Supporting exchange students, families back home, & host families
An environmental attorney since 1985, I focus on climate policy and risk communication. I've taught college-level environmental law, administrative law, and contracts, and I do private tutoring on law school subjects and exam prep. I also work with high school exchange students as the Regional Coordinator for EF High School Exchange Year for NW Oregon/SW Washington. My Exchange Mom blog is about international cultural exchange, with advice and information for students, host families, and students' families back home.
In our other lives, the Exchange Mom and Exchange Dad are an environmental lawyer and a consultant working on climate change issues. In the past couple of months, we’ve been busy creating new websites for our business . . . as a staff of two with no outside employees, we’re the definition of “small company,” and so no, we don’t have an IT department.
As the designated “website manager,” I had the honor and misfortune of being the web designer for our new sites. How has that gone, you ask?
Let’s just say that we’re not taught this stuff in law school or in exchange student coordinator training! It’s definitely not my skill set. It’s been exhausting, but a good learning experience (I think …). I do know a lot more than I did before but not enough to call myself truly knowledgeable. I know enough to be dangerous and I worry all the time about breaking our websites.
Now, I’m trying to manage our official business websites as well as The Exchange Mom, and our next step is thinking about what changes we would like to make to this site, which is long due for some sprucing up. I hope to be able to turn to that soon.
What would YOU like to see? How can this site be more useful to you as a host parent, potential host parent, parent of an exchange student, or a student yourself? Please contact us with your thoughts, either by commenting below or sending us an email.
“With every moment in which someone didn’t understand something about me or wanted to know something about my background, I was given the opportunity to change an individual’s perspective on the world.”
I thought our readers might like to take a look at the attached short article. It has some good ideas to help new exchange students (who often think Americans are Just Plain Weird because of all the “small talk” we do). Students can ask host families some of these questions, and host families can help start conversations with their students with these topics, too.
June and July are strange times for those of us working with international students. Our students who have been here for a semester or school year are returning to their home countries — yet at the same time, we’re looking for host families for the coming school year and beginning to reach out to our new students who will arrive in July and August. We have to put on different hats depending on who we’re talking to that day!
For those of you who see my social media posts talking about saying farewell and thinking about how our students have grown all year — here’s an example of switching hats. What kind of tips and advice do we give to our new host families who are beginning to get ready for their exchange student?
Contact Your Student a Little Bit at a Time
We recommend starting with an email to introduce yourself and your family, perhaps attach a few photos. Find your student on social media outlets: Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and WhatsApp. Start small — a long email or text message may feel intimidating to a teenager who may be nervous about his or her English ability. There’s generally plenty of time to follow up with another short message, and another one after that. Before you know it, you will be having a real conversation. You can think of many different short chats you can have with your student: ask your student what activities he or she likes to do, for example (don’t assume that what a student wrote down in the program application six months or a year ago still best reflects his interests). Ask him whether he has thought about what activities he might want to join at school and whether he wants to try something new. Is she interested in sports, art, or music? You can ask about your student’s community and find out if she is used to a small town or school or a large one. Does she like movies, reading, or going on walks? Get on Skype and have everyone in the family say hello. Perhaps do a short house video tour while you are describing your home to your student and his or her family. Perhaps your student can show you her home the same way. These topics can be multiple conversations through Skype, email, or instant messaging; it doesn’t and probably shouldn’t be one marathon conversation.
Do a Basic Bedroom Setup
Send your student a photo of his or her new bedroom. You don’t need to remodel or get new furniture, but you do need to have a bed, a place for clothing, and somewhere to study either in the bedroom or elsewhere in the home. Think about something small you could do to make the bedroom personal — your student’s “place.” A stuffed animal for your student’s bed can make it feel more like a home rather than a hotel. If your student loves a particular sport, perhaps get her a blanket with a sports theme; the blanket can double as an extra layer at chilly evening outdoor events.
If your student is sharing a room with a host sibling, think ahead of time about how you will divide the space. Talk about it with your son/daughter and with your student (another topic of conversation!). It’s possible neither of them have shared a bedroom before; if that is the case, set some guidelines with them.
Be Prepared for Arrival Day
Think about making a poster with your student’s name in large print with some fun designs and colors. If you’re not artistic, just a big sign with their name on it in a bright color will do the trick. Balloons are great, too. Whether you are meeting your student at the airport or at a central meeting place determined by the exchange organization, try to bring the whole family! Don’t be nervous about showing your excitement. Conversely, don’t worry if your student doesn’t immediately show the same excitement coming off the plane — they’re excited inside, but are likely to be exhausted after untold hours in the air and probably several sleepless nights as the time drew near for their exchange year.
Have a small welcome gift ready — nothing extravagant, just something to welcome your student into the host home and host community. A t-shirt or jersey from your family’s favorite sports team would show that you want your student to be part of the “family team,” for example. Have an extra house key made up before your student arrives, so that your student will know you thought about it, and have it sitting on the student’s bed (with a good-sized key ring so it won’t get lost!).
Perhaps you can tell from the nature of the things I’ve listed that it’s not as hard as you might think. You know the old saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff …. and it’s all small stuff”? We like to flip that saying around so that’s focusing on the positive: *do* think about the small stuff because it’s the small stuff that counts. It’s the little things that help make a relationship. It’s the little things that your student will remember. In a way, it’s all (or mostly) little things all the way, one little thing at a time, one small step towards a new relationship.
This time of year, high school exchange student programs in the U.S. are seeking host families for the coming academic year. You may have seen posts on Facebook, read flyers in your local coffee shop, or visited an exchange organization’s booth at a local community event. Your thoughts might be “what a cool idea!,” or perhaps “why would anyone take a stranger into their home?”
In one of my regular telephone calls with a host parent the other day, the conversation turned to our students’ ever-increasing use of technology. She wasn’t quite sure their student this year had ever truly immersed himself into the local community and our local world. It’s harder than ever to separate the students from their home country, she commented. Once upon a time (really just a few short years ago) students rarely arrived with smartphones; now, it’s rare for them not to bring one. Once upon a time, they rarely brought laptops; now, most of them do. Once upon a time, parents back home were content talking to their children on weekends; now, many text their teens every day.
Why host, indeed? Is there still any point to this idea of citizen diplomacy and this type of personal cultural exchange in a world where we’re always connected? With instant translation available on our phones, is learning a foreign language still relevant? Isn’t virtually visiting a foreign country through your computer just as good as being there? So does putting teens into the homes of American families for a full semester or school year still make sense?
Well … yes.
It’s about the look on our Italian student’s face a few years back when standing in line at a donut shop in Portland and a shop employee walked by offering a free donut to everyone waiting in line. “This. Is. America…!” he cried. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I don’t know … but it was certainly memorable.
It’s about coming around the curve on Highway 101 on the Oregon coast and seeing Haystack Rock loom up out of the surf and hearing the “oh wow” from the back seat from our somewhat-jaded-having-been-to-the-US-multiple-time German student. And yes, it really is a pretty cool sight … his comment reminded us that seeing your world through someone else’s eyes can re-awaken you to your own values.
It’s about a student excitedly talking about a weekend geology field trip he took with a few students from his class. “Excited” and “geology” are not usually terms one would use to describe a high school student’s activities. But you could hear it in his voice. It meant so much more to actually see what they had been reading about in class, he said. He talked about how they learned about how the flow of rivers had changed, and how much fun it was to take a ferry to an island.
Each of these is just a little thing by itself. But isn’t it the little things that makes the difference?
Beyond learning about another culture and how daily life might differ, these cultural exchanges challenge our assumptions about other cultures, teach communication skills, and help develop patience and flexibility. That sentence sounds like a platitude, doesn’t it? But all I need to do is look at our own experiences — and we’re just one family.
We’ve learned that what we thought we knew about Europe was just a slice off the top. Beneath the similarities lie fascinating differences between Nordic cultures in the North, Slovak cultures to the East, and Italy to the South. The slices we’ve learned about Hong Kong, Thailand, and Japan are humbling; as educated persons, you think you know something, and then you learn you don’t. Living with a student from Hong Kong taught our own two children more than a book ever could about how a teenager from a Chinese culture approaches life, decision-making, and relationships. It helped them understand the family histories and family dynamics of their own second generation Asian-American friends, and it taught them tolerance much more effectively than us parents standing there saying “be nice, don’t judge.”
We’ve learned that when people think they’re clear in what they are saying, they’re not. We’ve learned to stop ourselves and ask “do you understand what I meant when I say XXX?” It’s not something we ever would have thought about doing before we started working with international students. And in reality, it helps you realize that the potential for miscommunication is huge even when you are talking to native English speakers.
We’ve learned to be more patient and to not expect perfection overnight (if ever….!). We suggest to our students to read the local newspaper to learn about the local community. We take students in our home with us when we walk the dogs or run errands to get them talking, asking them about their family back home and what their school is like, one topic at a time, day after day. We ask them how their parents expect them to manage money and try to get a sense of their financial situation, one topic at a time. We try to get students who are nervous about speaking English to talk more, a little at a time. Success in the beginning may be a sentence or two.
We’ve learned more than we could have imagined when we started down this hosting and coordinating path about seeing other people’s viewpoints and recognizing other people’s realities.
Some things seem to be the same everywhere. Teens everywhere groan when asked to do their chores before they go out with friends and roll their eyes when asked to do something they don’t want to do. Parents the world over can recognize their children are not perfect. Adults the world over make mistakes in their relationships, and adults the world over are not always better than teenagers at accepting their mistakes and learning from them.
There is no such thing as a perfect person: no perfect student, no perfect teenager, no perfect host families, no perfect adults. It would be nice if we could wave a magic wand at the airport on Arrival Day and announce “congratulations, you now have a long-term forever relationship.” But that’s not real life, and it’s not really how we learn about each other. Having someone you have never met before live in your home for 6 or 10 months as a member of your family is rewarding — and yes, it can be hard work. That work leads to rewarding experiences, and this is what long-term relationships are built on.
I think (and I hope) that it all does still make sense. If our 21st century environment of constant contact, 24/7 online connection, and no-real-life-always-texting life takes over, I think we’re done for in more ways than one. I think cultural exchanges — including but not limited to hosting high school exchange students — offer benefits far beyond being “a good citizen.” The volunteerism component is important, yes …. but it goes beyond that. I hope that these experiences are still possible in today’s ever-connected, never-disconnect-from-home world. We’ll keep working at doing our small part to make it possible.