We try to avoid making “political” comments here on The Exchange Mom blog, knowing that audiences involved in cultural exchange and international education come from all walks of life and all political persuasions. President Trump’s proposed budget, however, is so potentially game-changing that we feel compelled to speak up.
There are many impacts of the President’s budget proposal beyond international education and exchange. I’m not even going to go into what the proposed budget cuts would do to environmental programs and the environment. Let’s just stick with the one agency that we’re involved with in high school cultural exchange — the U.S. Department of State.
It would be a mistake to assume that other cultural exchange programs — even if they do not primarily rely on Department of State funding for students — would come through this with no significant impacts. If the relevant oversight offices at the Department of State are defunded, for example, what happens then? Can the cultural exchange programs exist without a partnership with the Department of State?
Less direct but just as important is the additional pressure that public schools may face in coming years. The new Administration has plans to implement voucher and other programs. If attendance at public schools decreases as a result of such programs, the public school system will be increasingly squeezed. Will they still be receptive to high school exchange students on J-1 visas, who do not pay tuition? Will they be able to afford those students?
It’s hard to know how this will all play out. We can all see, however, that the Trump Administration has made clear that these are its priorities. The Administration’s proposed budget reflects a “hard power” approach to the future, not the “soft power” approach generally attributed to diplomacy and the State Department, and which most cultural exchange programs clearly support.
“Educational and cultural exchange programs have been a critical component of our national security policy since the end of World War II. ….the State Department reports that 1 in 3 current world leaders have been on an exchange program in the United States. In another Department study, 92 percent of participants from Muslim majority countries reported having a more favorable view of the United States.”
Shutting down these programs in favor of buying more guns and bombs ultimately will prove both shortsighted and “penny wise, pound foolish.” We hope that the high school, college, and post-graduate exchange community will make this clear to congressional and other representatives.
The “matching” of an exchange student with his or her host family is a key factor in the likely success of student’s exchange year in the U.S. How does that process actually work? Can we make it work in a better way?
The “matching” we are talking about is the process in which host families look at student applications and try to figure out who would fit best into their families. This isn’t a 2-3 week vacation visitor, after all; it’s a person who will be living in your home for up to 10-11 months and with whom you hope to have a long-term relationship. Exchange program coordinators like us work to get to know our host families a little bit, so we can recommend students we think will fit into the family’s personal lifestyle and the nature of the school community. In the “ideal” case, we might send a potential host family 3-4 applications; they pick one of them, and everyone lives happily ever after.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes a host family looks at a few dozen applications (or even more!) in search of the perfect exchange student. Here’s the thing, though: there is no such thing as a perfect exchange student, any more than there is a “perfect” host family. We’re all people, with strengths and weaknesses, maturity in some respects, selfishness in others, abilities to adapt easily to some things and less so to other circumstances. Even under the best of circumstances, the process of choosing a student is more of an art than a science. Choosing a student is only the first step in the longer process that leads to a successful exchange year. Think about how much uncertainty remains when you hire an employee, even after carefully reviewing their resume, checking references, and conducting an in-person interview. Whether that employee and the company are a good “match” is not something you know on Day One. You need to train her, show her the ropes, explain your system of doing things, and introduce her to all the right people. You can improve the odds of success through a careful hiring process–but that’s only the beginning.
Host families can’t personally check the references of the exchange students whose applications they are reviewing, although they can review the teacher and staff recommendations in a student’s file. They can’t do in-person interviews, although the exchange organization will have done that. All host families have is the written application and perhaps a short student-prepared video.
Nevertheless, host families tell us all the time that they want to find the “best” student for their family. That’s a good goal and of course, we do, too! The question is, of course, what does “best” mean? We urge potential host families to question several common but not necessarily helpful assumptions.
With enough effort, we can get the “right” student.
We would urge host families to reconsider this assumption. In the end, it’s a matter of probabilities (does this teen really likes gymnastics as much as she says in her application? Is this teen as outgoing as he seems to be?). It’s a matter of motivation and effort once a student arrives and finds that being an international student does have some challenges. It’s a matter of host family expectations and ability to follow through (yes, you *can* take away computer privileges for a day!). The selection process is a matter of trying to bias the outcome in favor of success rather than against success. But that’s about as much as you can hope for.
I can pick the right student by myself.
First-time host parents could possibly look at a series of student profiles and find a great student for their family. But using the hiring example introduced above, it’s a long shot. Families who have hosted multiple times may know how to read student applications and know what to look for. In most cases, though, we urge families to work closely with their local program coordinator. In our case, we take time to screen students before sending applications to potential host families. We look at the family’s host family application for information about the family’s interests, nature of the school and local community, and family members. Are there young children in the family? Perhaps a student with no siblings would not be the best fit. Does the family spend a lot of time outdoors? A student who seems to like to spend time inside might not be a good choice. Our goal is to make sure that any student the host family might pick from the selection we send would turn out to be a good “fit.”
We’ll apply to several exchange programs because having a larger pool makes it more likely we will get “the right” student.
If you absolutely want a student with very specific characteristics, e.g. a Norwegian ski team member, then looking for potential students from multiple exchange programs might work for you. Generally, however, any major exchange program will likely have enough students to choose from so that we can find a good match. Simply expanding the size of the pool is unlikely to make it any more likely that you’ll get a successful match. We have also seen the exact opposite – host families frozen in the headlights like a deer with too many choices and not knowing how to make a decision. Potentially great matches then slip away (placed elsewhere) while you are still working your way through dozens of student files.
We urge host families not to focus on the size of the pool. It’s unlikely to have much of a relationship to a future student’s success and the likelihood of you and your student being happy together.
The exchange organizations are all the same, so it doesn’t matter whom we work with.
Host families routinely think much more about choosing a student than the nature of the support structure an exchange program offers during the placement process and during the exchange year itself. In practice, these two elements are equally important to the likelihood of a successful year.
We occasionally get calls or emails from host families who are working with other programs, who are referred to us by other families, schools, or through our blog. Some are trying to figure out how to solve a problem on their own because they feel they are not receiving appropriate support from their exchange program. Some report on previous experiences and want to know what we would do. Some schools that we work with refer potential host families to us because we have developed a reputation (we hope!) for fairness and trustworthiness in our dealings with students, families, and the schools.
We can’t solve every problem that arises in the way a student, host family, or school may want. It’s more complicated than that. We’re not dealing with nuts and bolts — we’re dealing with people. The support structure and the specific relationship you develop with your local program representatives can matter as much as choosing “the right” student. We recommend that host families research the exchange organizations active in their area. If you have a particular country or cultural background that interests you, which organizations have more students from that region? Does the organization have a good reputation in your community? What does the local school think about the organization’s representatives and their commitment to working with the student and the host family during the school year?
Maybe I should go eeny meeny miny mo.
We wouldn’t go that far! Work with your local coordinator and make sure he or she knows what is important to you and your family. No vegetarians? Say so. Prefer a vegetarian? Say so! Do you have big dogs? Chickens in the back yard? Go skiing a lot? Go skiing just occasionally? Help your exchange organization to help you — and then keep that up during the exchange year. Choosing a successful student is just the beginning!
High school exchange is like a jigsaw puzzle: many pieces must fall into place in order for an exchange year to happen. Even more pieces have to come together for the exchange experience to be successful over the course of a semester or academic year and for it to be a positive experience for all involved.
There are many points in assembling the jigsaw puzzle where the process can encounter a problem or fall apart. Maybe a student doesn’t have high English scores, has pet allergies, is diabetic, or has other characteristics that make finding a host family more difficult. Economic hard times can make it more difficult to find host families. A host family’s medical problem or family emergency can disrupt their hosting plans; the same can disrupt a student’s plans to go abroad or require an early return home.
A placement requires not just a student and a host family, however. It requires a school. Host families and students’ families often do not fully understand the role of the host school in completing the jigsaw puzzle. Many families and students think that exchange organizations simply need to tell the school that an exchange student will be attending. It’s not that simple.
First, the host family’s home address generally determines which school a student will attend (at least for J-1 visa students, the “traditional” high school cultural exchange system managed by the U.S. Department of State, which is what we’re talking about in this blog post). Host families generally cannot choose which high school their student will attend – it’s determined by school attendance maps. The “matching” process we coordinators talk about requires not only that a host family find a student that will hopefully be a good fit in the home, but also that the student will be a good fit for the school, as well as that the school agrees to have an exchange student. There needs to be a “meeting of the minds” with a school for every student.
Many schools look forward to welcoming exchange students as a way to expand U.S. students’ horizons and adding cultural diversity to their student body. The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), working with exchange program organizations and school administrators to come up with general exchange student guidance, recommends:
American high schools should strive to accept international exchange students each year. The number of international exchange students that a high school will accept and the timing/deadlines for the process vary. These guidelines suggest a middle ground that recognizes the needs of schools and exchange programs, taking into account the increasing difficulty of securing early student applications and host family commitments. Ideally, schools should work toward a goal of 1% of the total student population being comprised of exchange students. Acknowledging that school conditions vary locally, it is important to set a personal goal that best fits each school community.
— Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, Model School Policy on International Student Exchange (2002).
But there are conflicting interests in play for schools. These are most obvious when schools face limits on teacher and financial resources. Schools may fear the extra burdens non-native speakers add to already over-worked teachers. Athletic directors and state athletic associations may express concerns about foreign students taking competition opportunities away from permanent students.
The result is that school districts and individual schools often limit how many exchange students they can accommodate. They may allocate these “slots” on a first-come first-served basis. They may assign slots to individual exchange programs they know and trust, or set limits on each exchange organization (e.g., no more than 1 student per organization at a school). They may limit how many students can come from a particular country to increase diversity. They may require language scores higher than the U.S. Department of State minimum.
Most of us working in the field think that school restrictions are perfectly reasonable. It’s reasonable, for example, to set higher criteria for language proficiency, or to ensure a diversity of country representation among exchange students.
Sometimes, however, schools go beyond the steps described above and fundamentally (if unintentionally) rearrange the jigsaw puzzle pieces required for a successful exchange student placement. Perhaps a school has encountered problems with individual exchange students in the past. Perhaps a school decides for resource reasons it will reduce the number of students it will accept in the coming year. This can lead schools to radically change how they handle exchange student applications.
Let’s look at an example of how this can come about. A school district announces it will reduce by about half the number of exchange students its schools will accept for the coming year. It will accept applications from any exchange organization, but will hold all applications until after a deadline in late Spring. The district will inform the exchange organizations a few weeks later, close to the end of the school year, which students from which exchange organizations the district will accept for the coming academic year.
The school district genuinely believes this process will address its needs. It will still have exchange students in local schools, and district officials believe that by looking at all applications before deciding, they will get the “best” students. What district officials don’t see is that by adopting this process, they are fundamentally rearranging the jigsaw puzzle pieces in a way that is incompatible with how exchange student placement works. Over time, such an approach could break the model of high school exchange. Here’s why:
A key constraint in placing high school exchange students is the availability of host families. The benefits of hosting a student are significant, but it’s not something that everyone is ready to do. It’s hard to find families willing to open up their home for 9-10 months and to take on the financial and other burdens of a new teenager in their home. Finding host families is a key challenge for exchange coordinators.
The process of looking for host families begins as early as the Fall — almost a year before students arrive. With thousands of students being placed across the country, it’s a big job. By Spring, exchange organizations have finalized the placement of a large fraction of these students and are focusing on getting remaining students placed.
When a school announces it will select a specific number of exchange students from all applications filed by a Spring deadline, it introduces enormous uncertainty for everyone involved. How many host families should each exchange organization try to find? What should each exchange organization tell potential host families? Please fill out all the forms, go through the interviews and background checks, and choose a student, but we can’t tell you how likely it is your student will be selected? Should host families be encouraged to pick the most physically attractive students, or just the academically most superior, in the hope they’ll have an edge in the selection process? Are these really the criteria on the basis of which host families should be choosing a student, as opposed to how good a fit the student will be for the family and the community? We would argue “no,” if we want the jigsaw puzzle pieces of a successful placement to fall into place.
If schools all over the U.S. were to implement this kind of process, exchange organizations would suddenly have hundreds (even thousands) of “school-less” students on their hands in late Spring, just as schools all over the country are preparing to shut down for the summer. They would also have frustrated host families, and (if this were to become the pattern) many families back home wondering if their son or daughter will be headed for the U.S. after all.
Creating disruptive uncertainty around the exchange student selection process is playing with host families’ and exchange students’ lives, and far fewer students and host families are likely to pursue exchange at all. Why would potential host families go to the trouble of selecting a student and go through the host family application process if they have no idea whether they will be able to host the student? Will schools always make “better” exchange student choices than the matching done by exchange program coordinators and choices made by host families? While the students a school selects could be perfect examples of successful exchange students, they could just as likely end up being relatively poor fits for their host families, and create new problems for the school.
Hundreds of students—indeed thousands—come to the U.S. and succeed every year. And some don’t. They’re teenagers, after all, and they—and their host families—are people who sometimes do the right thing, and sometimes they don’t. We’ve learned from experience that exchange student success is almost impossible to predict from a student’s written application alone. There are better ways for schools to solve resource issues and other problems than getting into the exchange student selection business. Like everyone else involved, schools should work to understand the finely tuned nature of the exchange process jigsaw puzzle.
We receive questions from current or future exchange students asking for advice on … well, almost everything. An increasingly common question is whether students should ask for a particular state or region of the U.S. for their exchange year. We have seen an increase in the past couple of years in these “state requests” from student applicants, often for well-known states like California, New York, and Florida.
What does this mean? Is it a good idea?
What It Means
The idea makes sense at first glance. If you are going to spend 5 or 10 months somewhere, why not have some say about where? The reality, though, is more complex.
High school students come to the U.S. on one of two visas: F-1 or J-1. (We’ve written about some of the differences between F-1 and J-1 visas for high school exchange here and here.) If you have an F-1 visa, you must apply to and be accepted by a particular school. Many schools have academic and language requirements as well as limits on how many international students they can accept each year. F-1 students also generally pay tuition to the school they attend, even if it is a public school. Certainly, you can apply to schools in states that appeal to you. But even an F-1 visa student may face limitations on where to attend school.
Students coming to the U.S. on the more traditional J-1 visa generally do not choose where they will be placed. The exchange organization works to find a host family, and informs students where they will live once the host family has been screened for suitability and the local school has confirmed that there is an available exchange student opening. Some programs do allow students to express a preference for a particular state or region of the country (for example, “Southwestern U.S.”). We don’t have solid data, but it does seem that students may be taking advantage of this opportunity more often than in the past.
Is it a Good Idea?
The primary advantage that students and their families see in expressing a geographic preference is that the program will focus on that state or region when working to place the student. Students and their parents sometimes feel they know that certain regions in the country are better to live in — or else they feel they know which regions are worse to live in. Perhaps they have visited Florida on vacation, or perhaps a friend spent time in New York, and so they feel those are good places. They have not heard much if anything about Iowa or South Carolina, and don’t want to go somewhere they know nothing about. Parents want their child to spend the semester or year in an “interesting” location.
We think, sometimes, that both parents and teens are missing the big picture. What does it mean to be “interesting,” after all? The truth is that what people “know” is not always accurate. Teens and parents from other parts of the world may feel that they “know” that Texas could be interesting and a positive experience. They think they “know” that Missouri will be boring and a negative experience. They have heard of one and not the other — and as humans, we tend to make decisions based only on what we think we know. We all do this. It’s human nature not to reach out and embrace what we don’t know. Those misperceptions and misunderstandings, after all, are part of the reason why the U.S. Department of State so strongly encourages cultural exchanges.
Those misperceptions explain why we see that broad areas of the U.S. do not receive many state request preferences. California, New York, and Florida are considered cool; Iowa, Kentucky, and Arkansas are not. Students will often list states on either of the U.S. coasts, but avoid most states in-between. That’s a large percentage of the country going unnoticed — or being ignored.
It’s important to understand, when evaluating geographic preferences, that host families are not easy to find. For students who have listed preferences, the exchange organization will limit the search for a host family to that state or region, which means a smaller pool of possible host family opportunities. Could this work out so you are placed with a great host family exactly where you want to spend a year? Yes. Are you taking a risk? Absolutely.
In our experience, the likelihood of a successful exchange year can increase dramatically when a student and host family start out with similar interests. It’s part of the matching process that local coordinators work on for months before students arrive, seeking—as much as possible—to find the “right” family for each student. By telling the exchange organization not to look in most of the country, a student may miss being matched with an ideal host family based on interests and other characteristics.
It’s also important to recognize that students often do not end up going to the state or region they expressed a preference for. It’s a preference, not a guarantee. At some point during the placement season, the program will cancel the preferences to try and make sure they find a host family for every student.
You might ask: if every student does end up being placed, why are geographic preferences a risk?
As noted, a great match might have been passed over during the months that the geographic preferences were in effect.
Once the preference is dropped, many host families worry about choosing a student who has said they want to be placed somewhere else. They see it as a bad omen.
Students sometimes start their exchange year so disappointed that they didn’t get to live where they had requested that they have difficulty accepting their eventual host family and host community assignment.
We recommend that if you are considering a geographic preference, do some research. Ask yourself why you want to list a particular state or region. Research the state to find out more about it. Research states and regions you don’t know anything about to find out how great they can be. Don’t assume you know what you need to know.
Talk to your exchange program and make sure you understand the implications of selecting a geographic preference. Ask the hard questions! Even if you get the state you think you want, it might not be the place you think it is. If you like cities, you might think, “I’ll ask for New York so I can be near New York City, or I’ll ask for California so I can live in Los Angeles.” Yet the truth is that most host families do not live in larger cities. Students who ask for California generally end up in suburbs, small towns, or farming communities, perhaps hundreds of miles from San Francisco or Los Angeles. Students who ask for Florida generally don’t live near Disney World®. Students who ask for New York may be placed near the Canadian border.
In our experience, the best way to increase the chance of a successful exchange year is to take the experience as it comes. Exchange students are here to learn about U.S. culture, see what school is like for U.S. teenagers, and learn what it is like to be a normal teenager in ordinary U.S. families. If you’re willing to make the decision to leave your home for a semester or school year, you’ve shown that you are willing to leap into the unknown. You might end up in Alabama, Iowa, Oregon, or Arizona — and you might find out that those are interesting places, where you can have experiences you never dreamed about. Allow yourself to be open to the new experience. Make the leap!
In recent weeks, the political conversation in the U.S. has focused on fears of Muslim immigration — from Syria in particular, but some political candidates have cast a pretty wide “ban Muslims” net. This troubles us on a personal level; it also bothers us on a professional level, in connection with the work we do with international high school students and cultural exchange.
This week we received an email from an exchange student scheduled to come to the U.S. in January. “Emily” (not her real name) is coming through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad (YES) program. The YES program is funded by the U.S. Dept. of State; the program’s goal is to broaden cultural understanding by providing scholarships for students from countries with significant Muslim populations to come to the U.S. to attend high school for up to one year, live with a host family, and learn more about the American culture.
“Emily” expressed excitement about coming to the U.S., and looks forward to the American experience of living with a host family. At the same time, she is anxious, as many exchange students are prior to arrival. She is worried about what to do if she is “not on the same page” as her host mom on some things, and wonders what to do if her English isn’t as good as it should be.
But there’s an anxiety that sets her apart. As a girl wearing a headscarf, she is almost terrified. She worries she’ll be easy to identify as a Muslim.
I am a Muslim, and I am happy being me. But the misconception of Islam [being associated] with terrorism and violence seems terrifying for me. I have never been in a situation where people start looking at me with strange looks, children running away when seeing a girl with headscarf, being insulted with painful words.
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, in November, and in San Bernardino, California, two weeks ago, violence and threats of violence against Muslims in this country (or people perceived to be Muslim) have increased. Mosques have been vandalized, and a leading Presidential candidate has proposed that all Muslims be excluded from entering the United States.
Fear is leading to innocent people being harmed or being threatened for no reason other than their faith. Fear leads to otherwise good people acting wrongly – or to not taking any action, which can be just as wrong.
I can relate. We have raised two sons, now 21 and 23 years old. They are African-American, we are not. As young children they encountered the N-word. Store clerks ignored us. Other children said they would never amount to anything due to the color of their skin. As a family, we’ve taken special precautions when traveling in some parts of the U.S. We met with school officials when our children were young to address disciplinary actions that seemed disproportionate or directed only at them and not at white students. We’ve urged our sons to exercise extreme restraint in any dealings with law enforcement.
We’ve raised great young men. Yet we continue to worry every single day about what situation might come up in which “being black” could suddenly become a very bad thing. So receiving this letter from “Emily” hit home. I can only imagine what it would feel like to be a teenager who happens to be Muslim, who is seeing all this in the news just four weeks before she is scheduled to arrive in the U.S..
What steps can we as exchange program representatives suggest to “Emily”? Based on our experience with our own sons, and with dozens of exchange students of all nationalities and races, here is what we advised Emily to do:
1. Don’t assume that what you hear and see in the media is representative of all Americans. It’s not.
2. When you arrive in the U.S., be totally upfront with your host family and your exchange program coordinator about your concerns and fears. Engage them in dialogue and see what insights and suggestions they have.
3. Go out of your way to talk to your teachers at school, as well as to the school counselor, vice principal, and principal. Develop personal relationships as quickly as possible, and be upfront with them about your concerns. They can help.
4. As we recommend with all exchange students, try to make friends quickly at school. American teenagers in many parts of the U.S. may not know much about the rest of the world. You have a huge opportunity to help those American teenagers learn about other countries and other religions. Take advantage of that opportunity.
5. You may wish to reach out to a local Muslim group. Here in Portland, for example, we have in the past reached out to the Muslim Educational Trust, hoping to have them be available as a resource for our Muslim students. Such groups, or your local mosque if there is one in your host community, can give you insights and suggestions. Talk to your host family about reaching out to these resources so they don’t feel you’re going behind their backs. They should encourage your efforts.
6. If you feel anything inappropriate is taking place in your host family, your school, or your community due to your faith, immediately reach out to your exchange program coordinator for advice and support. Don’t hold it inside or share it only with your parents back home. It is your coordinator’s role to represent your interests in situations like this. If you don’t get the support you need from your exchange program coordinator, talk to your school counselor or someone else you trust. You can always call the exchange program’s national office directly or even the U.S. Department of State, if you feel that you are not getting the help that you need.
We truly hope “Emily” has a great exchange experience here in the U.S. As we have written in other blog posts, we think that the kind of cultural exchange in which Emily is participating is important. Exchanges involving truly different cultures and backgrounds – such as Muslim students like “Emily” – are perhaps even more important than exchanges involving teens from Europe, which arguably has more in common with the U.S. (and thus is more familiar). Programs such as the Kennedy-Lugar YES program are at the cutting edge of what inter-cultural exchange needs to be in the United States as we move into the 21st century.