more independent now. Even though they have had to follow rules, do chores, and come home before curfew in their host families’ homes, it’s different from being in your parents’ home. Take that into consideration during the first few weeks after your child returns home.
  • Encourage your student to keep in touch with the people he or she traveled with and met while studying abroad. These connections are important and can last the rest of their lives. A difficult concept for parents to accept is that the past 5 or 10 months have been a process of your son or daughter having a life other than their life purely as your child.
  • Listen to your teen’s stories. He or she has a great deal of experiences to share; it will be a terrific opportunity for you to reconnect.

Parents are a key variable in the entire concept of “cultural exchange,” yet their impact seems so often to be ignored. That perception should change if we want to increase success in our teens’ exchange experiences. Everyone is a part of the puzzle.

Photo credit: Padurariu Alexandru

Thinking About Returning Home

A statement from one of the exchange students in our NW Oregon group this year, as she thinks about returning home in just over a week…..:

“I graduated from an American High School that became my family throughout this year. Many people say I went on a vacation. All of those people are wrong. What I learned is not comparable to what a year of regular Italian school could have taught me. I learned the meaning of setting your mind to a goal and work to reach it, I learned how to be a great leader in the community, I learned to help the others in rough times, I learned that school is not just about grades and studying but also about getting involved and participating, I learned that you don’t need to have expensive bags and shoes to be a cool person. All you need is yourself and a lot of positivity to transmit to people. I learned that is not cool making fun of people, I learned how much joy can give you volunteering and supporting the special ones, I learned that you always have to learn. That was my first big accomplishment and I’m already ready for another new one!”

Being part of this process is part of that intangible thing people gain as a host family.  When I think about some of the difficulties this student had — difficulties in adapting, feeling a need to challenge host family rules, host family expectations that may not have been reasonable, conflicts with host sister — it solidifies in my mind what can happen during an academic year and reinforces, to me, the positive changes and growth that can result for both a student and the host family.

10 Quick Tips for A Successful End To the Exchange Year

Host Families: Relax and be understanding, but don’t give up on your house rules

1. The second half of the exchange year is perfect time to relax with your student and enjoy the son/daughter relationship.  For these last few weeks, think about all that you have learned and how your life has changed.

2. At this time of year, your exchange student may have mixed feelings and may feel both sad and happy. Talk to him about it; don’t just let yourself get annoyed at teenage mannerisms.  These feelings are normal.  I’ve written more thoughts about returning home and the cultural transition back to one’s home country here and here.

3. Be patient and remember that while your student may act as if he or she doesn’t care anymore, it’s really a normal separation process.  It doesn’t mean he is going to forget you at all; rather, it’s the opposite.  It’s hard to express how one feels when leaving a place after 5 or 10 months, when you have developed relationships, and when you realize that you are leaving people you now care about very much.  Be understanding — but be firm that your exchange student is still expected to be a member of the family.  He knows your expectations; it’s OK to remind him that yes, curfew still applies and yes, he still is expected to let you know where he is going.

Jan, experiencing the art of fishing
Jan, experiencing the art of fishing

4. Do something to close out the year.  Take your student somewhere special: is there a favorite restaurant or activity?  Take the opportunity to go on a last weekend outing: has she been to the city nearby or the one three hours away? Does she love the beach or the lake or the mountains?  Offer to host an end-of-year going away party.  Closure is good for everyone.

5. Remind your student that U.S. government and exchange program rules still apply.  If your student wants to travel in the U.S. on his own, check with your exchange program representative, since it may not be allowed.  If your student is making her own arrangements for flying home, make sure she doesn’t stay beyond the 30-day grace period allowed under her visa.  And above all, remind your student that illegal activity is still illegal; one bad decision can still change your student’s plans for the last few weeks and result in an early return home.

Students: Try to have fun and relax – you know your host country’s “system” by now! – but don’t forget your host family and friends

©2015 Thinkstock.com
©2015 Thinkstock.com

1. Put together a “to do” list of things you need to do before returning to your home country (and the things you want to do).  Talk to your host parents about what’s possible in the time remaining.

2. Leave a “thank you for everything you’ve done for me” note for your host parents when you go to school one day — maybe on the last day or classes, or before the graduation ceremony if you are classified as a senior. Keep thanking your host parents for everything they do for you, even though you leave soon. It still matters.

3. Take your host family out to dinner before you return home as a thank you gesture.

4. Plan a going away party or event (with host parent permission) as part of your departure plans. It’s a great way to make sure you get contact information for all the people you have come to know during your time on exchange.

5. Make a special shopping trip with your host parents to get presents for family and friends back home – do it together.

Finally (student bonus tip!):

Sven, who loved penguins, with his stuffed penguin gift at Portland airport (June 2007)
Sven, who loved penguins, with his stuffed penguin gift at Portland airport (June 2007)

Don’t withdraw from your host family. Continue to do the things you have done with them. At this time of year when you are thinking about home –- and we know you are thinking about home, and you *should* be thinking about home — remember your host family, teachers, and other people you have met and gotten to know. These are your connections and relationships, and they will last a lifetime.