What is the most important thing for students to know as they get ready for their exchange?
As the time draws near for exchange students to leave home, my new students are beginning to ask questions about life here in the U.S. They want to know what I can tell them about life in their community. What classes will I have to take? When will I choose classes, do I do that here before I leave? What time does school start in the morning? How will I get to school? Can I be a senior even if I’m not a senior back home? What do I do if I want to do a sport at my school?
There are more general questions about life, too, that students are likely to ask. Can I go to a concert by myself? Can I sleep over a friend’s house once I get to know people? Am I allowed to take public transportation? Can I get my driver’s license?
Students get some information, of course, at their in-country orientations. But those meetings tend to be general; staff aren’t going to know what time school starts or what the host family’s town is like. The U.S. is a big place, and Texas is different from Oregon.
Some questions are easier to answer than others, for sure – it’s our responsibility to know as much as we can about their school, for example. Getting a driver’s license? That’s complicated, and will depend on your exchange program, the state in which you will live, and how your host parents feel about it. Can you go places on your own? That, too, is complicated, and will differ from program to program and family to family. When I get these questions, I suggest we have a phone call rather than try to answer in a text message. (Indeed, I have just such a phone call scheduled for this weekend to explain to an incoming student the difficulties in getting a driver’s license here and why it won’t be possible.)
That gets to the most important thing to know: focus on communication – focus on what you are hearing, what you are saying, and any cultural differences that might cause additional confusion.
Communicate to your host family and others
Ask questions -- to your host parents, your host siblings, your teachers at school, your coordinator, other students you meet. And don’t ask just once – it’s okay to ask again.
If you have missed some of the words in a sentence -- ask the person to repeat or explain. There is a good chance that the words you miss will be important to understanding the entire sentence. Even if you understand the words, you may not understand the context. Cultures are different, and languages don’t always translate words into the “right” meanings.
Communicate to your teachers
If you don't understand an assignment -- don’t make guesses. Ask what the assignment means, and if you need direction to get it done, ask about that, too. Students will tell us, “I was going to re-do it and turn it in at the end of the month.” They assume that’s OK -- but it’s not. Students with a poor grade might say, “I didn’t understand the topic, and I was afraid to talk to the teacher. Back home we just don’t do that.”
In the U.S., teachers are generally approachable and consider questions from students appropriate and desirable. Teachers may be available before and after the class. Take advantage of this opportunity to get to know your teachers and make sure you understand assignments.
Communicate to your local coordinator or liaison
Students sometimes think their local program contact person is only there to ask what they did last week, to answer practical questions like how to sign up for sports, or to tell them what they’re not allowed to do. This is so not true!
We’ve seen students be totally surprised that we have ideas and suggestions on how to help things get better when there is a problem – big or small. Your coordinator is here to help you with what you *can* do, and to give you ideas on how to do well. Your coordinator can answer questions and help explain how things are different from back home. Your coordinator can help you explain your feelings and perspective to your host family if you are having difficulty communicating.
Start from day one
One of our new host families asked the other day what the most likely problem is that they can expect. Without hesitating, I said “miscommunication.” This includes host families assuming they know what the student meant even if the English wasn’t perfect (and not clarifying). It includes students thinking they understand what is being said around them when they’re missing 30%. It includes us coordinators, too; we’re just as susceptible to misunderstanding someone else, as well as not being clear in our own statements, as anyone else.
We all need to explain what our feelings are and we all need to remember that we might need to explain ourselves in several ways and several times. We need to remember that as handy as it is, texts won’t be enough to communicate ideas and issues. We need to stop, think about what we’re saying, listen to what is being asked – and repeat.