Over the past couple of weeks, many exchange students’ families have been asking our exchange program (and others) to make arrangements for their son or daughter to return home. At first it was a trickle, as people here in the U.S. thought schools might only be closed for a couple of weeks. Then schools began to announce longer closures, and more families began to request a flight home for their child.
One by one, exchange organizations have begun to send all their students home. Our own program, EF High School Year, made that decision late this week. All our exchange students in the U.S. will be returning to their home countries as soon as flights can be arranged. I’ve had students leaving Thursday, Friday, today … and most of next week assuming flights are available. Every day my heart constricts in a bit of fear and a lot of worry until I hear that the ones who left the day before have arrived home and are with their families.
Many of us who work in the high school exchange world expected this would happen. But expecting something will happen doesn’t make it easier. Our hearts are going out to the students we have been working with all year and their host families who are all trying to deal with sudden goodbyes on short notice.
In the past few days, I’ve constantly been on the phone and texting -- for hours each day -- communicating with our amazing students and host families and sharing how we all feel about their experiences, the ups and downs, the sadness we feel, and more. Exchange programs remain hopeful that the world can get past the worst of this and that we can still have students come to the U.S. for the 2020-2021 year, but in the here and now our full-time staff in our Denver and Boston offices have been working tirelessly over the past few days trying to get 2500 students home to their families.
We’re trying to redirect our students’ attention from the fear of what this virus is doing to all our lives to all of the great memories and positive experiences they had in the U.S. before COVID-19 became a problem. I’m suggesting to students that they write down -- perhaps in a letter for their host family, and maybe also in a personal journal to keep for themselves -- their favorite memories, the funny stories, their first impressions of this country. We hope that when time passes, they can revisit these memories and be able to focus on all of the good things from their exchange year and not the negative of the pandemic cutting short their exchange year.
We’re saying lots of “it’s not goodbye, it’s see you later” to some amazing young men and women. They all know that they will always have a home in Oregon and their host families will welcome them back. In the meantime, we choose to remember some of our happy times.