At this time of year, my students begin to feel …. strange. They have been in the U.S. for almost 9 months, and have 2 months to go before they go back to …. well, what? That is the question; they don’t really know what will be waiting for them when they return. They miss their parents and friends, but they know they will miss their host families and new friends here.
So here they are, looking forward to going back home to Germany, Sweden, Italy, Hong Kong, etc., at the same time that they desperately want to hold on to the life they have developed here in Oregon. Most of my students admit that they are both happy and sad right now. “Life would be perfect,” one student recently told me, “if I could just move my U.S. high school and friends into my life back home. Then I would have the best of both of my worlds.”
It’s a tough concept for teens, who may not be adept at dealing with their emotions to begin with. They are happy they will see family and friends again, but they’ve become so much more independent after 5-10 months away from home. They are nervous about saying anything to their host parents or the friends they have made, because how can you tell your host family that you are happy to be leaving, or tell your friends that you are glad you will be seeing other friends who they don’t know? They begin to withdraw emotionally; after all, if you may not see your U.S. family and friends again, maybe you shouldn’t be close to them anymore.
Mixed emotions are normal.
That’s why I’ve been having a lot of conversations this month assuring my students: As students become “short timers,” they feel anticipation, accomplishment, happiness, excitement. They also feel fear (if they’re honest…), sadness, anxiety, and nervousness. No wonder they’re confused.
It’s all normal, although it may seem contradictory on first glance. But think about it. These are 15, 16, 17 year old teens, most of whom will have been away from home for close to a year. They have been to strange schools that are completely differently from their schools back home. They have been to that American creation called a pep rally (probably more pep rallies than they can count, actually). They have eaten food they never could have imagined eating. They have gained sisters and brothers, grandmas and grandpas, and maybe a dog or a cat. They have joined soccer and lacrosse teams; they have gone jet-skiing and ridden all-terrain vehicles. By the time they go home, they will have been to prom, maybe get a ride in a limousine, and perhaps walked across the stage at a high school graduation ceremony and been to an all-night graduation party.
In addition to the “fun” stuff, they’ve been through more difficult times. Some have had difficulty adjusting to the different lifestyles of their host families. Some have had trouble adjusting to different levels of freedom in their host family and community as compared to back home. Some have had to move to a new host family. Some have been ill during their exchange (and in some cases, too ill to remain in the U.S.). Some have been injured and have had emergency hospital visits. In other words — life has continued, both the enjoyable and fun parts of life and the harder parts as well.
Having a good “closing chapter”
While the mixed feelings are normal, there is some danger. The students tend to withdraw from host family and friends, which can cause conflict in their relationships and frustration in host families that are looking forward to the last couple of months with their students. I tell my students to try to be aware that they are feeling this way; that’s half the battle. I tell them to focus on keeping to the life patterns that they have developed here – their walk to school with a host sister, the video games they play with a younger host brother, the long dinner conversations they might have with their host mom, the political discussions they might have with a host grandpa. Of course, I remind them to continuing doing their house chores and continue to follow their host family’s rules; yes, I’m the program “authority” so they expect to hear that, but it also helps keep them focused on their routine and on their life here, which continues until the date they leave. Focus on the Wednesday track meets and that personal record you want to beat. Keep on playing lacrosse with your U.S. high school team, a sport you never would have dreamed of playing before you came to the U.S. It all still matters.
Here are some things exchange students can do to keep focused in their remaining time in their host country, and how host parents can help:
* Think about what you can do to make the rest of the year be extra special. Are there places in your city or general region you have not yet seen? (Host parents: think about a trip to the beach, or a visit to a tourist attraction that perhaps you have not visited in a while.)
* What about some special shopping trips – not just for yourselves (although, of course, that’s fine, too), but finding local souvenirs for friends and family back home? (Host parents: think about a “mother-daughter” or “father-son” trip to help your student find presents that will be representative of your region.)
* What about a going away party with all the people you have grown close to? (Host parents: offer to host a get-together, even if your student hasn’t mentioned one.)
* Don’t withdraw from your host family or friends. Continue to do the things you have done with them, go places with your host siblings and friends; continue to be a member of your host family and community. (Host parents: be understanding, but also be firm that your student is still expected to be a member of the family. Talk to your program representative for advice.)
* Make a collage for your host family – put together some photos from your exchange semester or year showing things you have done, places you have been. Add some special effects, put it all together in a frame.
Before you know it, you will be back home, and your parents won’t recognize you…..