We are currently hosting an exchange student. We are not enjoying it. The student is not as she described herself in her application. There are so many problems and we can’t even talk to her now. Our home feels awkward and we are anxious for her to leave. What can we do? Are we crazy to think we should ask for her to be moved?
No, you’re not crazy. Whether she should be moved or whether the issues are something that can be worked out, though, is a harder question to answer.
It’s not uncommon for host parents who initially said “things are going great” to suddenly announce that their student is driving them crazy and we need to do something about it NOW. It’s also not uncommon for students to initially say “I love everything!” and then suddenly call their program contact and say everything is awful, “I can’t stay here anymore.” Issues can arise within a week after the student arrives, a month after school starts -- or halfway through the exchange year. The things that bother families and students may not even be huge personality differences or major philosophical differences. They are just things that build up.
- Perhaps the student has missed the school bus once or twice a week for several months now and it's causing a huge family conflict. If you live a mile from the school, this wouldn’t be something to worry about, you might think as you read this. But what if the family lives 4 or 5 miles from school?
- Perhaps the student constantly leaves food trash in his bedroom even though the family has a “no food in bedroom” rule. It’s even possible the host parents have talked to the student about this -- but they haven’t told the coordinator, and in our “perhaps” situation, the student hasn’t said anything either.
- Perhaps the host parents say that “Our son and our student have been arguing ever since the day our student arrived.” The parents may add that they’ve tried to talk to both the son and the student but nothing seems to work. Or perhaps the student will suddenly say that she has never been able to talk to her host sister and it’s making her depressed.
You Can’t Do It Alone -- But Many Will Try
Reading this, you might be asking yourself “why didn’t the host parents/student call their coordinator if something was bothering them? I would have called right away!”
Maybe you would have. Or maybe not; so many of us believe we’re capable of dealing with little things on our own. We’ve seen it already this year in comments from colleagues and host families across the country: “should I call my coordinator?” “We’re having some issues but I know my coordinator is busy, I don’t want to bother him.”
It feels natural for most of us to try and solve issues on our own. Both students and parents believe that they can solve “ordinary” problems using their own experience and common sense. Parents with teens or whose children are grown may feel confident in their ability to deal with teenagers. Students may feel a need to be independent or may not be fully comfortable yet talking to their host parents or their coordinator, neither of whom they know well yet. Neither students nor parents want to bother their coordinator with what often are “little things,” the ordinary things that people do that might bother someone else.
But when we’re dealing with other cultures, “little things” may not really be little. The particular issue causing annoyance or aggravation may be the result of a language or cultural misunderstanding, and one’s attempt to deal with it on your own -- using your own cultural perceptions -- might widen the communication gap. Eventually, undercurrents come to the surface.
If you wait too long, the path to a long-term relationship may have become so rocky that it’s too late to smooth it back out. Little things became big things, like a snowball rolling downhill.
Something Is Wrong Doesn’t Mean Someone Is Wrong
Coordinators and their exchange organizations generally do not advocate moving a student as soon as someone (either student or host family) says “we don’t get along, move her/I want to move.” In fact, it’s just the opposite. EF High School Year, the organization we work for, and many other approved programs in the U.S. have the same philosophy: we mentor, we counsel, and we work to try and resolve the issues that are causing conflicts between a student and a host family. As a colleague from another program recently said in an online conversation:
We try to move hell and high water to avoid moves. It’s usually so much better for the kids to deal with their lack of adjustment and get past it. That being said, sometimes a match can’t be salvaged.
So, yes, sometimes those little things become too big. It’s not our desired outcome, for sure. But it’s the reality of life. And it’s important for students and families to know that moving a student is generally not a reflection on the student’s personality or on the host family’s ability to provide a suitable home.
We do our best to help students and host families understand this. Yes, it is true that sometimes it is more than just misunderstandings; sometimes someone really does something wrong. But the reality is that most of the time, it’s a combination of miscommunication issues that have built up over time. Exchange is a “people to people” experience. You are not just dealing with different personalities, but different cultures and totally different life experiences. You can’t just dump a teenager into a family in mid-August and expect everyone to be a big happy family on September 1st.
As just one example from our own experience, a couple of years ago one of our students was miserable and depressed in his host family. It was frustrating for the family, who thought the student was behaving poorly. It was difficult for the student, who didn’t know why he felt so bad. We did some counseling, made some suggestions for things the family and student could do, but after a period of time it was clear things had just progressed too far. We found another family in the area -- and the student fit in fabulously. He totally perked up and almost seemed like a different person.
Once he was gone and they had time to consider the situation, the original family realized that while they wished their student had done some things differently, they could have done some things differently as well. For example, they had selected their student without asking many questions; now, they know better the kind of personality that might fit well in their family’s lifestyle. They learned that trying to solve problems by themselves without bothering their program coordinator just isn’t a good idea. The student learned this, too, and was much more communicative after the move, coming to us with small questions here and there to try and make sure he was doing what he needed to do in his new host family.
A fellow coordinator from another program recently gave an example of a different type of situation. She had a student who wanted to be moved to New York City because … well, because the student thought New York is more fun than the suburbs. We see this often; students want to spend their exchange in what they believe to be exciting places: New York, Los Angeles. If the student is having trouble adjusting to his or her new life, if they are having trouble making new friends, if they are finding it difficult to get to know their host family … it’s easier to say “if I lived somewhere else everything would be fine” than to admit “I need help making this work.”
This student thought that the solution was to just ask to go to New York. It didn’t work. In the end, the student did move to a new host family -- in the same school. (If we do move students, this is generally the result.) While the story so far might make you think otherwise, she did have a good exchange year. The original host family was sad, and may have felt a bit resentful at the student’s behavior. But they knew and accepted that teens don’t always act rationally; this is even more true for teens in a foreign country in a culture they don’t know, trying to speak in a language they’re not really fluent in. This move, too, was the best for everyone.
We have seen how the second time around can be a huge success for a student -- and for host families, too. We have seen how families can have a great experience with a second student even if a previous student has moved out of the home. We ourselves as experienced coordinators have had students who just didn’t do well in our family but did well in another family.
Sometimes, it’s best for the student and host family to start again. It’s ok to say that. Talk to your coordinator, see if it can work out -- this message is for students and families! That’s the first step, and you and the program you work with can take it from there.