As you know, I am the local representative for your exchange student program. I know you are excited to have your student here, and I’m happy to see that you are keeping him busy — that’s exactly what he needs to get used to the community and not be homesick!
Many new host parents feel that now that the exchange program has approved them as a host family, the program and the local representative should step aside and let you handle parenting for the coming academic year. I know that it can feel like an invasion of privacy when I call and ask what classes your student is signed up for, and how the student is doing in those classes. I know it can feel strange to explain to me as a relative stranger what you did as a family last week, and what activities you are planning in the near future. I know it can feel unreasonable to help me set up a meeting with your student on short notice. After all, if nothing is wrong, why do I need to come over?
I know you may be experienced parents. But I would ask you to remember and understand two things. First, the exchange program is responsible for your exchange student while he or she is in the United States. Also, exchange organizations operating in the U.S. face certain minimum requirements established by the U.S. Department of State for how we communicate with all our exchange students and their host families.
I’m also here to help your student succeed in a foreign environment — and to help you, too. Some of us have worked with dozens of exchange students; we know that hosting an exchange student isn’t always the same thing as raising your own children. For a student from another culture and country and a host family to become close is not just a matter of making sure the student has similar interests to your family. There’s a lot more involved.
Every year, many students have to be placed into new host families. There are many reasons for that, some that are unavoidable (a host parent becomes ill or loses their job, for example). But many problems arise out of miscommunications, and some of those communications difficulties are the result of host parents (or students) not sharing with their coordinator what’s going on in their lives. My communications with you and the student are intended to help nip that outcome in the bud.
I understand that you have the best interests of your student at heart, and I have no wish to interfere in your home life with your exchange student. My goal is for you to have a successful hosting experience and for your student to have a great exchange year in the United States and in your family. Work with me — we’re a team.
#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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.