How to Help Your Exchange Student Adjust to Life Here in the U.S.: Key Issues Facing International Students 

 September 22, 2013

By  Laura Kosloff

International students experience frustrations including culture shock, language difficulties, adjustment to customs and values, differences in educational systems, isolation and loneliness, homesickness and a loss of established social networks.*


* Rawjee and Reddy, Exchange Students Communications Challenges, Paper presented at International Conference on Communication, Media, Technology and Design, Istanbul, May 2012.

As I write this, the exchange students I work with have finished their third week of high school in the U.S.  Most of them are exhausted.  They have told me things like:

  • “My brain hurts.”
  • “I am so tired I am in bed by 9 pm even if I don’t have homework.”
  • “I am so afraid I will say something stupid.”
  • “I feel like I don’t understand anything my math teacher says.”
  • “I keep my head down when I walk through the halls because when I look up I realize I don’t know anyone and it makes me scared.”

Is This Normal?

Host parents: remember that this may be your student’s first time away from home for more than 1-2 weeks.  It takes time to adjust, sometimes 2-3 months.  Yes, exchange students are selected based on a number of criteria assessing if they have strong motivation, a sense of adventure, good grades, and decent English skills.  But they are still subject to the difficulties any international traveler may face, compounded by the fact that they are not just visiting but living in a family and attending school: they face the literal shock of having to do everything every day differently from the way it’s done back home.  They face the shock of realizing that their “A” in high school English and their 4-7 years of English study has not fully prepared them for 5-8 classes taught in 100% English with high school level reading material containing words they have never seen before.  They face the different habits their host family may have as well as different values and lifestyles.   They face different rules at school for if/when you can re-take a test, do you need to turn in your homework assignment, what happens if you are two minutes late, etc.  They have not yet made many friends so they are lonely.

On top of all that, they are teenagers.  They go to bed late, they sleep late.  They nod their heads to say they understand the garbage must be taken out, and then leave it inside the garage.  They tell you they are about to go out to walk the dog, and then completely forget to do it.

What Can I Do to Help?

Suggestions I’ve given to my students and their host families include:

* Work on basic communications: Listen carefully to what your student is saying.  Sometimes it is worth repeating back to make sure you are hearing what they intended to tell you. They may not be using the correct words, or they may be trying to make it “shorter” to make it easier on their brain which is furiously translating in their heads.  When you explain something to them, have your student repeat it back in his or her own words.  Be careful about using abbreviations, acronyms, and slang.

* Encourage conversation at the dinner table.  This is a common problem with teenagers, of course, but in the case of exchange students especially, silence is not golden!  Your student may be reluctant to contribute to dinner table conversation, perhaps feeling he or she does not have the vocabulary or thinking that you are not interested in what he or she has to say.  You can help, by coming up with open-ended questions and topic ideas.  Ask your student to report on a story from the local newspaper, even if just a 30-second review, for example, or ask them to tell you about a specific reading assignment they have for a class.

* Make sure your expectations are clear: Give your student a printed list of the household chores you expect him or her to do. Explain how to feed the dog.  Walk through the process of loading and unloading the dishwasher.  Be clear that you expect everyone to do their homework before getting on Facebook to chat with friends.  And importantly: follow through on consequences.  These teens are not visitors – they are now members of your family.  Normal consequences such as losing one’s cell phone privileges and not being allowed to go out with friends are OK – and advisable — for your exchange student as much as they are OK and advisable for your own child.

* Keep them busy: This time of year is “prime time” for homesickness.  Make sure your student has things to do: walking the dog, going for a regular jog in the park, participating in a sport at school, join the Key Club, volunteer at church.  Encourage them to go to the school football games and other social activities.  If they do not know anyone at school yet, see if you can help them find someone – a neighbor, a friend’s child, someone from church, etc.

* Ask them about their own country and culture: “Exchange” is a two-way street, after all.  How about Italian night at your house? Or German brunch on the weekend? Get your students’ parents to send a favorite recipe or two and make a family event out of dinner.  Learn about the city or region where your student comes from.  Make dinner conversations about the similarities and differences.

As the Parent 5,000 Miles Away, What Can I Do to Help?

Parents back home should not be left out of the adjustment equation.  Suggestions for parents include:

* Try and limit how often you talk to your child.  As hard as this may be, the best things you can do for your son or daughter is not to text or Skype every day.  Indeed, even once/week may be too often.

* Try and limit the depth of what you share with your child.  Your teen will want to know what the family is doing, of course.  But sometimes there is a concept of too much information, particularly if there are things going on that may upset your child who is 5,000 or more miles away.

* Try to support the rules and decisions of the host family.  Try not to insert your own feelings that “it would be better to do it the way she/he does it at home,” or “I don’t think what your host family wants you to do makes any sense.”  If you truly feel the host family is being unreasonable, talk to your exchange program representative and ask them what is normal for the country and region where your child is living.  If necessary, your program can get more information for you so that you can feel more comfortable that your child is living a “normal” life – a normal life for where she or he now is living.

Wrapping Up … (For Now, Since It’s Never Really Over)

Keep in mind that adjustment is an ongoing process.  Next week will be different for your student or child from this week, and a month from now your student will probably be in a very different place emotionally than he or she is now.

For those who might be interested, I’ve listed here a few articles that you might find useful for starting to think about these issues.

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