Communicating is Even More Important Than You Think

broken wooden bridge over water

One of the hardest things an exchange student or a host family may face is sharing information that might result in the student moving to a new family. We are talking about real life things. Things like a host parent or sibling being very ill. A host parent losing his or her job. Students discovering they have an allergy to the family’s pet — a pet they may already love. At the harder end of the scale, a student may find that a host sibling is involved with drugs or alcohol, or learn that a host parent has a drug or alcohol problem.

These are some of the hardest relationship issues that we as exchange coordinators have to deal with. A student or host parent coming forward to talk to us may not know what the result will be. Students may be shocked when we tell them that we may have to move them out of their host family. They think, somehow, that by telling us about the issue we can simply make it go away.

Oh, how we wish that could always be the case! Much as we would like to wave a magic wand and have the problem disappear, however, it’s just not possible. Even if a local coordinator believes, based on what the issue seems to be and what the coordinator knows about the student and family, that it should be fine to leave the student in the family, we can’t just assume that is the case. We have to look into it. The Department of State requires detailed communication and investigation to help make sure that students are safe.

We do take every case individually. Students and families may not see what goes on behind the scenes. They sometimes feel as though exchange organizations make snap judgments. This is far from the truth. Rather, we talk to the people involved, and often program staff in the organization’s main office will also talk to everyone as well. A program counselor or the student’s school might be involved, depending on the issue.

Not all cases will end with the student remaining in the family even if that is what students or families want. Sometimes, the investigation will result in a conclusion that it’s best for everyone if we move the student. If a host parent or a host sibling really does have an alcohol problem, for example, our student could be put into jeopardy, and that obviously is critical to the decision. We’re also concerned about whether a family needs to focus on their child’s or the parent’s health.

When a host mom of ours got breast cancer a few years back, we talked to her and asked her how she felt about having the exchange student remain in the home during her treatment. We talked to her husband and asked him what he thought about taking care of her and their children as well as their exchange student. We talked to the student, who said that this was his family. And we talked to his host siblings, who said “he’s our brother.” The program talked to the student’s parents back home. In this case, the decision was for the student to stay in the home.

These tough issues aren’t theoretical for us, or just situations that happened in the past. Even in the past two weeks, we’ve had cases going in both directions. In one case, the facts resulted in a decision to move the student. In the other, the responses of the host parents, student, host siblings, and parents back home resulted in a conclusion that it was all right for the student to remain in the home.

In both cases, we give credit to our students, who knew that the important thing was to talk to their coordinator about their concern. We know how hard that was for them…at this time of year, after less than two months, they don’t really know their coordinators yet. They may only have seen them a couple of times, perhaps talked on the phone once or twice as well. But they had listened to the program telling them before they left their home country about the importance of communicating, and what the role was of their local contact. They listened, it seems, when we talked about that at our beginning-of-the-year welcome meeting.

It always comes back to that one simple word: communication. The sooner the better in these cases, since that offers more opportunities to (hopefully) fix whatever the issue might be. We urge students and host families to talk to your coordinator as soon as you find out about any issue. Let us help you to have a positive exchange experience!

 

Photo courtesy of Tom Butler on Unsplash.com.

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

Note From an Exchange Student: I’m Homesick…How Long Will it Take Me to Settle In?

I’ve been in the U.S. for more than two months now and I don’t have any friends here. It makes me sad. I talk to my friends back home a lot since I don’t have anyone to talk to here in my host country. What else can I do?

It’s around this time of year that students express feelings such as that expressed by the comment above. Students arrive in August in an excited mood, and think that everything will fall into place quickly. How hard can it be to make friends?

Making new friendships and establishing relationships with host family, teachers, and others, however, is more of a challenge than many students realize. One of the reasons we encourage students to join a sports team (even if they’ve never played the sport) or band or drama (even if they’ve never been in band or acted in a play) is that these activities help bring abigail-keenan-sports-huddlestudents into the community and form immediate bonds with a group of students at school. It helps them feel like they belong. Even those students, however, may sometimes feel lonely, left out of an activity, or just generally homesick due to how different life is in the host home and community.

One of our students last year told us that he thinks the most important piece of advice he can give to other high school exchange students or college study abroad students is “Don’t suffer alone! Talk to someone here in your host country, talk to your host family!” We talk to our students about things that they can do to get their minds off how they are feeling. Think about what do you do back home when you are sad. Keep active. Don’t stay in your bedroom; it’s better to hang out in your host family’s living room or family room, so that you can have conversations (which can further help get your mind off how you are feeling). Go for a run. Get involved in a sport, art/music/theater. Do things with your host family, even ordinary things: watch your host family’s favorite TV show with them, go to the grocery store with your host dad, go for a walk with the dog with your host mom.

Students sometimes tell us, “but I don’t like doing any of those activities.” We tell them how any activity will help them focus on something else. Moreover, ordinary activities can help you to get to know the area where you are living, and—perhaps most importantly—host parents will appreciate the fact that their student is showing interest. That last item may seem like a small thing, but it’s those small things that add up, eventually, to real relationships.

J-1 visa students have a local contact person from their exchange program; F-1 visa students may have a local program contact or at least someone at their school who is responsible for exchange students. We encourage students to call that contact person when they are feeling a bit low. Be honest about how you are feeling. Your local coordinator will be happy to sit down with you and help you think of ways to feel like you belong.

Students sometimes think that the answer to their difficulties is to find a new host family. Teens have a tendency to think things happen quickly, so if they don’t immediately feel that they are making friends or becoming close to their host family, they think it means that they need a new school or that they and their host family are not a good “match.” We try to encourage students to think differently — to recognize that making friends, feeling like you belong, and being comfortable in a new environment takes time no matter where you live and who you live with.

Students also often feel that talking to family or friends in their home country will make them feel better. We find that usually the opposite is true. We work with students to get them to spend less time communicating with friends and family back home. If you are spending a lot of time on your smartphone or laptop with friends and family back home — think about cutting that time down. The more time you spend talking to people you know back home, the more you are thinking about what is going on back home — and the less time you are spending getting used to your life in your host country.girl on laptop and phone

The key advice to succeed, in our opinion, is becoming involved and truly part of your host culture. The above examples are ways to do that. Students might be able to think of more ways based on their own personal interests, and host parents might have ideas, too. Hang in there!

Photo credits: Abigail Keenan and Steinar La Engeland

When the Teenage Brain Attacks

Impacts on a Student’s Exchange Year

An exchange student in the Portland metro area was sent home this past weekend, two months early.

What did he do? The student’s host sister found him smoking a marijuana joint in the host family home. The host parents found the joint where he had left it sitting on the roof outside his bedroom window. Once they began to look, they found a half-dozen others in other easy-to-find locations around the home. Thirty-six hours later, he was on a plane.

It sounds simple on the face of it, doesn’t it? A 17 year old uses an illegal drug. The rule is zero tolerance. End of story.

Simple…yes. But there’s a host family who do miss a student they cared about. There is a young person who has lost the opportunity to finish his exchange year, and he may well not receive credit for this school year. His decision to experiment could have long-term implications.

Those of us who work with high school foreign exchange students do it because we love the teens. The hardest cases we deal with are when students make bad decisions. These bad decisions are ones that any teen could make. A fellow student comes up to you at school and asks if you want to buy a small amount of pot. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about trying it, as many teens do. Perhaps you happen to have cash in your pocket that day. Perhaps the seller, sensing the possibility of a buy, offers you a discount.

Perhaps you just don’t think about what might happen next.

Our students and our teenage children want trust. They feel confident. They believe they are capable of making good decisions. Many of us have personal experience with teenagers who do make smart decisions. There is danger, however, in relying on that experience and concluding that teens can consistently make good decisions. Research shows that the teenage brain is a work in progress. On the one hand, teens understand right from wrong and are beginning to grasp moral complexities. They generally know what the law says on important issues. They know that X is the right thing to do in a particular circumstance and that Y is the wrong thing. Yet sometimes they make decisions that flabbergast adults. As Cory Turner notes in the quote below, the teenage  brain is in constant conflict between rational thinking and irrational behavior:

“When adolescents are playing this [car driving scientific experiment] game by themselves, they don’t take any more chances than adults do when they’re playing it by themselves,” Steinberg says.

And that’s a big deal. Because the adolescent brain gets a bad rep for being consistently impulsive. ….Being 12 (or 17) doesn’t mean a kid’s hard-wired to always make bad choices.

Why, then, do adolescents still make so many bad choices? To find out, Steinberg added a twist to his experiment.

He gave his subjects an adolescent crowd.

“This doubles the number of chances that adolescents take,” Steinberg says, “but has no effect on the number of chances adults take.”

–Cory Turner, The Teenage Brain: Spock Vs. Captain Kirk (NPR, March 11, 2015)

Teenagers often just don’t think about the consequences, especially when they are with other teens.

The teens we work with are exchange students. They are in this country with permission from the U.S. Department of State. They know they are required to obey the law. Their programs tell them before they leave their home country that drugs and alcohol are to be avoided at all costs. The programs warn them when they arrive. Coordinators and local program representatives remind the students during the year. We work hard to get the rational part of the brain to dominate teens’ behavior, at least on these critical topics.

Inevitably, someone does not listen.

We can deal with many of the bad choices our students might make — at least, the ordinary ones. Does a student rebel at curfews? We can address that. Does a student constantly forget to take out the trash? We can address that. We can understand the lack of full development in our teens’ brains. We can understand and sympathize with the influence of group thinking. Yet that doesn’t mean there is no individual responsibility. That’s part of what teaching, mentoring, and advising teens is all about.

“Want to buy some pot, I’ve got some right here?” The answer needs to be “no” for all teenagers. Perhaps this is especially true for students studying abroad who face the extreme consequences of losing their exchange year and in some cases, who will also face legal consequences in a foreign country.

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