Will Cultural Exchanges Die Under the Trump Administration?

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.


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

The Beginning of the School Year: Déjà Vu or New Beginnings

Labor Day weekend marks a transition – from Summer to Fall, and from Vacation to School. True, some schools in our area started a week or so earlier this year to add instruction days. But that’s a distinction without a difference. The beginning of the school year – the “real deal” – starts this week.

Teachers understand this – the feeling that it’s the same cycle starting over, and yet at the same time, it’s completely different. That’s part of why teachers return to their classroom at this time every year, starting the cycle again – it’s different. Each student is different, even if we can see teenager trends and generalities. Each group of students is different when they are together, even if they are a group of athletes that may tend to act a certain way or a group of student debaters that may tend to act a different way. The combinations are unique.

Perhaps that’s why we’re here each year, too. The new school year is perhaps also a good time to reflect on that.

© 2015 Thinkstock.com
© 2015 Thinkstock.com

I’m a local exchange program coordinator. My husband and I work with teenaged exchange students between the ages of 15-18 from other countries who come to the United States for one semester or a full academic year to live with an American family and go to high school here. We help find host families, “match” students to a family, and supervise/guide/mentor students and host families during the exchange year. We have also hosted students ourselves, having shared our home with more than a dozen students over the past 12 years.

I started this blog just over four years ago with vague notions of sharing with others our family’s experiences as a host family and Mark’s and my experiences as coordinators, and maybe getting a few ideas from others so we could do better in both categories. It’s far surpassed my expectations. We have received emails from host parents around the world who share a few thoughts, ask for advice, and let us know how their student is doing. We have heard from parents wondering how to help their child succeed on an exchange many miles from home. We have heard from teens asking for advice on how to talk to a host parent on sensitive issues as well as asking where they should go on exchange before they’ve made any decisions. There is a large community out there!

Dinner in Berlin with Sven, one of our own German students, seven years after he returned home.

The emails and comments have added to the personal connections we have made with former students who have returned to their home countries, and sometimes their parents as well. We have been given tours of the city in Berlin by one of our German sons’ parents. Parents of students we supervised – students who didn’t even live with us, we just talked to or met with them every month – have offered us seven-course dinners at their restaurant, invited us to their home for family dinner, and sent us heartfelt thank-yous for helping their child develop into young adults.

It reminds us what it’s all about. The U.S. Department of State encourages international cultural exchanges as a means to improve relations between our country and others. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the goodwill and exposure to other cultures that exchange programs foster are “critical to meeting the challenges of today’s world,” and Secretary of State John Kerry has said that “international education creates life-long friendships between students and strengthens the bonds between nations.”

In a way, it’s even simpler. It’s making friends across borders, one person at a time. In a world where we continue to see destruction of cultural treasures, mass mistreatment of individuals for varied reasons, and a worldwide refugee disaster of massive proportions – perhaps continuing to take one step at a time, and helping to create change one person at a time, still has value.

Welcome to 2015-2016, another year in the world of high school exchange. We will continue to post on issues related to teen communications, cultural misunderstandings, the fun in sharing even small experiences, and offer tips on ideas for developing relationships that we hope will last far longer than the 5 or 10 months that the students live in the U.S. We hope you will continue to visit us here on the blog from time and time and share in the adventures. We welcome your thoughts and comments.

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.

Photo credits: ©2015 Thinkstock.com.

When You Hear an Exchange Student Needs Help – What To Do?

A reader of the ExchangeMom blog recently posed this question:

My question is not about my student, but about another student in another state and program that is a friend of his. He has told me that her placement is not good. They are denying her medication and socialization. They are extremely religious and are forcing those beliefs on her. She has spoken with her representative and the school, so what are her next steps?

I hear reports like this quite often. Sometimes it comes from a host parent who has heard something from a friend, sometimes it comes from a student we are hosting or a student we are supervising. We always take such reports seriously, since the well-being of exchange students is our paramount concern. But I also discuss with the communicator of the report how students (both the one reporting to us and the friend) often jump to conclusions, feel insecure, or just don’t understand as much English as they think they do.

When you hear a story like this, remember several things

When we hear stories like this, we ask the person telling it to us to remember a few key points:

1) Teens have trouble believing their friends would not be 100% honest or factually correct in reporting their situation; adults, too, have trouble believing someone they know and trust could be mistaken or intentionally deceive them. Even our own student this year – who hears from us, as a result of our role in the program, quite a bit of information about how we work with students in the region — told us about a student he knew who was being sent home for underage drinking when (according to him) she hadn’t had any alcohol to drink; she had told him and others that the program made it all up.  We had quite a bit of difficulty in convincing him that this simply didn’t make sense. “She wouldn’t lie,” he said.

2) Miscommunication is the name of our game in the world of study abroad. Let’s face it — most of us aren’t great communicators to begin with, and most people of any age try to avoid conflict. Add to that mix teenagers from another country. Teens as a group act impulsively; as exchange students, they are acclimatizing to living in a foreign country and speaking a foreign language every day. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the result, if not managed, can be massive miscommunication.

Truth is in the eyes of the beholder

Truth 478611913The situation reported by the reader of our blog cries out “Miscommunication! Misunderstanding!” to me. On the religion issue, it may be that the host family is not forcing religious beliefs on their student. Rather, it could be that the student is uncomfortable with going to church, but sees that it is important to her host family and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Maybe she’s not a talkative or outgoing person and isn’t sure how to talk about this issue with her host parents. When we had a similar situation a few years ago, the host parents were horrified when we told them how their student felt. It was never their intent to force her to go to church. They believed they had been clear that she didn’t have to go. But she had felt that would be rude, and had said nothing, leading them to believe she enjoyed going and resulting in her being miserable.

Similar misunderstandings could be the cause of the student’s statement that her host parents are denying her medication. One possible explanation that comes to mind, for example, is that perhaps the student came with a batch of medicines and treatments of various kinds, and the host parents were uncomfortable with the student having control of it. (If you haven’t seen our blog post on this topic, read it here.) Our own student this year came with his personal small pharmacy that included everything from rash treatments to antibiotics, with no instructions; in fact, much of it wasn’t even in original packaging. Students from Eastern Europe and Asia sometimes come with entire travel bags of undecipherable items. In this case, “denying her medication” could be a responsible action for a host parent in the United States — what makes sense elsewhere doesn’t necessarily make sense here (and the reverse is also true!).

We are not trying to say that an adult who hears about such stories and situations should ignore the complaint. Not at all. The very fact of a complaint does suggest that there is a problem, even if it it’s not the problem the student is announcing. If a student is complaining, she’s unhappy about something, which someone needs to investigate. Whether she is unhappy because she is being mistreated, or because she is having trouble adjusting to the host environment, or simply doesn’t understand key elements in each sentence that is being spoken to her – something is wrong. True, it’s a lot easier for teens to blame the people around them than to take a long honest look at themselves, and culture shock can sometimes be quite a challenge. But you don’t want to ignore it.  The situation a student is describing could be mostly true. Even if it is not mostly true, there is a student who is having problems adjusting to her host family and community. If we can get to the bottom of it sooner rather than later, we can help solve the problem and with any luck the teen and her host family can have a rewarding experience. In some cases, however, the student may need to be moved.

When we get stories like this from host families or students, we recommend several things:

myths and facts 485017745* We encourage the concerned host family or student to really try to get the student who is upset to talk to their program coordinator. If they say “but she already did, her coordinator won’t doing anything/doesn’t like her,” we encourage them to tell their friend to try again. Maybe the coordinator didn’t understand what the student was trying to say, or maybe the student has more information than they did the first time they tried to talk about it. Maybe the student didn’t really talk to his or her coordinator, at least not enough for the coordinator to really understand there was a problem that needed to be addressed. Sometimes I can remind a student of something they themselves have complained about, and get them to remember our own conversation about it; that sometimes triggers an agreement (even if reluctant) that it’s not always easy to figure things out and that there usually are several sides to a story.

* We encourage the concerned host family or student to tell the student who is having difficulty that he or she can call the national office of her program, too, if she feels she is not getting support from her local coordinator. All exchange students should have a contact name and number for their main office.

* We encourage students to talk to another adult in their lives if they are having difficulty talking to their host parents or their local program contact. Of course, it’s preferable to talk to one’s host family or program contact – we want communication between students and host parents, and coordinators are there specifically to help guide families and students through the rough patches. But when you’re dealing with people, it doesn’t always work seamlessly. If a teen is close to a teacher, or a guidance counselor at school, that adult can help pave the way towards improved communication – or even just let the program and host family know that there is a problem that should be addressed.

If all else fails, and if you really do believe an emergency exists, any student or concerned citizen can call the U.S. Dept of State office that handles foreign exchange students. All exchange students have that contact information on their program student ID cards. People naturally (and for good reason) are reluctant to involve the government when they realize they don’t have all the information needed to determine if an emergency does exist. But the option is there.

As always, communication is the key to success in a cultural exchange and study abroad program. Those who know us know it’s our “mantra” – but it’s a good motto to remember.