Families have different reasons for why they choose to host. Reasons include a desire to expose one’s children to other cultures, building long-term relationships, changing the dynamics of children’s relationships in the family, and learning how to prepare for when your own kids become teenagers. Welcoming an international student into your home can spark your own children’s interest in learning about other cultures, and you will develop lasting friendships with people from around the world.
Before you can think about choosing an exchange student, you’ll want to choose an exchange organization to work with. Students planning to attend a semester or a year of high school in the United States must come through one of the many high school exchange programs approved by the U.S. Department of State. You might be surprised to learn how many different organizations there are, although there might only be a few dozen in any given area of the country.
Students and host families all have a local contact (sometimes called a local coordinator or local liaison) who represents the exchange program. The local representative will likely be the person who interviews families and conducts the home visit, and he or she will call or see families and students at least once every month (per U.S. State Department regulations), if not more often. This person is the face of your exchange organization.
What do you need to know? Among other things ... :
- Does the program focus on a type of visa(s): Do you want a student who is coming on a J-1 visa (primary focus of cultural exchange, no more than one year) or F-1 visa (primary focus of education, possibility of multiple years)? Understand the differences before you make a decision.
- Does the program offer half-year students if that's what you're interested in? In recent years, high school students have shown more interest in one-semester exchange programs. It’s easy to see why these programs are attractive to students: they’re easier to fit into a school career and for many students and parents they probably seem less risky. The same often goes for families hosting these students, who may see the experience as "lower risk." You should understand the advantages and disadvantages.
- What kind of support network does the exchange program offer? Questions and challenges can come up during an exchange; that’s just life, and bringing someone new into your home certainly is not an instantaneous “live happily ever after.” Most questions can be answered and most challenges can be resolved with help, and that is a key role of the exchange program. 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. Try to find out how large the exchange program is, how many students they will have in your area, how close to you your exchange coordinator might live, among other questions.
- Are you comfortable with the local representative? If problems arise between the host family and student, the local coordinator should be able to provide support. Support can include advice on ordinary teen issues, cultural information regarding the student’s home country and culture, suggestions for homesickness or difficulties in adjustment, and disciplinary measures for poor academics or behavioral issues. Support also covers logistical, travel, medical, and “daily life” issues: can a host parent sign a school permission slip? Can my student go skiing/snowboarding/join an archery club? Can our student come to Canada with us? Am I allowed to ground my student for the weekend if he refuses to come home before curfew? These are all questions that your exchange coordinator should be able to help you with. You are likely to end up developing a close relationship with your exchange coordinator for at least the period of the exchange. During the host family application process and in choosing your student, ask yourself if the local representative is responsive to your calls or texts. Is he or she able to answer your questions?
“Most questions can be answered and most challenges can be resolved with help, and that is a key role of the exchange program.”
There certainly are a number of questions you should ask: what are the requirements and expectations for a host family, what are the U.S. State Department regulations and organization guidelines you need to know, and what should you do in the event of an emergency. Evaluate the program you are talking to on how well the representatives answer these questions. They will expect honesty and transparency from you; you should expect the same from the program.