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.

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

map of world with suitcase

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.

A Student’s Question: Should I be an Exchange Student?

travel journal and camera

The real question “is not whether you should do an exchange year or not, because you should. Everyone should. … The real question is, when should you do an exchange?”

6 Reasons Why You Should Do An Exchange While Still in High School (Nationality Unknown, Dec. 2014)

Yes. If you can make it happen, you should.

The purpose of educational exchange and cultural programs is to support personal growth, lead to a deeper understanding about foreign cultures, and improve international relationships. What better way to do that than to go to school in a foreign country, live with a family, and learn what daily life is like?

There is a saying in the international exchange community, “exchange is not a year in one’s life, but a life in a year.” Students return home with more maturity after having lived for so long without the cushion of family and long-time friends. They also have a better understanding of what their host country is all about, and perhaps a better idea of what the world is all about. They’ve learned about another culture, and the differences and the similarities. They know better than to believe everything they see in the media — wherever they have gone, the media coverage has no doubt not been completely accurate.

USA, Oregon,Portland, man with bicycle There are some practical reasons as well that students might find more intuitive. Thinking about what you want to do with your life after high school or college can be daunting. Spending a half or full year abroad during high school or college may help you formulate your thoughts more clearly. You can pursue interests and activities you might not have done back home; you might find out you want to pursue theater or art simply because you took an acting class at your U.S. high school. You might discover you do not, in fact, want to be a research scientist after spending six month doing a particular kind of research.

Is There Evidence That It Will Help Me?

There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that studying abroad in high school will help you in college applications, graduate school admissions, and job applications. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan (author of Student Guide to Study Abroad and Preparing to Study in the USA) wrote in 2013 that when she asked employers what they liked about potential applicants who had studied abroad, employers noted the ability to solve problems in situations the applicant had not dealt with, adaptability, communication skills, and knowledge of another culture.

For U.S. teens, study abroad in high school certainly would help you to stand out from the crowd in your college application process. It takes guts to choose to spend a semester or academic year abroad at any age; college admissions counselors are going to look carefully at a student who has shown he or she can do it in high school. It shows a willingness to try new things, an ability to deal with the unexpected, and a desire to learn. Similar arguments apply to college students considering a study abroad program during their undergraduate career.

Patrick Stephenson, former speechwriter for the NATO secretary-general, wrote this about his junior year of high school in Spain:

Inspired by an ancient and noble culture, I turned from a mediocre sophomore with average grades into an accomplished high school senior with an impressive academic record. The experience paved my way to Yale and a career in international politics.

He argues that U.S. students should study abroad in high school. Benefits from his point of view include learning another language and culture, improving one’s resume for college and future job prospects, learning about one’s own capabilities, and more. He emphasizes the importance in today’s global economy of having citizens who understand the world and how we all fit into the bigger picture.

What About My Parents?

High school students sometimes ask us how they can convince their parents that study abroad is a good idea. We suggest that they recognize that their parents have valid concerns and reasonable questions. Parents may well be worried about all the unknowns — a normal human response. Students can educate their parents — and themselves — by doing the research and providing parents with real information about what is involved in studying abroad.

  • Read materials on blogs (like this one!) and study abroad websites.
  • Read carefully through the websites of some of the exchange programs. Call and talk to someone and ask for details about programs and countries that interest you.
  • For some students, starting out with a short-term study abroad or exchange program might be a good way to go. Going abroad for 3-4 weeks can be one way to get used to the idea and help a nervous teen — and a nervous parent — feel more comfortable with being in a different culture and living in a strange place.

But Things Can Go Wrong!

Of course. Going to live in a foreign country in a culture that may be very different from what you are used to. Life will not be the same as getting up and going to school at home. The experience will challenge you in ways you cannot imagine ahead of time. Things will not go the way they do in the movies or on a television show. Unexpected problems can arise. That is, after all, life. Things may not go the way you want them to in your ordinary home country life, either.

passport and knapsack* You might “fail” in the sense that you do poorly academically, for example, no matter how hard you try. That does not necessarily mean that you have really “failed.” In many cases, academics are not the point of the experience. Indeed, many students don’t receive academic credit for their exchange year.

* Getting used to a different school system can be a challenge and can contribute to poor grades simply because you don’t know what is expected of you. The confusion can cause anxiety and worry that you may not do things correctly.

* Communicating in a different language on a daily basis is likely to be harder and more exhausting than you think it will before you go. You may think you understand what people around you are saying, but it will turn out you have missed key concepts. This can contribute to poor academics and difficulties in your relationships with people around you, including the people you live with.

* Making friends may be much more difficult than you thought it would be. If you’re used to having the same group of friends for years, or if you are not the most talkative person, having to make outreach to make friends can be a challenge. Foreign students often start out thinking that everyone knows they are an international student, and wonder why don’t my teachers know? Why aren’t people coming up to me to introduce themselves? Exchange students often feel that they have “failed” if they have not made friends after a month or two. We hope you can recognize that this can take time.

* Something bad could happen. Yes. Don’t live your life, however, in the fear that something could possibly happen someday, somewhere. Bad things can happen anywhere, at any time. Bad things can also happen at home, and if you stay home, you won’t meet people who could change your life, or see wonders that could affect how you view the world – or learn about other cultures and customs.

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.  A high school year abroad is a quick and dirty way to discover just how ignorant you are. As such, it’s the door to a lifetime of learning and discovery.

Why High School Students Should Study Abroad (Patrick Stephenson, Huffington Post, March 2015)

 

 

Photo credits: Thinkstock.com, Daniel Sankowski/Unsplash

5 Most Common Regrets of Study Abroad Alumni

old library

Studying abroad is a dream of any student. New country, new friends, new people! But are there some things you might regret about studying abroad? I have interviewed students who have studied abroad and asked them what they think about studying abroad now. They shared their experience and told me what they regret the most. If you plan to study abroad, learn from their mistakes and return from your trip satisfied and full of new experiences!

Regret #1: I should have done it earlier

Almost all students told me that they regret about the time they’ve lost. They felt that if they had known that studying abroad would reveal such opportunities, they would have decided to make the trip earlier. They learned that going abroad is an effective way of going outside one’s comfort zone to find those opportunities and learn about one’s own strengths and weaknesses. It has additional benefits: a student not only learns about a new environment, but also has a unique chance to understand the essence of one’s life and find out how to deal with problems in a new and unfamiliar setting.

Regret #2: I made no friends

When students do a study abroad program, they might think that they do not need friends to feel comfortable. You can chat with your friends from home, after all. But not paying attention to new people who are around you is a gross mistake. Meet new people when you are abroad! An additional suggestion that applies to college level students is to take classes with local students, not just with students from your own country. If you study in an international class, you have more opportunities to discover different cultures and find out how people from different countries live.

Many students think that a short-term exchange or study abroad program is not long enough to find friends. But when you go abroad you find out a strange thing: it seems that time slows down. Routine is no longer a part of your life. You can start to spend time with other students and continue your communication using social networks. Today everyone has access to the Internet, so you can stay connected as long as you want.

Regret #3: I didn’t study the language

For some study abroad students, it will be necessary to know the host language ahead of time. For some college level students, however, it is possible to go to your host country and take classes in your own language. Most of the students I interviewed felt this was a mistake. Studying abroad is the perfect opportunity to master a foreign language. When you go to your host country with at least basic knowledge of the language, you will feel more comfortable.

Regret #4: I regret I didn’t travel more

Some study abroad students will have time and opportunity to travel.. College level students should try to use weekends to go to some other city, go to museums, and visit main attractions in the city or town where you live. High school students should travel with their host family if it is at all possible; if it isn’t, see if your exchange program has opportunities you can take advantage of.

Regret #5: I wish I could have stayed longer

No one told me that he wished he had gone home sooner. Everyone would like to study abroad for a longer time. If you have such an opportunity and can afford it, use it. You will change your attitude to studying, your feelings about yourself, and learn more about the way you should live your life. You will grow as a person. Widen your horizons with the opportunities life gives you!

Sophia Clark is a creative writer from New York who loves to share her thoughts with readers. In her free time, she enjoys writing fiction as well as reading it. Her big dream is to publish a novel one day. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo credit: Hieu Vu Minh, Unsplash.com.