A little over a year ago, in January 2013, my then-18-year-old son left the United States to go on a six-month exchange to Ghana. He was working as a volunteer teaching assistant rather than attending high school, and he was part of a close-knit exchange group. He had the usual fears and ups-and-downs that an exchange student has. He admitted it was difficult, and even harder than he had imagined. He adjusted, with his host family’s help.
This year, in January 2014, I had a new student arrive in the U.S. from Europe for a half-year exchange. She is attending high school, as do all the students I work with. She had the usual fears and ups-and-downs that any exchange student has. But she was unable to adjust, fighting back every step of the way: “this is not what I am used to.” Her host family also found it harder than they had anticipated, with the January schedule making it more difficult to integrate the student into the family than it would have been in August. The student lost her host family, and they lost her.
In the U.S., the middle of the school year is a tough time for exchange students to arrive in their new host family and new host country:
* It’s halfway through the academic year so friendship groups and connections are already formed.
* There is no “down time” at the beginning of the exchange, as there is for students who arrive in August. No time to relax, to get to know one’s host family in a non-stressful environment. No time to learn the expectations of your program and host family before you have the added stress of school in a foreign language. No time to travel. You arrive, and a few days later after barely getting over jet lag you start school full-time. Host families can’t take their student on fun summer trips, which makes them feel guilty and upsets the student.
* Most of the other exchange students you meet, while understanding what you are going through, have already “resolved” the culture shock issues and moved on to become contributing members of their host family and their community.
So what’s the recipe for success? Where did we fail? The answer is both disturbingly simple and confoundingly complex: If students are only able to participate in a half-year exchange, they MUST jump in aggressively from Day One. They do not have time to wait.
Here are my key tips for how to help your half-year student. Don’t make these tips guidelines: make them firm rules. I’ve written this as “host parent tips,” but I could easily turn it around and write it as “exchange student must do’s.” It’s the same thing, no matter which end of the looking glass you’re standing on.
Insist that your student participate in conversations, even short ones.
Start a conversation with your student every single day. Ask your student questions about their life, or tell them about your life every single day. Don’t agonize about making it a “meaningful” conversation – just start with simple getting-to-know-you topics. Remember, they are teenagers; sometimes information needs to be dragged out of them. Don’t feel bad – the long-term payoff in terms of your relationship with your student is worth it. There are plenty of simple conversation topics:
* Require your student to tell you something that happened at school every day, even if it’s a small thing: Are people dressed differently as compared to back home? Was there an assembly? A fire drill?
* Ask your student something about their country or local community. Then share something about your own community.
* Ask them about their school back home – how big it is, how many students, is it in the city, how long does it take your student to go to school.
* Explain your student’s responsibilities in the family immediately; what are the chores?
* Require your student to explain a story in the news that day (it need only take them five minutes to prepare).
Do not allow your student to hang out or study in her bedroom, even if it is what she is used to doing at home.
Set a firm rule from Day One on this. Your student needs to become a member of your family immediately. Spending a lot of time in her room won’t give her any information about who you are as a family, what you are like, or what you expect from your student. Spending time in her room – even if being spent productively – will prevent spontaneous conversations, both short and more detailed. Spending time in her room encourages and increased separateness at a time that inclusiveness and togetherness is key.
Limit communications with student’s family and friends back home.
Host parents are often reluctant to impose firm limits on communications, feeling as though it’s not fair or reasonable to limit a teen’s communication with his or her family back home. While understandable, this perspective often results in big problems, particularly for half-year students:
* It probably harms your student’s ability to adapt to your family and your culture if she is talking to her mom and dad all the time. It’s just too difficult for a teen – or an adult, for that matter – to fully adapt to a new world if all you hear every day (or even every 2-3 days) is what’s going back home.
* It prevents your student from becoming a member of your family. If she is talking to her mom about how to deal with a problem at school, or to a friend from home about what to wear to homecoming, then she is probably not having the same conversation with you or her host siblings. Indeed, what we see is that students having constant communication with home have very little conversation with host family members – after all, they’ve already talked about everything they want to talk about with their family and friends back home.
Set a time limit for how long to talk to parents and friends, perhaps of no more than an hour or so per week on the weekends. If necessary, put the smart phone away during the week; your student can make do with a non-connected cell phone that has voice and text during the day at school.
None of this is very different from what I advise host parents of full-year exchange students except in one key detail: you do not have time to let the adaptive process happen naturally. You can’t wait 3-4 months to let your student figure it out by observing. They need to know now what is expected of them. There is no time to waste. The only thing you have to lose is each other.