As I write this, one of my students from this academic year has already left to return home to Germany. Over the next few weeks in June, the rest will pack their suitcases and return to Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Thailand. Like every year, I have watched nervous teenagers grow into confident young adults, have had the opportunity to get to know people in my community I would never have met otherwise, and seen relationships develop that did not exist 10 months ago.
These students return to their families and friends as different people. They are more mature, have gained independence, and have a whole different understanding of what another culture is like. They know that making new friends may be harder than you think, and the skills they have gained in doing that will help them in meeting new people as adults. They know that different school systems are just that, different: they can see advantages and disadvantages to both. They have learned that people may be different the world over, but they’re the same, too.
The year has not always been easy; it would be foolish to promise students or host families that bringing someone new into the family – someone who has no idea how you live or what your community is like – is always going to be a walk in the park. For some, the transition was not difficult. They jumped right in, found a niche in a sport or program at school, and became close to their host family with little outside guidance. For most, however, there were some bumps along the way.
These bumps are the normal bumps of life, perhaps compounded by cultural issues and the challenges of living in a strange home and culture. Some students had a hard time adjusting to life without the family and friends they had left behind. Some families struggled with issues that happen to families everywhere: difficulties between teens and parents, changes and stresses at a parent’s workplace. Their students lived through those issues with them; more often than not, they learned something from those “ordinary” stresses that they will take home with them. There were some painful times, and we had students in our home several times this year as we transitioned a student from one family into another.
The purpose of high school exchange educational and cultural programs is to “support personal growth, lead to a deeper understanding about foreign cultures and improve international relationships.” My students and their host families, as a group and individually, have succeeded in and surpassed expectations for what the U.S. government intends with the J-1 visa high school cultural exchange program. The teens have learned what life is like for U.S. teens, and have adapted to lifestyles and a culture different from their own, while their host families have themselves learned accommodation, compromise, and the nature of another culture (as well as being better prepared for when their own younger kids become teens). The teens, and sometimes their parents, have developed relationships with their host families that will continue after they return home. The host families have gained connections in foreign countries they will not lose; for many, they now consider that they have a new “son” or “daughter.”
There is a saying in the international exchange community: “exchange is not a year in one’s life, but a life in a year.” For students returning to their home countries, their “life in a year” is coming to a close. But the rest of their life is beginning. These students have lived far from home, and families in the U.S. (and elsewhere) have opened their doors to strange teenagers from countries around the world. They have all moved outside their comfort zone. Even the difficulties they may have experienced may make them better people. I live with the hope that they have all gained something valuable that will stay with them. That, indeed, is the point.