This is Why We Work With Exchange Students

We have worked with high school exchange students for 10 years now — 14 if you count the several years we were “just” host parents and not coordinators! Working with teens going through cultural shock and host families going through the excitement of learning about another culture can be exhilarating. It can be frustrating. It can, at times, be disappointing. This year, two of our 39 students have had to return home early — and we’re just halfway through the academic year. A few students in our group have changed host families, each situation being completely different. Several more students and host families have concerns we are helping to (hopefully…) resolve successfully.

So why do we bother?

We bother because of the relationships we develop with students (and host families) every year. Not every student becomes a friend for life; that would not be a realistic expectation. But enough do so that we see what the experience can do for them, their host families, their teachers, and others. Teachers understand; they teach for the students who care — and for those who eventually learn to care.

I’ve included here just a few examples of those relationships. These are students who “pushed back” and students who did not. The common thread is that after the fact, they could all see some of what they gained during their exchange. (I’ve changed their names for privacy reasons.)

  • Sean lived with us for about six weeks at the beginning of the school year while we found him a permanent home in our school district. During those six weeks, he learned that we loved good European chocolate and Haribo gummies. Every year since, he and his family have sent a small annual Christmas gift containing a box of chocolate and a couple of packages of Haribo treats. He and his parents include a Christmas card with a “happy holidays” note.

This year — five years later — Sean included a hand-written note:

“It now has been five years since you allowed me to stay at your home, and yet I still don’t know how to properly express my gratitude for your many acts of kindness, even though I do think that my English has improved at least a bit!

And even though I probably gave you quite a bit of sorrow with my lack of discipline, I hope I was also able to leave behind something positive (or a deeper appreciation of Haribo!). So, once more, I hope you are all doing well and your wishes come true.”

  • Maria faced some struggles in adjusting to life in the U.S., and had to change host families during her year. By the end of the year, though, this is what she had to say:

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….

  • Andrea lived in a small town in Oregon in a host family with two small children. As she left, she wrote:

The past ten months have been the best time of my life so far and never ever will I forget the memories I made here or the friends I’ve made. I love you all so so much and words cannot explain how much it hurts me to leave this wonderful place. … I know for sure that my way will take me back here sooner or later – after all, I have family here now and lots of amazing friends. I want to especially thank my family for having me this year and making me feel less like “the exchange student” but like “our family member.” … I will never forget how [my two little sisters] went from calling me their exchange student to their sister….They know I will always be their sister and I promised them that we will see each other again soon.

  • Ending with again, one of our own … Andrew constantly pushed back during his exchange year. He conveniently “forgot” house rules time and time again. We had a lot of fun, he got along with our boys, and we enjoyed having him around — those arguments could be spirited political discussions! But he argued all the time. Five or six years later, in a Skype chat on one holiday or another, Andrew said completely out of the blue:

I wanted you to know … I know how much you tried to help me. The things you said then, they make a lot more sense now. I just want you to know how much I appreciate it. It just took me a while.

So to our young friend Sean who is now (unbelievably, to a host mom…) 21 years old: We are doing well, and you have shown us that wishes do come true. One student, one teenager at a time, as expressed by a host parent after her student returned home at the end of her year:

… no matter where we all are, she remains family, [and] our mutual love and admiration continues. … Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.

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.

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I Want to Study Abroad…Tell Me Where to Go!

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A few weeks ago, we did a blog post on the process we sometimes see in which students coming to the U.S. want to choose a specific region of the country or a specific state for their high school exchange experience. We also get a broader question sometimes from students thinking about studying abroad, asking “where should I go?” So … here are our thoughts.

I’m looking to study abroad next Fall and I’m deciding between the United States, England, and Germany. Where is the best place to study?

The nutshell summary? Only YOU can answer this question. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. They can both taste good, but whether you like one or the other is an individual taste. The best choice for you depends on your personal circumstances, your academic situation, your motivations and goals, and perhaps your age.

College students generally can choose a particular country for a study abroad program from a menu of options offered by their university. They will still need to think about the questions raised above. Are you hoping to study a particular subject area based on your major field of study? Are you more interested in cultural immersion and local life rather than specific classroom subjects? Do you need to get credit at your home university (which might constrain your choices based on available classes)? Are you hoping to become more fluent in a particular language, or do you hope that you can take classes in your own language? The answers to these questions might direct a student to a different country based on what is offered at his or her university.

High school students looking to study abroad may have choices about which country, or they may not. Language capability plays a significant role, as students generally need to be able to get by in the language of the host country. The host country may have specific regulations governing high school aged international students and schools in the country may have criteria for student admission. There may be visa requirements that could affect a student’s country choice. Students wishing to live with a host family and become truly immersed in the local culture may face different choices than students who wish to live in a dormitory and who are more interested in academics. Students wishing to attend private schools and live in a dorm may face significant competition for admission.

For any student, personal choice also matters. What one person considers a disadvantage might not be something that another student would even notice. Cost factors can affect country choice as well.

493803017 prioritiesWe recommend trying to take a problem-solving approach to the choice. Take a piece of paper (or do it on a computer, whichever works best for you). Make two columns for each country on your list. List all the benefits for each opportunity, and list the downsides for each opportunity. Be honest with yourself; the process doesn’t work if you don’t write down truthfully what you would like and dislike, what is an advantage and disadvantage. After you have finished, look at the list and think to yourself what’s really important. What do you hope to gain from the overall experience? You might decide that particular benefits and particular negatives need to be weighted more (or less) heavily. You might realize that certain items require more information. Do you really know what the language requirements are? Do you really know how much it will cost? Do you really know if your grades are sufficient?

In the end, you should have enough information to make a reasonable decision. Perhaps you have figured out that you are dealing with completely different options and one truly stands out. You may also have found out that you are dealing with apples and oranges, and that both seem pretty tasty. Wherever you end up, you can throw yourself into the experience, gain new understanding of another culture, learn new things from taking classes from a different cultural point of view, and teach the people you meet something about your own country and culture. It’s a win-win.

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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.

Stumbling as the Finish Line Draws Near

Two students in our region had to return to their home countries last week, two months before the end of their exchange. Neither student volunteered to go home early. Both students were sad and did not want to return home now. But for two very different reasons, neither really had any choice.

Student #1 was ill. About two months ago, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. We started with the hope that it could be treated easily and managed at least at a reasonable level until the end of June when she was scheduled to return home. Unfortunately, we all came to realize that her illness – while manageable in the long run – could not be managed here, without her family, within the scope of a cultural exchange program. Her parents moved up their visit to the U.S., originally planned for a month from now, and what they had planned as a leisurely tour of the region where their daughter has lived for the past eight months became a whirlwind weekend and a time of tears.

Student #2 was drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, and was caught at both. Smoking, by itself, would not necessarily mean a return home; in most cases, it would be treated as a behavior issue and managed as we manage other rule-breaking situations. But alcohol for exchange students under the age of 21 in the U.S. is another story, and generally being caught earns a student an immediate ticket home. In this case, the host family notified the local coordinator on Wednesday. She went over to the host home that evening and found evidence in the student’s room. The student admitted to drinking. Two days later she was on a plane home.

475427741Things happen in life, and they will happen when people travel or study abroad. We can’t control unexpected illness or accidents, and our student came to realize that during the several weeks when we were talking about whether she would be able to stay until the end of June. Knowing she had done nothing wrong and that she was not at fault didn’t make her any happier to leave. But perhaps it helped; she knew she was had developed good friendships and that her host family had made every effort possible to deal with her illness. She had a week or two to say goodbyes at school, a weekend to show her parents some of why she has come to feel Portland is a second home, and time to have a goodbye party on her last evening.

But for that second student, everything was different. She had fallen in with the “wrong” crowd, and her behavior had gone downhill. When her host mother found evidence of alcohol, it was over; the family asked that she be moved out of their home on Wednesday and the coordinator responsible for working with the student reported the events. The student’s parents were told that she had broken the law and the conditions of her visa, and arrangements were made for a flight home on Friday. The student went to school on Thursday to return various items and say brief goodbyes, so she wasn’t quite hustled away under cover of darkness. But she certainly did not have time to process her decisions or have any kind of “closure.” She could not put the responsibility for what was happening on fate, another human being, or bad luck. She made some bad decisions, and there was nothing anyone could do.

Those of us who work with high school foreign exchange students do it because we love working with this age group. We enjoy seeing our own country through their eyes as they discover things we have taken for granted, we enjoy seeing how they grow and mature during their 10-11 months in our country, and we enjoy making friends around the world. We don’t enjoy weeks like this.

These are the hardest cases we have to deal with as exchange program coordinators: when things happen that cut short a student’s exchange year dream. These two cases, coming as they do within days of each other, bring home for our group the two hardest kinds of cases: the first, when a student and host family are happy together and developing a relationship and then a storm comes out of nowhere ruining everything, and the second, when our students – who are ordinary teens — make bad decisions. Any teen can make a bad decision and live through it; for exchange students, the consequences can be much more severe.

We wish we could solve all our students’ problems while they are here, but we can’t. They are exchange students, here on a student visa issued by the U.S. Dept. of State, and they are subject to high standards, strict rules, and certain limitations to what we can do for them. Every year, someone will get sick or have an accident that requires treatment beyond what can be managed while on exchange. Every year, some exchange students will make bad decisions. Every year there are exchange students who get caught with alcohol. We warn our students every year before they arrive and after they arrive that the drinking age in this country is 21 and that drinking is illegal. We tell them we understand that it may not seem fair to them if they come from countries where it is legal to drink at 16 or 18. But they need to obey the laws of the country where they are studying and living, or suffer the consequences. They all say they understand and that it will never happen to them. Inevitably, someone does not listen.

For some kinds of illness or long-term conditions, there’s not much leeway; the student needs treatment now, which may be expensive or just time-consuming. It may require hospitalization or counseling. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Of course she needs to go home. Who wouldn’t agree that this is the best solution? But it’s harder in practice, when you are 2/3 of the way through the school year, to tell a student they have to give up their dream and cut it short because of something they have no control over, to tell their host family it’s time to let the student’s family make the medical decisions, and to tell a family thousands of miles away “your child is sick and it’s not going to get better soon.”

178980203 next exit decisionsIf you are an exchange student, take this message to heart. If you are hosting an exchange student, show this story to your student. If something happens beyond your control, do what Student #1 is doing: grapple with it and accept that dealing with it is the smart thing to do. It doesn’t define who you are. As for the rest of it: think before you act. Don’t let Student #2 be you.

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