Looking for a New Hope? Become an Exchange Student or a Host Family

Chewbacca saying apply to an exchange program

The Stars Wars saga has been used to explain society, culture, and political trends. Some have argued that it may represent a statement about our cultural values and show the power of myths and storytelling. Today, on Star Wars Day, I read one article observing that “fake news” gave rise to the Galactic Empire and another article using the behind-the-scenes development of the trilogies’ story lines to explain U.S. constitutional law.

But the best lines I’ve seen so far today on Star Wars Day relate to international cultural exchange:

Looking for a new hope? Apply to an exchange program

With permission from the dedicated folks at the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, we share these images:

May the 4th be with you images

#Maythe4thBeWithYou . . . and may the positive force of international cultural exchange be with you, ever and always … every day!

Connect with the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Programs on Facebook and Twitter, and visit the Department’s study abroad website for more information on exchange programs for U.S. citizens who want to study or travel abroad and non-U.S. citizens coming to the U.S. It’s a great resource and a good place to start your search, both for students and for potential host families. See our list of some international exchange opportunities on our website here, and don’t forget to also visit the website of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel for lists of approved J-1 and F-1 exchange organizations.

Will Cultural Exchanges Die Under the Trump Administration?

map of US

We try to avoid making “political” comments here on The Exchange Mom blog, knowing that audiences involved in cultural exchange and international education come from all walks of life and all political persuasions. President Trump’s proposed budget, however, is so potentially game-changing that we feel compelled to speak up.

There are many impacts of the President’s budget proposal beyond international education and exchange. I’m not even going to go into what the proposed budget cuts would do to environmental programs and the environment. Let’s just stick with the one agency that we’re involved with in high school cultural exchange — the U.S. Department of State.

The President’s proposed budget would cut funding for the U.S. Dept. of State by about 29%, eliminating most cultural exchange programs other than the Fulbright Program. Exchange programs dependent on significant federal funding could be doomed. These programs are important. See, for just a couple of examples, our posts Hiding in Plain Sight: The Changing Needs of Cultural Exchange and Today, An Exchange Student: Tomorrow . . . ? for our thoughts on why some of these programs are important. We would all be poorer for their loss.

proposed budget graph Dept of State 2017
Source: What Trump cut in his budget, Washington Post, March 16, 2017, http://wapo.st/trump-budget-proposal?tid=ss_tw.

It would be a mistake to assume that other cultural exchange programs — even if they do not primarily rely on Department of State funding for students — would come through this with no significant impacts. If the relevant oversight offices at the Department of State are defunded, for example, what happens then? Can the cultural exchange programs exist without a partnership with the Department of State?

Less direct but just as important is the additional pressure that public schools may face in coming years. The new Administration has plans to implement voucher and other programs. If attendance at public schools decreases as a result of such programs, the public school system will be increasingly squeezed. Will they still be receptive to high school exchange students on J-1 visas, who do not pay tuition? Will they be able to afford those students?

It’s hard to know how this will all play out. We can all see, however, that the Trump Administration has made clear that these are its priorities. The Administration’s proposed budget reflects a “hard power” approach to the future, not the “soft power” approach generally attributed to diplomacy and the State Department, and which most cultural exchange programs clearly support.

The international education community is beginning to speak out. As stated by the Alliance for International Exchange yesterday, as one example:

“Educational and cultural exchange programs have been a critical component of our national security policy since the end of World War II. ….the State Department reports that 1 in 3 current world leaders have been on an exchange program in the United States. In another Department study, 92 percent of participants from Muslim majority countries reported having a more favorable view of the United States.”

Shutting down these programs in favor of buying more guns and bombs ultimately will prove both shortsighted and “penny wise, pound foolish.” We hope that the high school, college, and post-graduate exchange community will make this clear to congressional and other representatives.

International Education Week 2016

Today is the beginning of International Education Week 2016, an annual joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education to talk about the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide.

To help kick off International Education Week, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released its annual Open Doors Report today. Lots of interesting facts and figures! Among other things, the number of international students studying in the U.S. has now surpassed one million. The number of U.S. students studying abroad also increased, for a total of about 313,000 during 2014-2015.

Explore some of the data yourself at the IIE website. To find out more about the Open Doors Report or activities connected with International Education Week, check out these hashtags on social media platforms: #OpenDoorsReport and #IEW2016.

iie-graphic

Let’s Change the Conversation Frame: Muslim Exchange Students Worried About Coming to the U.S.

In recent weeks, the political conversation in the U.S. has focused on fears of Muslim immigration — from Syria in particular, but some political candidates have cast a pretty wide “ban Muslims” net. This troubles us on a personal level; it also bothers us on a professional level, in connection with the work we do with international high school students and cultural exchange.

This week we received an email from an exchange student scheduled to come to the U.S. in January. “Emily” (not her real name) is coming through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad (YES) program. The YES program is funded by the U.S. Dept. of State; the program’s goal is to broaden cultural understanding by providing scholarships for students from countries with significant Muslim populations to come to the U.S. to attend high school for up to one year, live with a host family, and learn more about the American culture.

“Emily” expressed excitement about coming to the U.S., and looks forward to the American experience of living with a host family. At the same time, she is anxious, as many exchange students are prior to arrival. She is worried about what to do if she is “not on the same page” as her host mom on some things, and wonders what to do if her English isn’t as good as it should be.

But there’s an anxiety that sets her apart. As a girl wearing a headscarf, she is almost terrified. She worries she’ll be easy to identify as a Muslim.

I am a Muslim, and I am happy being me. But the misconception of Islam [being associated] with terrorism and violence seems terrifying for me. I have never been in a situation where people start looking at me with strange looks, children running away when seeing a girl with headscarf, being insulted with painful words.

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, in November, and in San Bernardino, California, two weeks ago, violence and threats of violence against Muslims in this country (or people perceived to be Muslim) have increased. Mosques have been vandalized, and a leading Presidential candidate has proposed that all Muslims be excluded from entering the United States.

Fear is leading to innocent people being harmed or being threatened for no reason other than their faith. Fear leads to otherwise good people acting wrongly – or to not taking any action, which can be just as wrong.

I can relate. We have raised two sons, now 21 and 23 years old. They are African-American, we are not. As young children they encountered the N-word. Store clerks ignored us. Other children said they would never amount to anything due to the color of their skin. As a family, we’ve taken special precautions when traveling in some parts of the U.S. We met with school officials when our children were young to address disciplinary actions that seemed disproportionate or directed only at them and not at white students. We’ve urged our sons to exercise extreme restraint in any dealings with law enforcement.

MCT and boys 11-2011
© 2011 Joseph Grimes Photography

We’ve raised great young men. Yet we continue to worry every single day about what situation might come up in which “being black” could suddenly become a very bad thing. So receiving this letter from “Emily” hit home. I can only imagine what it would feel like to be a teenager who happens to be Muslim, who is seeing all this in the news just four weeks before she is scheduled to arrive in the U.S..

What steps can we as exchange program representatives suggest to “Emily”? Based on our experience with our own sons, and with dozens of exchange students of all nationalities and races, here is what we advised Emily to do:

1. Don’t assume that what you hear and see in the media is representative of all Americans. It’s not.

2. When you arrive in the U.S., be totally upfront with your host family and your exchange program coordinator about your concerns and fears. Engage them in dialogue and see what insights and suggestions they have.

3. Go out of your way to talk to your teachers at school, as well as to the school counselor, vice principal, and principal. Develop personal relationships as quickly as possible, and be upfront with them about your concerns. They can help.

4. As we recommend with all exchange students, try to make friends quickly at school. American teenagers in many parts of the U.S. may not know much about the rest of the world. You have a huge opportunity to help those American teenagers learn about other countries and other religions. Take advantage of that opportunity.

5. You may wish to reach out to a local Muslim group. Here in Portland, for example, we have in the past reached out to the Muslim Educational Trust, hoping to have them be available as a resource for our Muslim students. Such groups, or your local mosque if there is one in your host community, can give you insights and suggestions. Talk to your host family about reaching out to these resources so they don’t feel you’re going behind their backs. They should encourage your efforts.

6. If you feel anything inappropriate is taking place in your host family, your school, or your community due to your faith, immediately reach out to your exchange program coordinator for advice and support. Don’t hold it inside or share it only with your parents back home. It is your coordinator’s role to represent your interests in situations like this. If you don’t get the support you need from your exchange program coordinator, talk to your school counselor or someone else you trust. You can always call the exchange program’s national office directly or even the U.S. Department of State, if you feel that you are not getting the help that you need.

We truly hope “Emily” has a great exchange experience here in the U.S. As we have written in other blog posts, we think that the kind of cultural exchange in which Emily is participating is important. Exchanges involving truly different cultures and backgrounds – such as Muslim students like “Emily” – are perhaps even more important than exchanges involving teens from Europe, which arguably has more in common with the U.S. (and thus is more familiar). Programs such as the Kennedy-Lugar YES program are at the cutting edge of what inter-cultural exchange needs to be in the United States as we move into the 21st century.

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