The Hard Part: Getting Involved and Making Friends

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We’ve written before about challenges our exchange students face in the beginning of the year; see, for example, this blog post. It’s that time of year again. Exchange students have been in their communities and schools long enough for life to feel almost ‘normal’ — but they still worry about making friends, about how they will do in school, and whether their host families really like them.

We thought a renewed visit to some of the issues students are facing now would be a good idea, especially as we approach winter and end-of-the-year holidays.

First Things First: Don’t Think “I Have to Go Home If I’m Not Settled In By Now”

boy with heads in hands on couchYou’ve had the shock of learning that being an international student does not mean everyone at school is running up to you begging to be your new best friend. You may feel you have to be more outgoing than you ever dreamed you would need to be, which is exhausting and frightening. You have learned that being an exchange student doesn’t mean school will be easy. You may have discovered that you cannot automatically play on a school team. You may have had the shock of losing cell phone or Internet privileges for failing to follow your host family’s guidelines and rules. You may even have received an official warning from your exchange program.

You’re having some good days, but you have bad days, too.

Making new friendships and establishing relationships with host family, teachers, and others is more of a challenge than many students realize. Remember this: it takes time to make friends and become accustomed to life in a new place. As much as we would all like it to be instantaneous, it’s not.

So what can you do about it?

Be A Joiner

If you’re a sporty person, join a sports team at school if that’s possible, or a recreational team in your town if you can’t be on a school team. Sports can be a great way to bridge cultural gaps and encourage people who may think they have nothing in common to start talking. It gives you an immediate topic of conversation. Tell your teammates about your favorite teams back home. Ask them about the different teams here.

If you’re not the sporty type, join something else. What about joining the choir, or band or orchestra if you play a musical instrument? Is there a drama class or drama club you could join? Perhaps there are school clubs you could take part in — chess, for example, or an international students club, or an art group. Maybe you could join the speech and debate team. Don’t assume that you can’t join something just because you haven’t done it before. Talk to the teacher or coach working with the students, explain you’re an exchange student, and ask if you can join just so you can meet people in your school.

Check out the possibility of community classes or activities in your town or city. Many towns have all kinds of arts, culture, and sports activities available to teens and adults.

Do things with your host family even if the activity doesn’t seem very exciting. Is your host dad heading for the grocery store? Go with him. Is your host mom going to pick up your host brother? Go with her and ask her about things and places you see along the way.

Don’t Be Shy

Be brave! Walk up to someone and tell them you like what they are wearing, or you like what they said in class. Ask someone in your class for advice on what sports to join or what clubs to join. Ask where teens in your school hang out on Friday nights; we’ve had students do this even when they think they know the answer, just to start a conversation and meet someone!

words make things happen on easelDon’t just tell yourself “I’ve never done that activity.” You can’t know if you will like something, or learn something, or meet someone, if you haven’t done it or don’t go. You’ve never gone to church before? Go with your host family before deciding you can’t go. There might be a youth group connected with the church that you could join. You’ve never played volleyball? Talk to the coach and see if you can join the junior varsity team, perhaps even as team helper or team manager.

Don’t tell yourself “I don’t like that activity.” Watch the movies and TV shows your host family watches whether or not you like the movie or the show. Volunteer to play with or take a walk with your younger host siblings. Go somewhere with your host siblings if they’re your age and meet some of their friends. Think about how ordinary activities can help you to get to know the area where you are living, and the culture of your host country.

Our students have done a number of activities so far this school year that have pushed them outside their comfort zone or are just completely new to them, including:

  • Joining the football team and learning how to play — and getting to play several times
  • Cooking dinner for their host family
  • Target shooting
  • Acting in a high school play
  • Joining the speech and debate team
  • Joining the robotics club
  • Carving a pumpkin at Halloween for the first time
  • Learning a new language
  • Going to church for the first time and joining the youth group
  • Seeing the Pacific Ocean
  • Camping in a tent or a yurt

Follow the Advice of Former Exchange Students

In closing, here are some tips from former exchange students on how to get involved in your host school and community. Yes, they say, it’s scary. Yes, they say, it’s different. Be open-minded to those differences!

You’re an exchange student in a foreign country, and part of why you are here is to learn new things and do new things. Take a deep breath — and just do it!


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