Just A Thought on Why We’re Here on This Blog

Sometimes we write more often, sometimes we write less often. I know according to the “rules” for blogs, one of us should be writing something every week. We don’t follow that “rule”; we write when we think we have something to say — sometimes several times/month, sometimes less often. Sometimes we write something major, and sometimes we share an article or graphic we think useful. Sometimes it’s something small.

I don’t exactly where my thoughts today fall in that spectrum. This isn’t a long detailed analytical post, true. But there are some serious issues beneath my thinking. Today, I’ve been thinking about why families choose to host. I’m thinking about it because it’s that time of year when the various exchange organizations are focusing on matching students to host families and submitting student applications to local U.S. high schools for approval for the coming academic year. We’ve got a few students “assigned” to our group for whom we’re responsible for finding host families, and I’ve been working on that today.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion both within and outside the international education field about the future of international youth exchange in this country. I’m not going there today — anyone following this blog will know we’re in favor of more international exchange, not less. And that’s the point of my thoughts today.

For those who can’t do much international traveling – and for those who can as well – hosting an international student in your home is a way to become a little familiar with another culture. Hosting isn’t just about the teenager or young adult having an adventure. It’s about learning the differences in how people around the world communicate. It’s about making a large, impersonal world a smaller, more connected place. It’s about our future.

old fashioned globe partial viewContact us at info@exchangemom.com or read through our blog archives to learn more about hosting. Do some research in your area and call a few exchange organizations operating in your region. Take the plunge, and host a student. Will you develop a long-lasting relationship? We hope so. What’s really important is that you will learn something. You’ll learn about communication, flexibility, adapting to another person, how other people think, and more.

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.

Hosting If You Don’t Have Children: Why Not?

An acquaintance asked me recently, “what is it like to host an exchange student if you don’t have any children in the home?” It’s a question we get sometimes. People worry that perhaps they are not qualified to be a host family if they don’t have children living at home.

What’s the answer? Well, it’s like any family that has one child in the home who happens to be a teenager. That’s the nutshell response.

The longer answer is that every family is different, and every host family is different. So hosting an exchange student is different for every family, regardless of whether you have teens in the home already, whether you have young children, whether you have adult children who no longer live in the home, or whether you have no children at all. If you are reading this blog post, I’m sure you can think of families you know who have one child in the home. Are all of those families alike? Of course not. Are they still a family, with one child? Of course they are.

For some people who don’t have children in the home, having an exchange student means having an excuse to travel around their region when they haven’t done that before (or at least haven’t done it in a while) and showing the area to their student. Another host family will host a student and maybe cannot travel much for a variety of reasons — and they and their student will still have a positive experience, learning about each others’ world. For some parents, having an exchange student when you don’t have children in the home is a way to learn what having a teenager is like. For others, it’s a way to keep liveliness in the home; perhaps their children are adults and the parents like having the energy of teens in the home. Other parents enjoy having their student to themselves and being able to have deep personal conversations that might not be possible with multiple children running around; many students find that having their host parents to themselves has benefits as well.

We’ve hosted over a dozen exchange students, starting when our children were in elementary school and continuing when they were in college and beyond. As a result, we’ve had students whose memories of our family is that of being the older teen with younger host siblings, students whose memories are that of having host siblings close to their own age, and students who remember a family with adult children who sometimes come to visit.

Our life with each exchange student was different every year — and our life was different from other host families in similar circumstances. One year with younger children, maybe we traveled quite a bit. The next year, maybe not. One year with no children in the home, we did lots of things as a family. Another year, our student would be very active at school and in the community. The dynamics, activities, and relationships differ for so many reasons — not just due to whether there are multiple children in the home.

Each family is unique, and your relationship with your student will be unique. Don’t host just because you do or do not have children in the home. Host because it opens up your world, teaches you about another culture, and helps you establish new relationships. Host because you want to share your home and your world.

Photo credits: Christopher Harris, Pixabay

An Exchange Student Wedding

My wife, Jenn, and I spent this past Saturday at the marriage of my former exchange student, Nha, from Vietnam. Nha spent the 2003-04 school year with my family through EF High School Exchange Year. She returned to the U.S. to go to college and recently started working at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU).

It was a lovely ceremony, held mostly in Vietnamese. It was followed by a wonderful reception, with all sorts of tasty and interesting dishes from Nha’s homeland.

weddingThe only phrase I remember in Vietnamese from my year with Nha was “cam an,” which means “thank you.” Some of the food was familiar, but some—being celebration food—was new, such as the chicken dish and two whole roasted pigs. The ceremony itself had some differences from what I’m used to, including a sort of karaoke performed by the wedding party.

After we left, Jenn pointed out that our experience in a crowd full of happy, talkative, outgoing strangers, separated by a language barrier, was probably a good deal like the experience of a new exchange student. There was no shortage of good will and desire to communicate, but it was very hard to understand everything that was going on in overwhelmingly unfamiliar surroundings.

We realized that this is what it must feel like to students who have just arrived in their host country.

I found—the way a person who has one sense dulled notices other senses strengthening—that I was paying closer attention than usual to body language to figure out what people were doing. Smiles and gestures got us through most everything; things like table assignments at the reception required more careful and detailed translation.

New students go through this same process as their English skills develop. Misinterpretations are part of the learning process.

The wedding ceremony was held under the auspices of a relatively familiar religious affiliation, so its rhythms and progress were relatively easy to follow. However, the language barrier wiped away any distinctions between what might have been a cultural practice and what was there simply because the two young people at the altar wanted it that way.

That confusion is what we see with our exchange students. What’s culturally American and what is peculiar to our households becomes indistinguishable, and can cause students to make assumptions that they later find to be invalid.

The ingredients in the wedding food were largely familiar, but prepared and seasoned in unfamiliar ways. The overall flavor and texture palette were at turns delightful and off-putting. Hunger, and a desire to be gracious, overcame some of our nervousness…but some differences are just too much to overcome. Chicken feet are past my limits.

A student sitting down to her first few American meals must experience the same thing. Processed cheese slices may be beyond our students’ ability to deal with unfamiliar tastes.

By the end of the evening, watching Nha dance with her new husband (I stayed dry-eyed up until I saw her starting to cry during that dance, I swear!), and seeing the joy in the little interactions between friends and family, it was clear that no matter how different they were from us, it was far easier to see the humanity that unites us all than to focus on the cultural and individual differences between us.

Our students have the same experience, as they grow to know the warmth of our hearts and our homes.

Nha’s wedding offered a powerful lesson in understanding the struggles—and the rewards—our students face, particularly in the early days of their time with us. It was a reminder to Jenn and me to be patient and compassionate in helping them through the period of culture shock and of the shared joy that awaits on the far side.

Lars D. H. Hedbor is an amateur historian, home brewer, astronomer, fiddler, linguist, and baker. His fascination with the central question of how the populace of the American Colonies made the transition from being subjects of the Crown to citizens of the Republic drives him to tell the stories of those people, whether in television appearances, classroom presentations, or in the pages of his Tales From a Revolution novels. Hedbor lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Jennifer Mendenhall, and five daughters. Lars and Jennifer are exchange student coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year.

Our New E-Book is Now Available!

We’ve reached a milestone today! We have published our new e-book: We Would Love to Host an Exchange Student, But …

Thousands of teenagers from other countries spend one or more years studying in the U.S. They come from countries all over the world. In each case the students, parents back home, and host families are taking a big leap. Many students have great experiences during their time in the U.S., improving critical language skills and forming life-long relationships. But many book cover smallerstumble along the way. Some change host families or schools while in the U.S.; some return home early. Many simply have a less rewarding time than could have been the case. Often it comes down to one problem: communications!

Better problem-solving skills and communications could help avoid these situations — communications between student and host parents, student and parents back home, student and siblings in a host family, and even host parents and natural parents back home. There can never be too much communication when it comes to teenagers and adults, not to mention the added challenge of inter-cultural expectations and misunderstandings.

In this book, you will learn about many of the opportunities for miscommunication in the context of students studying in the U.S., and how to solve problems when issues do arise. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all answer, but “communicate early and often” is pretty close. Host parents, parents back home, and students themselves are making a big investment when it comes to any high school study abroad option. This book can help make that investment a success.

This is a “first” for us! We welcome your comments — and your corrections! You can download a sample or buy the book here at Smashwords.com.  We should be on Amazon and other retailers soon!

Another Way to Raise a Strong Child

“Raising strong kids.” That was the theme recently for a website inviting writers’ submissions. I don’t know what articles the website organizers ended up choosing from the proposals they received. I do know that I’ve got a way to raise strong children that most people just don’t think about.

One way to raise a “strong child” is to expose them early to other cultures. There are several ways to do that, and families can and should choose what works best for them. Readers of my blog can guess that I will advocate hosting an exchange student as one way to expose your own children – and yourselves – to other cultures. You can also encourage your child to study abroad in high school, college, or graduate school to immerse themselves in another culture.

How does study abroad or becoming a volunteer host family for a foreign teenager contribute to the development of strong children? They learn how others think, which makes them realize the world does not always think as they do. They learn how to deal with difficult situations, whether it be through living with someone adjusting to life in a foreign country or through being the student experiencing culture shock themselves. They learn the value of tolerance of other cultures.

We have raised two children who are growing into strong young adults. There certainly are many reasons why they are maturing into decent, strong human beings. But I believe one factor that contributed to who they are today has been their exposure, one-on-one, to people from other countries in a personal living situation. Our children – now aged 21 and 23 – spent their pre-teen and teenaged years living with students from Europe, Asia, and South America. Daily life with someone from Germany, Colombia, and Hong Kong forced them to think about how people from Germany, Colombia, and Hong Kong communicate and live. It caused them to revise how they themselves communicate to others and, I hope, instilled a sense of tolerance towards people who are different.

BASICS International, where Marcus worked

We saw the positive changes that resulted from living abroad – resulting in a “stronger” young man — in our younger son, an African-American who grew up in a Caucasian family. At the age of 18, shortly after graduating from high school, Marcus went on an exchange program to Ghana in West Africa. He worked as a teaching assistant in an after-school program in a truly poverty-stricken area and lived with a host family in Accra, the capital city. Even his living situation, in a middle-class section of the city, was a complete “culture shock” as compared to his life in Oregon. When we went to visit towards the end of his six-month exchange, we watched as our quiet, avoid-conflict, don’t-talk-if-you-can-avoid-it son haggled loudly and insistently with a taxi driver who he felt was cheating his American parents. In the three years since, we have seen more evidence of the impacts of his experience in his growing self-confidence, increased ability to deal with tough issues at college, determination to succeed in spite of learning disabilities, and less fear of unknown situations.

He won’t succeed at everything in life; none of us do. But this is definitely a win-win for him and for us as a family.

American families should consider hosting an exchange student, and American students should make study abroad a priority themselves. Understanding how it can benefit your family is not something that writers and bloggers on international cultural exchange usually focus on. Instead, I see quite a bit of what a wonderful experience it can be to share one’s culture. This is true, and I’ve written about that myself. But the benefits to one’s own family are significant, too. Hosting a student, or studying abroad yourself – or both — teaches you how to adapt to life in a new environment on your own. You learn how to share, how to communicate in difficult situations, and how to deal with homesickness or to help someone who is homesick or struggling in a foreign environment. You learn appreciation for your own world, your own family, and your own community. Our students and our host families deal with these issues on a daily basis. It sticks with you.

“Studying abroad is, first and foremost, an instructive exercise in failure. . . . the lesson you learn — that initial setbacks, patience and work are the prerequisites for eventual success — is more important than an A in Calculus. That lesson can’t be taught. It must be learned firsthand.“

— Patrick Stephenson, former speechwriter for the NATO secretary-general, Why High School Students Should Study Abroad.

Photo credits: Greg Rakozy and BASICS International

Thinking About Returning Home

A statement from one of the exchange students in our NW Oregon group this year, as she thinks about returning home in just over a week…..:

“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. That was my first big accomplishment and I’m already ready for another new one!”

Being part of this process is part of that intangible thing people gain as a host family.  When I think about some of the difficulties this student had — difficulties in adapting, feeling a need to challenge host family rules, host family expectations that may not have been reasonable, conflicts with host sister — it solidifies in my mind what can happen during an academic year and reinforces, to me, the positive changes and growth that can result for both a student and the host family.