We frequently hear from parents in other countries seeking to place their son or daughter with a relative or family friend in the U.S. for the student’s high school exchange year.
One of the first questions they often ask us is why they have to go through a program if they already have a placement in mind. Sometimes they may think the exchange organizations charge too much money. Sometimes they are annoyed at what they perceive as governmental intrusion into their personal decision-making. Finally, they often genuinely don’t understand why program oversight is required by the U.S. government, and why oversight actually is a benefit to them and their son or daughter.
I’ll explore those two issues below. Please note that the discussion in this post relates to U.S. requirements; if you are planning to send your child or you are planning to be a host family for a family friend’s child elsewhere, check with local organizations to see what the requirements are in that country.
Wanting to host someone you know or wanting to send your child to live with someone you know are not guarantees of the placement being a suitable situation for any given teenager. People wanting to do a direct placement sometimes become annoyed or even angry at this suggestion – after all, we all feel we know what’s best for our children.
But parents and potential host parents generally come around once we walk them through the issues. Certainly, most people can understand and accept the need for the criminal background checks carried out by exchange programs. In addition, the programs gather information in an attempt to make sure families are considering hosting for appropriate reasons. For example, if a family is looking for someone to take care of their young children on a regular basis, they should be looking for a local nanny or check into an au pair program; high school exchange students are not coming to the U.S. to engage in child care.
The exchange programs also ensure that a family’s home situation is solid, that the student has their own room or at most shares with one other child in the family, and that the family has the financial ability to feed and transport a student. All of these issues are just as important for a student in a direct placement as in any other placement.
Student Readiness for Exchange
Generally, students coming to the U.S. on a semester or one year exchange program are between the age of 15-18. Some may have already graduated secondary school in their home country and may not be aware that many U.S. schools do not accept exchange students who have graduated back home. Students are also screened for motivation, maturity, standing in school, and English proficiency. In our experience, families thinking about hosting their friends’ child often have not thought through these topics, and many begin to see the value of having an organization sort through these issues before big problems crop up later potentially threatening a student’s exchange year.
Student and Host Family Counseling
For all J-1 visa exchange students (students coming to the U.S. for just one year through the U.S. Department of State; see this post for more information about student visas), it’s mandatory for the exchange program to be in regular touch with students and host families. Even if a student knows their host family, there will be issues that come up in which it can be helpful to have someone who understands what exchange students are going through.
Families doing direct placements sometimes push back on this in the beginning; we’ve had host parents tell us, “it’s really ok if you don’t call, don’t worry, we’ll just let me know if anything comes up, we know her after all.” Most do come to realize it can be helpful to have someone to discuss potential issues with before they get too big to manage. Also, sometimes a logistical issue comes up where having an organization to back you up becomes quite useful. What are the requirements for an exchange student traveling to Canada or Mexico with their host family, for example? What happens if the student is having difficulty at school, or their English is not as good as one hoped?
If there were no screening, no applications, and no oversight during the exchange year, schools would be in a difficult position. They would have no way of knowing if the student was mature enough, for example, to handle the stress of living in another country, or if the student’s English was sufficient. They would have no way of knowing if the host family’s home was a safe place. To force schools to conduct screenings and oversight would be a burden. (Indeed, this is the situation for schools that accept students on F-1 visas, something many schools don’t do precisely because of the burden.)
So Are Direct Placements A Good Idea?
The short answer is “they certainly can be!” We have had direct placements in which things went perfectly for both the student and the host family.
But even these placements sometimes need counseling and advice. Hosting a student, even if you know them, is not the same as having a guest from another country for a few weeks. It’s not the same as raising your own kids. Things come up. Students still need adjustment to a new country and different culture, and just because parents know each other doesn’t mean the student feels like a member of this new-to-them family. Sibling rivalries still occur. School difficulties still occur. Sometimes we can address it -- and yes, sometimes the fact that the families know each can be helpful.
But there is no guarantee. As one student in a direct placement once told me, she couldn’t talk to her host parents because she didn’t want to hurt their feelings; she liked them. She couldn’t talk to her parents back home because she didn’t want them to think they had made the wrong decision to let her stay with their college friend. In her case, we were able to counsel her natural parents and her host family and get them all to realize that for this young woman a new host family would not only be best for her, but would also help prevent the families from potentially ruining their relationship. What would she have done without a program representative to help her navigate the relationships between these two sets of parents?
See also these previous blog posts about direct placements: