Personal Moments in the World of International Exchange: Goodbye and Hello
As I write this, the exchange students in our group in northwest Oregon and southern Washington are preparing to return home; most are leaving next week, with a few the following week. Two will remain for the summer – more on that in a moment. I have watched teenagers who arrived anxious, nervous, and afraid to speak in English grow into confident young adults who can talk a mile-a-minute and squabble with their host siblings as if they had done it for years. They are more mature, have gained independence, and have a whole different understanding of the world.
The year has not always been easy; it would be foolish to promise students or host families that bringing someone new into the family 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.
Many students faced 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, and learned something from these “ordinary” stresses that they will take home with them. There were some painful times; a few students changed host families (an occurrence that more often than not, does not mean that either the host family or student did something “bad” – more likely than not, small miscommunications became big ones, and eventually too big to solve).
Some personal pride
Most students consider their year here a success, even with the occasional bumps. (We hope that even the students who are feeling negative about their experience will see, with time, what they have gained.) As with every year, we include many things among our students’ successes, ranging from those who fit right in, to those who faced significant challenges, to those who have won awards or other achievements. A very small sampling:
* From a student who fit right in, and had the additional experience of having another exchange student in her host family so she had to get used to two sets of cultural differences that were not her own Dutch experience:
Roughly 9 months ago the greatest adventure of my life started! I learned a lot, made some great memories and found my second family, who I will love forever! …. I’ll see you in 10 months again!
* From an Italian student whose first host family experience was less than successful, and who we moved in the Fall:
“I graduated from an American High School that became my family throughout this year. Many people say I went on a vacation. All of those people are wrong. What I learned is not comparable to what a year of regular Italian school could have taught me. I learned the meaning of setting your mind to a goal and work to reach it, I learned how to be a great leader in the community, I learned to help the others in rough times, I learned that school is not just about grades and studying but also about getting involved and participating, I learned that you don’t need to have expensive bags and shoes to be a cool person. All you need is yourself and a lot of positivity to transmit to people. I learned that is not cool making fun of people, I learned how much joy can give you volunteering and supporting the special ones, I learned that you always have to learn….”
* Two of the students in our Oregon group have been chosen by the exchange program to serve as “ambassadors” to the new students coming to the U.S. this summer. They will remain here through the summer, heading to the East Coast in mid-July to start their camp counseling experience. The selection process is competitive, and we do have a note of personal pride that two students from our group are among the 25 selected from across the country. (In the interests of full disclosure: one of these two is our own student, so there is a bit of the “proud parent” thing …)
But at the same time that we say goodbye, we say hello.
It’s a strange time of year because while we are calling or seeing all our students to say goodbye, we are also still scrambling to find host families for incoming students. Under Department of State regulations for J-1 visa exchange students, exchange programs cannot make flight arrangements or finalize travel documentation for students until both a host family and a school slot are confirmed, with all necessary paperwork complete. At this time of year, that can be a challenge, with school officials focusing on end of year needs and closing up for the summer, and potential families themselves looking forward to vacations rather than thinking about the start of the next school year.
As part of that process, we help new host families get ready for their students arriving in August. That “help” can mean different things to different families:
- Answering questions about how to register a student for classes or how to sign up for a sports team.
- Trying to make sure students obtain all state-required vaccinations before they arrive, since the students’ insurance generally does not cover immunizations and it can be expensive to get shots here.
- Helping to arrange permission ahead of time from a student’s family in the home country, as well as obtaining necessary documents, so that a student can travel with his or her host family to Canada within a few days after the student arrives.
- Offering to pick up a student at the airport in August, because the host family will be out of town on the scheduled date.
- Being “on call” for students whose flights may be delayed or canceled, and being available in the event an emergency pickup is needed late at night to keep a student overnight until a flight the next day.
And more . . .
A few weeks ago, we were wracking our brains on how we could get a bed to a new host family quickly so they could be “legal” and we could complete the paperwork. Almost as if she had heard us talking about it, a former host mom across town contacted me asking “I don’t suppose you would have need of a bed, would you?” She had bought the bed for her German exchange student several years ago, and had realized she really had no further need for it.
We mentioned this to some of our coordinator colleagues in the program, and the response told us that many of them have done the same — including one person who delivered a set of bunk beds a couple of years ago!
So we say goodbye – or “see you later” – to our Class of 2015. It’s bittersweet in many ways, and we know we will not see many of these young people again. But we’re connected now, and look forward to hearing from them – and seeing some of them – as they continue to grow into global citizens. And now we say hello and welcome to the Class of 2016.