June and July are strange times for those of us working with international students. Our students who have been here for a semester or school year are returning to their home countries — yet at the same time, we’re looking for host families for the coming school year and beginning to reach out to our new students who will arrive in July and August. We have to put on different hats depending on who we’re talking to that day!
For those of you who see my social media posts talking about saying farewell and thinking about how our students have grown all year — here’s an example of switching hats. What kind of tips and advice do we give to our new host families who are beginning to get ready for their exchange student?
Contact Your Student a Little Bit at a Time
We recommend starting with an email to introduce yourself and your family, perhaps attach a few photos. Find your student on social media outlets: Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and WhatsApp. Start small — a long email or text message may feel intimidating to a teenager who may be nervous about his or her English ability. There’s generally plenty of time to follow up with another short message, and another one after that. Before you know it, you will be having a real conversation. You can think of many different short chats you can have with your student: ask your student what activities he or she likes to do, for example (don’t assume that what a student wrote down in the program application six months or a year ago still best reflects his interests). Ask him whether he has thought about what activities he might want to join at school and whether he wants to try something new. Is she interested in sports, art, or music? You can ask about your student’s community and find out if she is used to a small town or school or a large one. Does she like movies, reading, or going on walks? Get on Skype and have everyone in the family say hello. Perhaps do a short house video tour while you are describing your home to your student and his or her family. Perhaps your student can show you her home the same way. These topics can be multiple conversations through Skype, email, or instant messaging; it doesn’t and probably shouldn’t be one marathon conversation.
Do a Basic Bedroom Setup
Send your student a photo of his or her new bedroom. You don’t need to remodel or get new furniture, but you do need to have a bed, a place for clothing, and somewhere to study either in the bedroom or elsewhere in the home. Think about something small you could do to make the bedroom personal — your student’s “place.” A stuffed animal for your student’s bed can make it feel more like a home rather than a hotel. If your student loves a particular sport, perhaps get her a blanket with a sports theme; the blanket can double as an extra layer at chilly evening outdoor events.
If your student is sharing a room with a host sibling, think ahead of time about how you will divide the space. Talk about it with your son/daughter and with your student (another topic of conversation!). It’s possible neither of them have shared a bedroom before; if that is the case, set some guidelines with them.
Be Prepared for Arrival Day
Think about making a poster with your student’s name in large print with some fun designs and colors. If you’re not artistic, just a big sign with their name on it in a bright color will do the trick. Balloons are great, too. Whether you are meeting your student at the airport or at a central meeting place determined by the exchange organization, try to bring the whole family! Don’t be nervous about showing your excitement. Conversely, don’t worry if your student doesn’t immediately show the same excitement coming off the plane — they’re excited inside, but are likely to be exhausted after untold hours in the air and probably several sleepless nights as the time drew near for their exchange year.
Have a small welcome gift ready — nothing extravagant, just something to welcome your student into the host home and host community. A t-shirt or jersey from your family’s favorite sports team would show that you want your student to be part of the “family team,” for example. Have an extra house key made up before your student arrives, so that your student will know you thought about it, and have it sitting on the student’s bed (with a good-sized key ring so it won’t get lost!).
Perhaps you can tell from the nature of the things I’ve listed that it’s not as hard as you might think. You know the old saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff …. and it’s all small stuff”? We like to flip that saying around so that’s focusing on the positive: *do* think about the small stuff because it’s the small stuff that counts. It’s the little things that help make a relationship. It’s the little things that your student will remember. In a way, it’s all (or mostly) little things all the way, one little thing at a time, one small step towards a new relationship.
August, we’re ready for you!