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Host Family Decisions: Choosing a Student 

 December 27, 2019

By  Laura Kosloff

The “matching” of an exchange student with his or her host family is a key factor in the likely success of student’s exchange year in the U.S., and program coordinators around the country take the process seriously.

This isn’t a 2-3 week vacation visitor, after all. It’s a person who will live in your home for up to 10-11 months and with whom you hope to have a long-term relationship. Exchange program coordinators work to get to know their host families a little bit (if they don’t already know them); coordinators want to recommend students they believe will fit into the family’s personal lifestyle and the school community. 

Why is this process trickier than it sounds? Many reasons, such as:

  • Students range in age, from 15 to 18
  • Students range widely in English ability
  • Students range widely in their interests and expectations
  • Students may or may not be accustomed to siblings
  • Students come from varying economic backgrounds
  • Students may have grown up in rural or urban areas
  • Some nationalities tend to be more “independent” than others
  • Some nationalities tend to be more “direct” than others

Matching a student means taking factors such as these into account. It’s not easy.

Sometimes, a family may look at 1-2 student applications and say “we love him, we’ll host him!” And sometimes a family looks at a few dozen applications in search of the perfect exchange student.

But there is no such thing as a perfect exchange student, any more than there is a perfect host family. We’re all people. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We’re all sometimes mature, sometimes not. We all have abilities to adapt easily to some things and less so to other circumstances. Choosing a student is only one step in the longer process that leads to a successful exchange year.

Think about how much uncertainty remains when you hire an employee, even after carefully reviewing their resume, checking references, and conducting an in-person interview. Whether that employee and the company are a good “match” is not something you can know on Day One. You need to train her, show her the ropes, explain your system of doing things, and introduce her to all the right people. You can improve the odds of success through a careful hiring process — but you know that’s only the beginning.

We urge host families to think carefully about several things:

  • Keep an open mind about what you read in applications: Does this teen really like gymnastics as much as she says in her application? Will this young man be as outgoing in a foreign country as he seems to be at home? You can definitely learn a great deal from student applications, but remember that teens change rapidly. Look, if you can, for motivation; you can help build on that once he or she arrives and finds that living in a foreign country and studying in a foreign language is challenging. Think about your own lifestyle and family expectations; perhaps don’t take a student who loves skiing and snowboarding with a passion if your own skiing life consists of a weekend or two every other year.
  • Don’t pick a student all by yourself. Families who have hosted multiple times may know what to look for. In most cases, though, we urge families to work closely with their local program coordinator. You and your coordinator can talk about your family’s interests, personal lifestyle, and nature of the local community. Are there young children in the family? Perhaps a student with siblings would be best. Does the family spend a lot of time outdoors? A student who seems to like to spend time inside might not be a good choice.
  • Choose the organization whose local representative you feel you can work with. Host families routinely think much more about choosing a student than the support structure an exchange program offers. In practice, these two elements are equally important to the likelihood of a successful year. The support structure and the relationship you develop with your local program representative can matter as much as choosing the “right” student.

Having a foreign-born teenager in your home for 5 or 10 months is a more involved process than deciding who to invite for dinner. And it’s definitely not the right thing to do for every family; even families who are enthusiastic about hosting exchange students don’t necessarily host every year. But remember that thousands of families in the U.S. participate in exchange programs every year, some for many years. Thousands of families have established lasting relationships around the world and have gained a son or daughter in the process as well as a better understanding of other cultures. Ask questions from the beginning and think about who will fit well into your home, and you’ll be able to join those families for whom high school exchange has more than met their expectations.

Possibilities with arrow in all directions
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