Last weekend, my husband and I returned from a weekend of additional exchange program training, reflecting the fact that we will be managing other exchange coordinators and their students in the future.
We’re not doing it for the money. We’re not employees of the exchange program, a fact that often comes as a surprise to students and host families. Exchange coordinators are independent contractors under the J-1 visa high school program overseen by the U.S. Department of State. The amount of money coordinators receive for the students we place and supervise does not generally add up to a significant sum; it’s supplemental income, not primary income. The precise amount differs from company to company, but the concept is the same.
Because we do get paid — something — the U.S. government does not allow exchange program local coordinators to say they are volunteers. That’s OK, but it’s important to remember that coordinators are not really getting paid for what they do. Is that a contradiction in terms? Perhaps. But life is full of contradictions.
There are times when we all wonder if it’s worth it. When a parent back home complains about us when we support a particular action that we believe will help their child succeed and which they may believe is unwarranted. When a student who has gotten in trouble at school, or who is having difficulty adjusting to his host family’s life or community, starts saying negative things to anyone who will listen. When a student or host family accuses local coordinators of treating them unfairly when the coordinator has made strong efforts to listen to all parties and come to a fair solution. After we have moved a student out of his or her host family home, and everyone is upset. These things do happen; we’re dealing with people, after all, and people don’t always do what’s logical or “right” (and what’s “right” isn’t always all that clear).
Most of us who do this — year after year, repeatedly saying goodbye to kids we may never see or hear from again — really don’t do it for the income. We do it for the host families who cry when their students leave, and who immediately make plans to visit Norway, Thailand, or Italy. We do it for the kids who do tell us what our assistance meant to them during their year here in the U.S. and who send us notes when they return home thanking us. We do it for the parents from countries around the world who take us out to dinner or lunch when they visit at the end of the year and who are in awe by how much their teen has changed in 10 months, and who say they know that part of that is due to the supervision and advice their child received. We do it for the kids who return to visit; they don’t always contact us, the coordinators, when they return, but if they are visiting their host families, we have succeeded in our mission to create long-term, lifetime relationships.
So my husband and I are looking forward, albeit with some trepidation, to taking on some new responsibilities this coming year. We know that there will be times when students or families will feel that we are the evil face of authority, and that we will have to deliver messages students or families do not want to hear. We know there will be times when parents back home will expect more than we can deliver. And like so many of the other exchange coordinators in all 100 or so companies listed by the Council on Standards of International Education and Travel (CSIET), we know that this is in addition to our “normal” jobs.
But we believe in the mission: cultural and citizen diplomacy at the individual, family, and local level can improve relationships around the world, one person at a time. We can learn from the kids from Taiwan, Thailand, Slovakia, and Denmark. And they can learn from us.