Getting to Know You: Ten Topics Exchange Students and Host Families Can and Should Talk About

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As the year begins, there are many things exchange students need to know in order to adapt to and fit in with their host family. Most students will have been to an orientation in their home country before leaving for their exchange, but it’s impossible to remember or cover everything.

In the U.S., exchange students have now been here anywhere from two weeks to over a month, and school has started. We are finding that the usual questions are coming up. We do talk about these topics (and more) at our mandatory “welcome orientation,” as do many exchange program coordinators.

The key thing for students is to start asking and don’t stop asking questions. The key thing for host parents and host siblings is to explain, and don’t stop explaining. Repeat questions and answers as needed!

The key thing for exchange students to do is to start asking and don’t stop asking questions.

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1. Chores

What chores should I do? How often?

Chores and household tasks are a common area of misunderstanding. Even if a teen has chores back home, they may not be the same as the chores expected in their host family. How to do a particular task may also be different, so students should ask “how do I do this?” and families should explain.

2. Laundry

Should I wash my own clothes? Can you show me how you want me to do that?

Some families may want the teens to do their own laundry. Some parents may prefer that washing loads be full (and so combined), or only done on certain days. Students may not be used to local customs on how often they should wash their clothes; what is “normal” differs around the world.

3. Showers and Bathroom

​When is the most convenient time for me to use the bathroom on weekday mornings when I am getting ready for school? Should I take my regular shower in the mornings or in the evenings?

If there are multiple family members who need to use the bathroom on a school day, some scheduling may be needed; perhaps one or more family members could take showers in the evening, or rotate schedules. How long a “normal” shower is may also be different from one family to the next.

4. Food and Meals

Do we eat together as a family for all meals? What time should I be ready for meals? Is it OK to help myself to food and drinks or should I ask first? How will I know if some foods are leftovers for the next night’s dinner?

Explaining family habits regarding food and meals is a good way to get a student used to the family’s usual patterns. Mealtimes vary in other countries, and even within a single culture, whether one gets together for all meals or just some meals can differ from family to family.

small kitchen table

5.  My Room and the House

May I decorate my room with posters on the walls? Is it OK to move furniture around?

Additional things to talk about might be what the rules are for cleaning one’s room, and who does it when if the bedroom is shared with a host sibling. If there are private areas of the home (such as a home office) where teens should not go, explain that.

6. Computer, Phone, and Internet

Am I allowed to use my laptop in my bedroom? If not, where can I study and do my homework? Where should I keep my laptop and phone at night, is there a common place for electronic devices?

Setting out the expectations for computer/smart phone/internet use is a good topic of discussion. Many exchange students will be prepared for some restrictions, as exchange organizations generally talk about this during orientations. Talking about it, though, and explaining the purpose of any restrictions, can help teens accept the rules. For host families, it’s definitely something to talk about before your monthly WiFi download allowance disappears!

7. Friends

Am I allowed to sleep over at the home of a friend from school on weekends, and can I have friends sleep over at our house? May I have friends over at the house during the week after school?

Students should think about the fact that their host parents and their exchange program are responsible for their safety. Host parents may have family rules about where and when teens may sleep over someone’s home, or have a rule that teens need to ask about sleepovers in advance.

8. Transportation

What are our family and program rules for using public transportation? Are there certain times of day/night I am not allowed to use public transportation? Am I allowed to get rides from friends who have their driver’s license?

Rules for using local public transportation may differ from program to program, so host families and students should check with their organization. Many organizations do not allow exchange students to use ride-sharing such as Uber or Lyft; even if they do permit it, many families may not be comfortable with these options.

9. Paying for Things

If we go to the movies or a concert together, should I pay for my movie/concert ticket and food/drink at the event? How much does it cost to join a sport at school? Will it cost the same amount if I do another sport in Winter or Spring?

Discussions about money are often a source of misunderstandings between students and host families. No one likes to talk about it! However, it’s best to start from the beginning. The general rule is that host families are responsible for food/utilities inside the home and students are responsible for expenses outside the home. If you go out to dinner as a family, students should ask, “what’s ok to order?” and parents can explain (if appropriate) that “we’re not paying for prime rib.”

10. Emergencies

What if I get sick at school? What if I’m out with friends who are drinking alcohol or using drugs? What if I try to call you or my coordinator in an emergency and you/they aren’t available?

Emergencies and unforeseen circumstances can occur at any time. Have a plan. Getting sick at school is easier than some situations, as the school will call parents -- but students might not know that, as it may be different in their home country. So talk about it. Talk about what options a student might have if they are out with friends or at a party and something makes them uncomfortable, whether it is drugs, alcohol, or someone making unwelcome advances.

Talk Talk Talk, Communicate Communicate, Communicate!

We hope students and host families who read this can talk to each other about these topics and more. It’s hard in the beginning of the year -- students don’t know their host parents and host siblings very well yet, and host families don’t know their student. You have to get started somewhere, though, so start asking questions!

We also hope students and families will talk to their local coordinator/agency representative about any of these topics, as well as questions that come up that may not be mentioned in this post. There’s nothing wrong in admitting you don’t have the answers!

Exchange students and host parents shouldn't hesitate to talk to their local coordinator/agency representative about any questions. There's nothing wrong in admitting you don't know the answers.

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