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Developing Friendships From Afar: Exchange Without Exchange 

 September 21, 2020

By  Laura Kosloff

Although some exchange students are here in the U.S. for the 2020-2021 school year, most had to cancel or defer as exchange organizations and schools canceled Fall 2020 programs. But before those decisions were made, many host families and students had begun to make connections. Those connections are continuing, even though students are not physically here and they haven't ever met their host families (and perhaps never will, at least in an exchange).

Relationships between students and host families from 2019-2020 continue, too, even though most high exchange students had to leave the U.S. abruptly in late March and early April due to COVID-19, two or three months before they were supposed to return home.

Leaving early doesn't mean leaving everything behind.

As the months go by, we're seeing how much this truly is a reality. One of our host families and long-time coordinator colleagues here in Portland provide one example that we're seeing duplicated around the country. Lars and Jenn were planning on hosting two girls. We had finalized all the necessary documentation, so the family was in touch with both girls before everything was canceled. Patricia cannot defer her exchange, so she won't be able to come next year. Fatma, however, did have that flexibility. She is scheduled to come here, to this host family, in August 2021.

Yet even though they won't be sharing the year they had anticipated, they are sharing something else. They both consider Lars and Jenn their American family. Patricia notes that she's glad that "I have an American family, even if I don't get an American year." The four of them have Zoom calls most weekends. Indeed, it's an odd thing to say given what COVID-19 has taken away from us -- but it seems that these girls know their American family better right now in mid-September than they probably would have in the normal scheme of things. Without COVID-19, there probably would have been a few Skype or Zoom calls over the summer. With COVID-19, they are having weekly calls and are at the point where they don't hesitate to share personal experiences. Lars and Jenn note that they're even getting Zoom time with Patricia's sister ... "it's like we got two new daughters for the price of one."

zoom call with host parents and two exchange students

A few more comments from some of our program's host families and students will show you more about what I mean.

"We were suppose to host a sweet young lady from France this year, Coco. We started Zooming with her and our other student from Austria back in March, so it was really hard on all of us (as with everybody else) to have this year cancelled. Imagine our surprise when we got this in the mail today."

letter from France to host family

A host mom shares, "I finally get to post this photo of the COVID quilt I made for Lina. I think she likes it! She asked for a sunset quilt; I used wool batting as it's colder in Germany and the back is bright yellow to remind her of the sun. Miss this wonderful girl whose exchange year got cut a bit short when the pandemic hit."

girl holding homemade quilt

Claire from Taiwan was not able to come on exchange this Fall as planned. This placement would have been extra special because a few years ago Claire's brother also spent his exchange with Claire's host family. Claire was able to defer her exchange year to Fall 2021 and still plans to live with her Missouri host family. To celebrate, Claire's family in Taiwan sent these figurines to her host family to remind them of their global connection.

row of Taiwanese figurines all one family

COVID-19 hasn't stopped us from reaching out beyond our borders. Don't let it stop you!

What are your stories? We'd love to hear them.

Most of the images and descriptions above are taken with permission from EF High School Exchange Year. Visit the EF HSEY Facebook page for more stories to brighten your day (and maybe it will make you want to host a student next year...contact us anytime for more information about that!).

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  • We also had an exchange setup with a student from France. It was cancelled but she was able to defer to 2021. Instead we are doing a virtual exchange year. We try to have a call a week and text during the week with special stories. We even did a call where she showed us how she makes crepes! We can’t wait to have her here, though. Hoping for next year!

    • I’m glad she is able to defer to 2021. I’m getting more and more hopeful for the 2021 year — I don’t know that we’ll see as many exchange students as in the past, I suspect it will take a while to get back to where we were before. But what I’m seeing and hearing, from stories like the ones I summarized and your own personal story — these stories are making me think that many of the 2021 students will already have strong connections that will help them adjust and enjoy their exchange.

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