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Practical Tips for Exchange Students – Preparation for Travel to Your Host Country 

 July 20, 2013

By  Laura Kosloff

Every year, I send my new students some pieces of advice for them to think about before they travel to the U.S. for their exchange semester or year.  Here are some tips that expand on recent advice I’ve given to my new student group, as they prepare to leave their home for their host countries in a few weeks for the new school year.  Host families might find these tips useful, too, for thinking about how to get communications started with their new student.

Contact your host family as soon as your program gives you their contact information, and send them some photos, too.

Don’t hesitate when you get the message that you have a host family – contact them right away! You may feel that you are very busy with the end of your school year and preparations for your travels.  You may be nervous about your language skills, and you may not know what to say -- you don’t know them yet, after all, so where do you start? Keep in mind that your host family is aware of those things; in fact, they may be nervous, too! So just get started.

They are as excited to start to get to know you as you are about your upcoming exchange.  And think about how it might look to them if you don’t contact them right away, or if you do not respond to an email from them.  I think this is something teens may not think about in their excitement about all the things they need to do before they leave home. If you do not respond to a note from your host family, they may think you don’t care very much about them, and you don’t want the semester or year to start that way. So send them a note. It’s OK if your first note is a short one, they will understand.  Include a couple of photos!

Dear Host Family,

I am so excited about my exchange! I am looking forward to meeting you. I want to know all about everyone in my host family. Tell me about the house! Do you have a dog? A cat?

Get used to using email!

Many teens don’t use email as much as even a couple of years ago.  Certainly, communication styles are changing.  Contacting people through text messages, Facebook posts and messages, and Twitter is more common; for many teens these methods are their primary means of communication with friends and, sometimes, family.  But many exchange programs (at least in the U.S.) discourage host families and students from making first contact through Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, directing new host families to email or call their students first.  Even after students arrive, communication through social media sites may be limited by program rules or host family lifestyle and customs.  Email is a good way to establish contact with your host family and tell them about yourself and your family, and may be one of the ways your exchange program contacts you through your exchange period.

Teen Use of Social Media (Source: Washington Post, June 26, 2012)

Ask your host family about their house rules and lifestyle now, before you arrive.

Ask your host family about how they live – if you have two host parents, do they both work? How do they get to work, and what do they do?  If you will have host brothers or sisters, how old are they? Ask your host parents for advice on small gifts you could bring for your host siblings.  Will you walk to school, or will there be a bus? How far is your host home from the city center in your community? What chores do children in the family have?  What are typical meal times in your host country culture and in your host family? What does your host family typically do on weekends?  These are all good ways to start a conversation, too, and will help show your interest in your host family’s way of life.

Learn something about your host county/city/community now, even before you go.

With the power of modern technology, you can find out so many things!  How big is the city or town where you will live? Where is it located in your host country? What is the weather like? How far is the high school from your host home?  Look up your high school on the Internet and find out as much as you can about the school; perhaps you can even download a list of classes offered that you could look at before you arrive. 

How far is your U.S. high school from your host family's home?

Find a book about the region of the country where you will be living -- you could read it on the plane!  Here are a couple of examples for students coming to the Pacific Northwest, where I live -- a couple of practical guides, and one that is "off the beaten path."  You can find something equivalent for whatever your destination!

What are your goals for your exchange semester/year?

Now that your exchange is feeling very real to you – think about what you might want to do (in addition to going to school, of course!).

* For students going to the U.S. or the U.K., are you hoping to improve your English? It’s pretty much guaranteed that you will, when every conversation and every class will be in English. But there are ways you can move that process along faster and more completely; for example, you can invest in a self-study program (such as Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, or Berlitz, or check out language podcasts, videos, and apps for your smartphone) that you can work on to focus on grammar and vocabulary.  You can force yourself to start conversations in English, even when you are not sure what to say – don’t worry about stumbling over words.

* At your host high school, do you have classes you are required to take, either to get credit back home or because your exchange program requires them? Get those classes on your list, and then look at everything else -- take classes you would not have the opportunity to take back home.

* Do you want to learn a new sport and find ways to make friends in your host country? Join a sport team at school if it’s allowed, or sign up for a sport through a city or town league.  Join a club.  If your host family goes to church, join a youth group (or perhaps you can join such a group even if your host family doesn’t attend church).

Finally – speak up, ask questions, talk.

Communication is perhaps the most important thing you can learn and do during your exchange.  I’m talking about all kinds of communication –

* basic questions about where things are located, how appliances work, and basic family rules in your host home.

* any time you do not understand even just a portion of what someone has just said to you – don’t assume you get it just because you understood half of it.  You may have missed the critical half.

* talking to your host parents or your program representative when you do not know or do not understand a particular host family or program rule.  They may not be able or willing to change the rule, but they should be able to explain to you why the rule exists.

* talking to your program representative if something is just not going right in your host family. Perhaps you feel you are not getting along with a host sibling, or you feel your host parents are mad at you.  Chances are it’s something that can be worked out – but not unless you tell someone and ask for help.

No teenager about to leave for their exchange year is going to do all of these recommendations – we know that!  The point is to help get things started on the right foot, and that doesn’t take a lot of work.   So think about these suggestions and do your best – ask questions, send an email or two – and pack your bags!

  • I’m doing an exchange year next year from the U.S. to a European country do you have any suggestions besides what’s above?

  • We are currently hosting a student from Sweden. He lived with another family for 6 weeks and they had some issues and we took him in. I would like some advice. He has only been with us for about a month. He doesn’t seem to be interested in anything related to us. I feel like a hotel. We are just a place to eat and sleep. He is not afraid to ask for things which is fine, but the way he asks sometimes seem very arrogant. I told him “please and thank you” will go a long way in this house. I have also asked him several times not to eat in the living room yet I catch him eating there all the time. . . .

    I am not ready to give up yet. I will have yet another talk with him and I still haven’t brought the issue up our program representative.

    • These are serious questions. I would call your program representative. He or she needs to find out what’s going on with your student, and you should probably sit down with your student and your local program contact and talk it out together. You can’t solve everything on your own!

      Parents sometimes are hesitant to bring in the local person. The most important thing you should remember that is that you are not in this alone, and the second most important thing is that communications can go haywire over small things. Your Swedish student is not an ordinary teen. And you’re not just a parent dealing with their teen. I tell my host families we’re there 24/7 (of course, we hope the 24/7 part is saved for real emergencies!).

      There are a lot of things that could be going on: homesickness, difficulty at school, worry about something going on back home, and more. Talk to your program and set up a meeting – you can still turn this around, but you need a third party to help you and to help your student, too!

  • Thank you for this article! These are great tips. I was stuck about what to say in my first email to my host family, but now I have a better idea.

    • That is so good to hear, Carolin! Obviously I really like to hear that I’ve made a difference — that’s what I’m trying to do.

      I was just giving advice to one of my new students yesterday about what to say to her host family. She was very nervous, and was afraid she would say something in her first message that would get them upset. So I told her the same thing I’ll say here: just say a few things about yourself, what you like to do, something about your family, maybe something about your town or city. Include a photo or two. Even if you think they already have some of this information because your exchange program may have given it to them, it’s different when you are communicating directly. Start talking! (and don’t stop!)

      good luck,
      Laura

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