Why people choose or don’t choose certain students, once they have made the decision to host an exchange student, is an intensely personal decision. People are bringing a foreign teen into their family for a semester or academic year, which is hard enough. We coordinators work hard to make good “matches,” trying to figure out what are a family’s interests and activities, what is their lifestyle, and what kind of personality would fit best.
But there is one thing that does upset me, year after year. The placement season ends at the end of August; by law, the exchange programs must have all J-1 visa students placed with all documentation completed by that time. As we approach the end of the placement season in July and August, we get the inevitable question: “Why are these students still unplaced? What’s wrong with them?”
Sometimes, we can see the answer to that question in the application. It’s not that there is anything “wrong” with the students, but there generally is an explanation. For one thing, girls are easier to place. Second, for better or worse, there are always a high number of German kids at the end; this is just a fact of the numbers, because Germany sends more than one-third of the exchange students coming to the U.S. every year. Sometimes the students say things that don’t come across well; they may not have realized that saying “I really want to get my driver’s license” might be a turn-off. The students whose English skills are at the lower end of the legal minimum are certainly among the last to placed. Younger students, too, are often among the ones remaining over the summer; the U.S. government allows students between the ages of 15-18, but many schools and host families (and coordinators) are leery about the maturity of 15-year-olds and their ability to handle the challenges of an exchange.
But there is a darker side to the students left in the pool. Or, to be more precise, a darker side as to why they are still there. See this comment from a former host family, after I sent them a couple of applications in case the family might be interested in hosting again this year:
I read their profiles and both boys sound like they will bring cultural awareness to the family they are placed with. One is Buddhist and the other Muslim, so interesting. I worry that their dietary and religious beliefs will be an issue in their placement. It seems there are not many open minded people. I know when our former student would mention that’s why she didn’t eat pork [because she is Muslim] people would act shocked and become suddenly uncomfortable. So much ignorance, which is why I feel it was great to have her here. It really brought down that wall of fear and ignorance.
There you have it. Our Muslim students, our Buddhist students, our Asian students are always among the last to be placed. It’s kind of hidden among the German/15 yr old/poor English skills statistics. But it’s there, and we know it. It’s the dirty little secret of exchange.
Want to help fix it?