The “mom” in the Exchange Mom

The idea of cultural exchange sounds simple enough, but in fact several pieces of the cultural exchange puzzle need to fit together for a successful exchange experience.  There are the students, of course, whether high school or college, who make the choice to go abroad for adventure, education, and personal growth.  There are the families left behind, who hope that the year will go as planned, and worry that it won’t.  There are the host families who welcome a student into their home and community (with no compensation and with some personal expense), with the goal of expanding their own horizons and those of their own children.  There are the schools, which like having international students to enrich their community and expose their student body to other cultures and new ways of thinking.  Finally, there are the organizations that facilitate the exchange, and which provide support, ground rules, and oversight.

I’ve now been involved, to one extent or another, in all of these roles:

  • As a host parent, I’ve been a host mom to about a dozen high school exchange students from places as far away from Oregon as Germany and Colombia, from Italy and Hong Kong.  We’ve welcomed them into our lives and in several cases have welcomed our “children” back again when they have returned for visits.  I hope to be a part of their lives when they finish college, if they go; when they marry and have children of their own; and when things happen in their lives, both good and bad.
  • As a local liaison/coordinator for six years for one of the largest educational foreign exchange programs operating in the U.S., I have supervised several dozen students from Europe, Asia, and South America, and recruited dozens of host families.  I’ve cheered my students on to A’s in their American high schools, advised them on how to adapt to seemingly strange American customs, smiled at their prom photos, and wept with them through personal crises.
  • As the contact point and liaison to half a dozen local high schools, I have worked with high school counselors and administrators on how best to bring exchange students into their schools, and have tried to make sure that the students contribute to the school community.
  • Finally and most recently, as a parent, two weeks ago I sent my teen-aged son to a far-away place on his own exchange program for five months, in this case the country of Ghana.

In a way, of course, this last role is not completely new.  I’m a parent, and my children have traveled on their own. I understand how it feels to send your child off to places where they’ve never been before. I know the funny feeling in your gut when your child heads off for travel on his own and he goes through the airport security line, gives you a final wave, and trots off to his gate.  I know the constant looking at the clock, where you find yourself doing a mental calculation and wondering if he has found the people meeting him on the other side of the world at the end of a long flight.

I hope to continue posting this year on my experience with all of these roles – tidbits and items that I hope are useful to students and their host families, as well as tidbits from my son’s experience in Ghana (and from my experience as the parent left behind!).  I hope you benefit from my blog posts as I continue with it this year.

Hosting an exchange student: “We need to wait until our kids are older” — or do you?

I’ve been thinking about this recently, since we’ve been looking for host families for students arriving in January and are beginning to look for families for the 2013-2014 academic year.  I get the question a lot when I talk to people about hosting a student.  “My kids are too young,” or “I need to wait until my son/daughter is in high school.”

I’d like to challenge that assumption, at least for some families.  In some cases, sure — waiting might be the right thing to do for your family situation.  But don’t wait just because you don’t have a teen. Don’t assume, without thinking it through, that the “right time” is when your 10-year-old turns 16.

We’ve hosted about a dozen teens in the past 10 years, not including the ones who we’ve had for a few days or a few weeks as a result of our work as local coordinators/supervisors. Our children were 9 and 11 when we first hosted a boy from Germany.  If we had decided that “our boys will learn more when they’re teens,” we would have missed so much.  We would have missed the opportunity for our older son to learn what it means NOT to be the older son (it means a lot, and very much to the benefit of the younger son!).  We would have missed the change in family dynamic when you have three instead of two, and the opportunity for there always to be someone with whom to kick a soccer ball, watch an action movie, or play video games.  We would have missed the fun of playing Age of Empires (which our exchange student introduced us to) on several computers simultaneously with three boys and Dad all trying to take over the world.

By hosting when our kids were younger, we learned things about teens that came in incredibly handy later on when our own children reached that age.  We learned about managing computer use and cell phones.  We learned how to handle a teen slinking in late with no good excuse.  We learned how to say “no, you can’t go” and not feel awful, and we learned how to say “no” even when you do feel awful.  We learned that intelligent teens can make dumb decisions.  We learned, even as adults who have been abroad, that living with someone from another culture teaches you things that books and popular media cannot.

Yes, it’s a different family makeup when the exchange student is older (or for that matter, younger) than other children in the family.  Our sons’ relationship with Niklas, who was their 17-year-old Age of Empires companion when they were 9 and 11, was different from their relationship with Sven and Jorge, who joined our family when our children were 12 and 14, or with Alex, who became our German son when he and my younger son were both 16.

Marshall, Stefano (Italy), Marcus, and Marc (Germany), Christmas 2004
Marshall, Stefano (Italy), Marcus, and Marc (Germany), Christmas 2004

Let’s face it, American families come in all sizes and shapes.  A host family is just that – a family.  A family can have one or two parents.  A family can have children living in the home or no children living in the home – or no children at all.  A family can have children away at college, teenagers, middle-schoolers, or toddlers. The U.S. government and the 75 or so authorized exchange programs in this country encourage — with good reason — all kinds of families to host.

Foreign cultural exchange is intended to show the variety of culture within a country, and part of that is showing the variety of families.  Families share one important characteristic, though: they are families.  To be a host family for an exchange student, you just need to want to share that experience and expand your own family’s horizons.

Happy New Year to my Exchange Students

For the academic year 2012-2013, I am supervising 14 high school exchange students.  The number varies from year to year.  This year, my students are from Austria, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.  They’ve now been here five months – halfway through their exchange year. So far, as 2012 winds down, they have been able to:

* go with their host families to Hawaii, California, Arizona, Idaho, New York, Canada, and Mexico;

* see Seattle, Washington; Crater Lake, Oregon; and Disneyland, California.

* take classes not offered in their home countries such as Japanese, ceramics, psychology, cooking, and marketing;

*experience homecoming at their US high school;

* become fans of American college football teams such as the University of Oregon Ducks and Oregon State University Beavers, and learn how to dress like a fan;

* go to NBA Trailblazer basketball games and MLS Timbers soccer games;

* become athletes themselves and play rugby, football, soccer, volleyball, or be on the cheerleading squad;

* go skiing, scuba-diving, rock-climbing, and air ballooning;

* gone camping in the mountains, stayed in a yurt;

* have BBQs on Labor Day;

* go trick-or-treating on Halloween;

* eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving;

* help light the candles for the eight nights of Hanukkah;

* decorate their host families’ home and tree for Christmas.

This is kind of what it’s all about, isn’t it? Sharing experiences with young people from other countries and cultures.  Showing them that the United States is not just the Hollywood sign (although it is that, too).  Demonstrating that for all our differences, people from different countries and cultures still, in the end, like many of the same things.

Of course, there have also been tears, and trials and tribulations.  One student is now in a new host family; another broke her wrist over New Year’s while snowboarding.  Some have been homesick.  But they’re surviving, and surviving well.  My New Year’s wish tonight goes to them – here’s to 2013!

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student – when it works, it works!

11-02-2012 — I thought this interview on Wisconsin’s TV show, The Morning Blend, was worth passing along.  This is what cultural exchange is all about — a good “match” between host family and exchange student, a student interested in doing things differently while here in the U.S., and a host family interested in learning about their new “exchange daughter’s” life.  (OK — also a good coordinator keeping an eye on how things are going and communicating with the family and student!)

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student – interview on The Morning Blend



The Rules are the Rules …. or, We Mean What We Say and We Say What We Mean

An exchange student in the Portland metro area was sent home this week – eight months early.

What horrible thing did he or she do, do you ask?  Bring alcohol to school?   Possess marijuana?  Steal the family car?  What could a well-adjusted, smart, 16-year-old exchange student do that would result in being sent home  a scant two months into the high school exchange year?

A much simpler answer, actually…..and yet, so much harder.  The student picked up a $50 item from a display at Nordstrom’s, and walked out without paying for it.  Any of us who are parents can understand the impulsive thought that came into the teen’s mind; many parents have counseled their own teens through similar impulsive, bad decisions.

But for that one impulsive, bad, teen-aged decision, an entire exchange year was lost.  And there was nothing anyone could do.  If an exchange student breaks the law, and is driven home in a police car, that’s the beginning and the end of the story in a nutshell.

Those of us who work with high school foreign exchange students do it because we love the teens.  The hardest cases we deal with are when our students make bad decisions – bad decisions that any teen could make.  But they are exchange students, here on a Dept. of State visa, and subject to higher standards and stricter rules.  Every year, one or more of our teens makes a bad decision.  Every year, for example, there are exchange students who get caught with alcohol – at a party, perhaps, where the police show up.  We warn the students every year before they arrive and after they arrive – and yet, someone, inevitably, does not listen.

All reputable exchange programs have a disciplinary process.  For ordinary and expected behavior issues, the disciplinary process will be progressive – that is, first the local coordinator will give the student a warning; then perhaps the program headquarters will issue a warning; and finally there may be a written and final warning.

But for matters involving the law, there’s not a lot of leeway.   If you break the law, you go home.  Simple…..yes.  But there’s a host family that is already missing a student they loved.    There is a coordinator/supervisor who feels as though she missed something, wishing she could have done …. something.  And there is a young person who has lost the opportunity to spend a year in the United States.

If you are an exchange student, take this message to heart.  If you are hosting an exchange student, show this story to your student.  It’s such a pointless reason to be sent home.