We hear many misperceptions regarding host family expectations, so we thought it was time to revisit this issue.
There are many reasons why Americans host teens from other countries. Hosting a student provides an opportunity to learn about another culture. Moreover, people everywhere are proud of their culture and their country, and want to share their experience. For host families with children, exposing one’s children to other cultures can help them communicate across cultures and develop tolerances for differences. if you're an "empty nester," maybe you're not quite ready for a quiet household. Parents with young children like the idea of learning about parenting teenagers, and we know from our own experience that having an additional child in the home also can break up sibling rivalries in a positive way.
Finally, people everywhere love the idea of developing lifelong relationships. Having friends or “family” in other parts of the world somehow makes the vastness of the planet seem less overwhelming and friendlier.
What's Really Required?
American families come in all shapes and sizes. So it shouldn't be a suprise that host families come in all shapes and sizes: parents with teens, parents with younger children, young couples with no kids, single parents with children and even single parents with no children living in the home, empty nesters, and same-sex couples.
Host family applicants go through a screening process that includes an application, criminal background checks for adults, references, an in-home interview, and a host family orientation to educate the family on basic expectations. One adult in the household must be at least 25 years old, and families must be able to provide room, board, and a family environment. Host families cannot receive public assistance payments from the government.
Host families provide room, board, and a supportive family environment. The room can often be shared -- ask your local coordinator about your specific situation! “Board” means three meals/day and reasonable snacks such as those your own children would eat. “Family environment” means that the student is a member of your family as much as possible. Students go shopping with the family, visit the farmers’ market, and go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving.
Students pay for their personal expenses outside the home such as movies and entertainment, clothing, and school sports fees. Students are required to maintain medical insurance with minimums set by the U.S. government and to pay for medical expenses. Students are expected to participate in family activities, do normal chores, and follow host family rules and guidelines for teens.
How Are Students Prepared for an Exchange?
Students go through a screening process for motivation, character, grades, and proficiency in written and spoken language skills. Student applications include a letter of recommendation, academic transcripts, an essay written in English, and short-answer questions about the student’s family life. Students must be able to speak English well enough that they can take classes in English in their U.S. high school. They should be between the ages of 15 to 18 and they cannot previously have taken part in an academic year or semester J-1 or F-1 program.
Before traveling to the United States, students attend an orientation to learn about cultural aspects of American life as well as practical tips. They learn about U.S. government regulations and program expectations regarding school attendance and living in a host family. Students also attend a mandatory orientation within a month or so after they arrive in the U.S.
What School Will My Student Attend?
An exchange student placement requires more than a student and a host family. It requires a school. For J-1 visa students, the host family’s home address generally determines which school the student will attend. F-1 visa students apply to a school directly and are limited to schools willing to take on the processing and supervisory responsibilities. (Here's an earlier blog post providing a short summary of differences between J-1 and F-1 visas.)
Most schools welcome international students. However, schools may fear extra burdens on over-worked teachers and counselors, and may have concerns about foreign students taking competition opportunities away from permanent students. Schools often attempt to address these concerns with criteria for language proficiency or limits on exchange student participation in athletics. Most schools also set limits on how many exchange students they will accept each year.
Can We Talk to Our Student Before Arrival?
Once a host family has completed the screening process and the school has signed the required confirmation for enrollment, host families and students can contact one another so that they can establish a relationship before the student arrives in the United States. Contact can be occasional emails, telephone calls, Skype, or other online connections. This is where the fun begins!
Your local coordinator will be in touch with students and host families as well, not just during the exchange year but ahead of time, to prepare students and families for the experience and answer preliminary questions.
What If It Doesn't Work Out?
All relationships require time and effort to develop. We all know that no matter how well intentioned and motivated, not all personal relationships work out. Having a solid support system in place is critical for exchange program success.
Students and host families have a local coordinator (sometimes called a local rep or local liaison. Your local contact will call or see you and your student at least once every month, if not more. If problems arise, the local coordinator should provide support and suggestions. This can include advice about ordinary teen issues, information about the student’s home country and culture, ideas for dealing with homesickness or difficulties in adjustment, and disciplinary measures for poor academics or behavioral issues.
You should also feel free to ask logistical, travel, medical, and “daily life” issues: can you sign a school permission slip? Can your student go skiing or join an archery club? What do you need if you want to take your student on a vacation out of the country?
Lots of questions and challenges can come up during an exchange. Most questions can be answered and challenges can be resolved with help. But some cannot. If differences cannot be resolved, or if something unforeseen should happen in your life that makes it impossible to continue to host your student, your exchange organization will find a new home for the student.
The Bottom Line
Few experiences can teach you and your children the small but critical differences between cultures as living with someone from another country. Some things seem to be the same everywhere; teens everywhere, it seems, groan when asked to do their chores before they go out with friends. But many things are different, sometimes subtly so. Having someone in your home, over time, makes you see some of those subtle differences.
We urge you to not be afraid of those differences and the possible changes in your own life. The benefits to you, your family, and your community are significant in ways that are difficult to quantify. Take the opportunity!
Photo credits: Daniela Dimitrova; Thomas Ulrich