The idea of cultural exchange sounds simple enough, but in fact several pieces of the cultural exchange puzzle need to fit together for a successful exchange experience. There are the students, of course, whether high school or college, who make the choice to go abroad for adventure, education, and personal growth. There are the families left behind, who hope that the year will go as planned, and worry that it won’t. There are the host families who welcome a student into their home and community (with no compensation and with some personal expense), with the goal of expanding their own horizons and those of their own children. There are the schools, which like having international students to enrich their community and expose their student body to other cultures and new ways of thinking. Finally, there are the organizations that facilitate the exchange, and which provide support, ground rules, and oversight.
I’ve now been involved, to one extent or another, in all of these roles:
- As a host parent, I’ve been a host mom to about a dozen high school exchange students from places as far away from Oregon as Germany and Colombia, from Italy and Hong Kong. We’ve welcomed them into our lives and in several cases have welcomed our “children” back again when they have returned for visits. I hope to be a part of their lives when they finish college, if they go; when they marry and have children of their own; and when things happen in their lives, both good and bad.
- As a local liaison/coordinator for six years for one of the largest educational foreign exchange programs operating in the U.S., I have supervised several dozen students from Europe, Asia, and South America, and recruited dozens of host families. I’ve cheered my students on to A’s in their American high schools, advised them on how to adapt to seemingly strange American customs, smiled at their prom photos, and wept with them through personal crises.
- As the contact point and liaison to half a dozen local high schools, I have worked with high school counselors and administrators on how best to bring exchange students into their schools, and have tried to make sure that the students contribute to the school community.
- Finally and most recently, as a parent, two weeks ago I sent my teen-aged son to a far-away place on his own exchange program for five months, in this case the country of Ghana.
In a way, of course, this last role is not completely new. I’m a parent, and my children have traveled on their own. I understand how it feels to send your child off to places where they’ve never been before. I know the funny feeling in your gut when your child heads off for travel on his own and he goes through the airport security line, gives you a final wave, and trots off to his gate. I know the constant looking at the clock, where you find yourself doing a mental calculation and wondering if he has found the people meeting him on the other side of the world at the end of a long flight.
I hope to continue posting this year on my experience with all of these roles – tidbits and items that I hope are useful to students and their host families, as well as tidbits from my son’s experience in Ghana (and from my experience as the parent left behind!). I hope you benefit from my blog posts as I continue with it this year.