So What Do We Talk About With Your Exchange Students At the Beginning of the Year?
Practical Tips for Host Families (and Students, Too!)
The U.S. government requires that J-1 visa high school exchange students have both pre-departure and post-arrival orientations. These meetings cover U.S laws, program rules and regulations, expectations for behavior, how to ensure students’ health and safety, and practical tips for success.
We’ve been having our post-arrival welcome orientations with exchange students in our region over the past couple of weeks, including a larger group meeting last week. It occurred to us that our readers might find some of these “tips” useful. What follows is a summary of what we talk about with the students in these arrival entry meetings. Details on meeting content may vary from program to program; while U.S. laws remain the same, some program rules vary, so check with your own program contact representative.
What’s the overall theme?
We ask students if they can give us one word to describe the key message for success, or one phrase that they think would describe everything. Usually, they’re pretty good at getting it, and this group did not disappoint us:
** One word: Communication.
** One phrase: “Don’t suffer in silence!”
Who do you talk to if you have a problem?
We try to make sure students understand that it is not rude to ask questions about house rules, family customs, and the local way of doing things. It is good to ask your host family these questions, so that students will know what to do and how to act. Moreover, it can be a great way to start a conversation about cultural similarities and differences.
** If students are uncomfortable talking to host parents, or feel they might hurt someone’s feelings, or don’t understand a particular rule, we encourage them to contact their local coordinators and ask them the question.
** We explain to students what the local coordinators do (also sometimes called local representatives or local liaisons depending on the program). We describe how they help support students and host families during the exchange year.
** We repeat several times to please not hide issues, no matter how small. Talk to someone. Don’t say to yourself “it’s too small to bother my host parents, my coordinator, and my counselor at school.” It’s never too small, and we don’t want small issues to become big issues.
Culture shock and homesickness
We explain to the students what we mean by culture shock. We talk about how it is normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. We let them know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that we can help them get past the feelings. We encourage the students to talk about how they are feeling with their host families and their coordinators, and to let the adults around them know if they are feeling stressed or anxious. Most of the students in our group last week admitted they have felt some element of culture shock and a few admitted they have been a bit homesick. As coordinators, we were pleased rather than disturbed at these admissions, as it suggests the students are trying to be honest about how they are feeling (and were willing to talk about it even a little bit).
** We tell them (and host parents, too) that homesickness can occur at any time.
** We talk about what they can do if they are feeling anxious or sad. Talk to host parents about it, stay busy! Go out for a run or a walk. Do something with your host family. Get involved with activities, clubs, or sports at school. Share something from your culture with your host family.
** We talk about limiting time spent talking with or chatting with friends and family back home. Host parents can help with this. It’s OK to limit Internet time, for example, or to require students to turn off their smartphones at a certain hour. We get questions every year -– and have had a few already this year -– to the effect of “but she’s not my child, can I require her to do what I require my own children to do?”
Cultural differences that students may find to be a challenge
We ask the students to tell us what they find to be the strangest and the most difficult things to get used to in the time that they have been in the U.S. so far; we usually hold the meetings about a month or so after students have arrived, so they have had time to see some of these “strange” differences. We get the expected comments about cars in the U.S. are bigger than back home and grocery stores have so many more choices that students don’t know how to make a decision on which toiletry item to buy. On the more difficult issues:
** We talk about curfews. In the U.S., curfews for teens are common; indeed, in many cities and towns curfews are set by law. Most of the students in our group said that this is different from back home, and admitted that it is hard to get used to the idea that you must be home by a certain time or you will get in trouble. They found it difficult to accept that host parents can tell them they are “grounded” if they don’t follow the curfew rules.
** In the U.S., parents often expect their children to tell them where they are going and to ask (not announce) before a teen goes out with friends. Many exchange students are not used to doing this. We talk about how customs are different, and that “freedom” as they define it may need to be earned by developing trust.
** We explain to the students that Internet, computer use, and cell phones are privileges, not rights. Their host parents have the right to set limits on how long they stay on the Internet in the evenings, for example. If students don’t follow host family rules, host parents can take away their cell phone or their laptop for a while, as they might well do if their own children did not follow family rules. Students sometimes feel that no one can take away their laptop or their phone, because those items belong to them, not to their host family. We explain that taking those items away for a day or a few days if a teenager doesn’t follow a family’s rules is a common consequence in the U.S., and that if they believe a particular punishment is unfair they should talk about it with their coordinator.
At the beginning of the school year, many exchange students think school is easy. This group was no different. They were positive and enthusiastic, did not feel they had very much school work, and were confident school would be easier than it is back home. Many of them admitted they do not understand everything the teachers are telling them, but did not feel they were missing anything significant. We tried to help the students understand that they probably are missing key parts of the conversation.
** We encourage students to go over syllabuses and class requirements. A note to host parents: in our experience, students often do not understand how important this is, and they do not understand that requirements may be different in different classes (how much a mid-term is worth, how much homework is worth, does participation count? etc.).
** We talk about how they are required to pass every class. We explain to students how they can help get those passing grades. We remind them that if they understand 80% of what the teacher is saying, that’s great – but they need to find out about the other 20%, because they might be missing the key points of every lecture, when a major assignment is due, or what’s on the next test.
Getting your driving license
Getting a driver’s license is an issue dear to teenage hearts everywhere. Teens from other countries often are not aware of how difficult it can be to get a driver’s license here in the U.S. They often feel that it’s worth it even if it is a challenge. Some exchange programs prohibit any student on their program to get a driver’s permit or license. Since our program allows it, we go over the guidelines. We explain that some school districts prohibit exchange students from getting a drivers’ permit. Students who are permitted to get a driving permit must pay for their own insurance. We explain that this could be expensive for a teenager.
We’ve previously written a blog post on this specific issue; interested students and host parents might find the additional detail useful.
Traveling without your host family
Travel rules differ from program to program, For our students, we explain that students generally may not travel overnight alone, that they must travel with an adult over the age of 25, and that the adult must be approved by the program. This generally requires criminal background checks, and for longer trips may require that the adult(s) go through the entire host family screening process. School trips are generally allowed, with appropriate permissions from parents. Host parents and students should contact their own program for the rules that may apply to them.
Program Rules and Regulations
At our welcome meetings, we review the U.S. government and program rules and regulations. The students should have heard these rules before in their home country; we cheerfully repeat them again! Key points we make at these meetings include:
** Students need to be an active member of their host family. We tell them to participate in the activities their host family does – not just go along, but also actively participate and show interest.
** Do their chores around the house, and do them well! If they have never cleaned a bathroom before — ask host parents how to do it right. If they have never cooked before — maybe start with something easy, like spaghetti.
** No drugs, no alcohol. We always spend some time on this one. It can be a difficult concept for students who may be allowed to legally drink at the age of 16 or 18 in their home country. We try to help them understand that the consequences of breaking U.S. law can be severe; in their case, they can be sent home and lose the school year.
Emergencies and Issues No One Likes to Talk About
This is always a difficult part of the entry meeting. It’s difficult because no one, either adults or teens, like to talk about things going really wrong during the exchange year, such as medical emergencies, teens being diagnosed with serious long-term health issues, or any kind of abuse.
** We remind students that their host parents are there to talk to and that we hope that they are beginning to feel comfortable talking to their host parents and host siblings. If there is a problem they cannot talk to their host parents about for any reason, please call us. If there is an emergency or serious issue, please call no matter what time it is.
** We talk about how it is important to speak up if they feel they are being mistreated in serious ways — physical violence, feeling unsafe, and sexual harassment/abuse.
** We talk about their health. We talk about how having a balanced diet, and how their bodies may need to adjust to different foods here. We ask them how much Coke or Pepsi do they drink, and do they know about the effects of caffeine. We encourage them to get some exercise and to get enough sleep.
Communicate, talk, and speak English!
We end with what we start with – the concept that communicating is the key to their success. Some will have listened to everything we talked about; some will forget until they get one of those progress reports from school or their host parents get upset. We will be there to help!