Tips for Exchange Students – I’m Ready to Go Home, I’m not Ready to Go Home

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…..

Alex - Fall 2010 at beginning of his exchange year
Alex – Fall 2010 at beginning of his exchange year


Alex - June 2011, on his way home to Germany
Alex – June 2011, on his way home to Germany

Top Ten Questions I Get About Hosting Exchange Students

I get quite a few questions at this time of year about what are the expectations for a family looking to host a high school exchange student.  So I thought it might be the right time to go over some of those questions.


How long is the typical exchange experience for students?

High school students coming to the U.S. to study come for one or two semesters; students generally arrive in August in time for school to start, and leave at the end of the semester (either at the end of the calendar year or towards the end of January, depending on the location) or at the end of the school year in May or June.  Some students come for the second semester only.


What makes a good host family?

Host families are volunteers and represent the diversity of American culture with varied economic, religious and racial backgrounds. Many host families do not have children, while others have adult children who no longer live at home.  Some have teens, some have young children.  Host families undergo a screening process to make sure that they are suited for an exchange experience.  To become a host family, one adult in the household must be at least 25 years old.


Do I have to have a teenage son or daughter to be a host?

No, you don’t have to have a teenager to be a host family.  Many host families have young children, adult children, or no children.  In the program I’ve been working with, more than 20 percent of host parents do not have children of their own, and another 25 percent have children under the age of 12.



What are the expectations for a host family? 

Host families provide room, board, and a family environment.  “Room” requires a bed, storage space, and a place somewhere in the home to study, but does not necessarily require a separate bedroom.  “Board” requires three meals/day and reasonable snacks.  “Family environment” means the student is a member of your family, not a guest!  They go shopping with the family, they go to the farmers’ market with the family, and they go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving with the family.  And if they stay out past curfew, they can be grounded like any other teen member of the family.


Are host families paid?

The U.S. government does not allow payments to host families.  Host families are eligible to receive a charitable tax deduction on their U.S. federal tax return of $50/month for each month the student lives in the home.


How expensive is it to host a student? 

Host families are required to cover costs associated with at-home meals, any packed school lunches, transportation to reasonable social and extra-curricular activities, and shelter.  Students bring their own pocket money to cover routine expenses including cell phone bills, school expenses, clothing and recreation such as trips to the movies. If the student travels with the host family, the student is expected to pay for any airfare or additional hotel costs, etc.  Students are required to have their own medical insurance and pay for any medical expenses and insurance copayments.


How are students selected?

Students must go through a screening process for motivation, character, grades, and proficiency in written and spoken English language skills.  Student applications include a letter of recommendation, academic transcripts, an essay written in English, and short-answer questions about the student’s family life.  Per U.S. Department of State regulations, students must be between the ages of 15 to 18 to take part in the one-semester or academic year program. 


How are students prepared for life in an American home?

Before traveling to the United States, students will attend orientation meetings to learn about living with a host family, cultural aspects of American life and practical advice and tips related to travel logistics.  The exchange program will probably also provide students and their families with information on American customs and traditions.  Another orientation occurs shortly after students arrive in the country.  These connections help get your relationship started and help prepare the student for the lifestyle of his or her host family.


Are families allowed to contact students before they arrive?

Once a placement has been finalized with all host family, student, and school authorizations signed and filed, the host family and student can contact one another so that they can establish a relationship before the student arrives in the United States. Contact can be occasional emails, telephone calls, or (more common in today’s world) by Skype or other online connections.


What if it does not work out?

All approved exchange programs are required to have a support system for counseling and advice.  As a host family, you should choose your program carefully; make sure you feel comfortable with the local coordinator or liaison, since it is likely that this is the person who will continue to be your primary advisor and contact point.  If problems arise between the host family and student, the local coordinator should be available to provide support, with guidance from the program’s national office.  Ask your coordinator tough questions: are they available evenings and weekends if you have a problem?  What happens if the student or host family needs to call late at night with a significant problem?  If it turns out that differences cannot be resolved, the coordinator should be able to help the student transition to a new home – not something people want to think about, but it’s important to know that help is available.

Why You Should Host an Exchange Student – Yes, You!

“International exchanges are not a great tide to sweep away all differences, but they will slowly wear away at the obstacles to peace as surely as water wears away a hard stone.”

– Former President George H.W. Bush

This time of year, the 100 or so high school exchange student programs in the U.S. are beginning to seek host families for the coming academic year for both one semester and full academic year students.  The process feels (almost…) comfortable right now, as compared to how it will feel over the summer as the August federal government deadline for completing all the necessary paperwork looms ever closer.

About 28,000 students come to the U.S. each year for youth exchange programs of varying lengths.  Not surprisingly, their motivations vary.  They want to improve their English-speaking skills.  They want to establish their independence from their parents.  They want to see the America of Hollywood and the streets of New York.  If they don’t have siblings, they would like one.  They want to share the beauty and complexity of Japanese or Italian cooking.  They want to play American football and be on the cheerleading team.  They want to travel and see new places.

They want to live life as an American teenager.

Student educational exchanges became popular after World War II.  The U.S. government, and others, encouraged such exchanges to increase participants’ understanding and tolerance of other cultures, as well as improve language skills and broaden young people’s social horizons.  The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961 (more commonly called the Fulbright-Hays Act) further demonstrated that the U.S. considered international student exchange programs an important element of U.S. diplomacy; the Fulbright program continues today as one of the most well-known and prestigious government-supported international exchange programs.  In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton extolled the importance of international exchange programs and encouraged American families to continue to host exchange students.

Families who welcome these exchange students into their homes and hearts not only enrich the life of an exceptional young person, they help build people-to-people connections that span the globe and last of a lifetime.

– Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Summer 2010

Fifty-plus years since exchange programs were launched, in an era where people on one side of the world can share in the experience of an event happening on the other side of the world in real time via Facebook and Twitter — does the concept of putting teens and young adults into the homes of American families still make sense?

I would argue that yes, it does.  I think cultural exchanges, including hosting high school exchange students, offer benefits far beyond being “a good citizen.” Beyond actually learning about another culture and how things might be done differently on a daily basis, it challenges one’s assumptions about other cultures, teaches communication skills, and helps develop patience and flexibility.

Few experiences can teach you – and your children — the small but critical differences between cultures as living with someone from another country.

Some things seem to be the same everywhere; teens everywhere, it seems, groan when asked to do their chores before they go out with friends.  But many things are different, sometimes subtly so.  Having someone in your home, over time, makes you see some of those subtle differences – and seeing those differences changes you.  “The German culture is very much like the American culture,” is an opinion I have heard.  Perhaps it is, on some levels; certainly, if you compare either German or U.S. cultures to those of Japan, Thailand, or South Africa, you would reasonably conclude that Germany is more like America than it is like Thailand.

Yet there are differences, even between cultures that may seem similar on the surface.  Every year, we patiently work with our German students to explain to them that what’s considered normal speech in Berlin or Hamburg can come across as impolite when transported to Portland, Boise, or St. Louis.   We work with our host families to help them understand that their German student is not being rude in the way they speak; rather, he or she is just saying things as they occur to them, a direct translation from German – and what is acceptable or “normal” in German speech may come across as abrupt when translated directly into English.  In the case of dress, we work with students to help them understand that what is considered an appropriate teen dress style in their own country may not be appropriate in their U.S. high school and community.

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.”

The benefits to America children – both our own children and others who are attending school with exchange students – are significant in ways that are difficult (if not impossible) to quantify.  It’s not something adults often think about.  Even school administrators don’t always think through how exposure to other cultures can benefit students in their districts.  Think about communication for just a moment. Although your children will, of course, speak English to their exchange student, the potential for miscommunication is huge when you are talking to non-native English speakers.  The processes of learning how to re-shape your thoughts, speak more clearly, and make sure what you intend to say is what is heard are important skills.  Think about your assumptions about other cultures – your assumptions, and those of your children and their friends, about another country’s foods, habits, or attitudes.  Think about relationships, and learning how to adapt, become more cooperative, and developing an ability to be flexible.

You *do* have something to offer.

Many families tell me they can’t host because “we aren’t a good host family.”  People assume they must be outgoing, that they need to be a family that travels a lot, or that they must be a family that goes to museums, events, and activities all the time.  People assume that it is critical for a host family to live in a big city so it will be “fun” for a teen, that it is important to provide a student with his or her own bedroom, or that they must live near the high school.  Many people assume you must have a high school student in your home in order to host a high school exchange student. The list of “why we’re not a good family” goes on, but most of these pre-conceptions simply aren’t accurate.  Is it nice to travel with your student? Of course, because it’s fun to share your city, your state, or your country’s beautiful places.  But not everyone travels much.  Is it nice to live next to the high school?  Of course.  But let’s face it, most people don’t.  Is it “fun” for a teen to live in the city?  Sure. But nice people who have the desire, capability, and emotional intelligence to be a host family live everywhere.

The truth is, there is no typical American host family, because there is no single “typical” American family.  American host families have teens and don’t have teens.  They have young children and toddlers.  They have children who are now grown and living elsewhere, or no children at all.  They have dogs or not, large homes or small ones.  Single parents are families, as are grandparents.  American families live in large cities, suburban areas, and in small communities.  The students are not here to travel, have a tour guide, just have “fun,” or to have an easy life with a five-minute school commute.  They’re here to go to school, learn about our country, live with a family, and to learn what life is like for an American teen.  They can play on the soccer team or have a role in the school play no matter where they live and no matter what the composition of their host family.

The key to hosting a student is not in who is in your family, but who you are as people.  Good host families are people who want to share their own culture and community, and learn about someone else’s.  Good host parents look to give their families a glimpse of the world and introduce them to new customs and cultures.

Does this mean it will be a “piece of cake”?

Can I promise you will have the perfect student, who will fit seamlessly into your life and home, with no effort?  No, although sometimes it does happen that way.  Can I promise it will always be fun? That would be silly, as anyone who deals with teens knows. Having someone you never met before live in your home as a member of your family can be hard work. But hard work leads to rewarding experiences.

You won’t be alone; the exchange programs all have program support mechanisms.  You can choose the program you want to work with, and any potential host family should ask about a program’s support network before committing to hosting a student.  It’s an adventure – a family bonding, “family team building,” cross-cultural adventure.

Practical Tips for Exchange Student Host Families

1. Make a copy of your student’s passport and insurance information.

For many of us, our first thought when thinking about “teens” and “important documents” is that those words do not belong in the same sentence.  As host parents, we used to immediately put our exchange students’ passports into the house safe.  Revised federal regulations don’t allow that anymore; students must have possession of their passports and visas.  I now recommend that host parents and students find a safe place in the student’s bedroom where the student can keep his or her passport and other important documents.  I would make a copy of the student’s passport, visa, and insurance information.  Carry the insurance information with you, as you would carry in your wallet insurance information for your own child.  If your student has an accident on the ski slopes, you don’t want to be calling all over creation trying to find the student’s insurance ID and group number while he is screaming in pain.

2. Don’t give your exchange student preferential treatment; treat your student as a member of the family.

This can be really hard for new host parents to do.  The natural tendency is to treat the student as a guest – give them leeway, not too much responsibility, and maybe the rules for your own children shouldn’t apply to them.  After all, they are used to different rules in their own home and you should respect that, right?  If your own children brought a friend home for a day or two, you wouldn’t expect that friend to obey all your house rules or to do house chores.  The same should apply with the exchange student, right?

The whole family - 2006
The whole family – 2006

Emphatically, no!  We do respect that students are used to different rules and customs, of course.  Your program liaison/coordinator can help advise your student on what kinds of rules to expect in a family in your community, and can advise you on how to help the student adjust to your rules and lifestyle.  That’s the key: an exchange student needs to learn how to follow your rules as a member of your family in your community.  This may not always be easy for the teen, and we do need to allow for an adjustment period.  But in the end: high school exchange students are not here on a vacation.  They are here to go to an American school, live in a real American family, and learn what it is like to live as an American teen, also so they can really get to know our culture.  (The same, in reverse, applies to American students going to other countries on exchange programs; it works both ways.)  Successful host families are able to move quickly beyond the “what a nice young man he is” phase to the “take out the garbage, please, and oh yes, don’t forget to walk the dog before you go to the movies!” phase.

3. Contact your exchange student’s teachers so they know who the host family is and can contact you if needed.

U.S. government regulations require that high school exchange students pass all their classes.  Teens often think this will be easy, and may be genuinely dumbfounded when a progress report arrives at their host family’s home with a D or an F in a given class.  The exchange programs take failing grades seriously, and in rare cases a student may face an early return to her home country if she cannot keep up.  As with our own children, communication with and information from the teachers and school contributes to a student’s success.  If you know that your student is having difficulty in a class at school, you can better advise your student on what to do.  Consult with your program liaison to see if he or she has some advice and together you can make a plan for the student’s success.

4. Set expectations for your exchange student about chores. It’s OK to assign jobs, and it’s a good idea!

Jorge (Colombia) doing yard work in 2006
Jorge (Colombia) doing yard work in 2006

Some host parents are hesitant to assign chores or regular jobs to their students.  They feel it’s an imposition – “it’s not like he’s my own son, after all.”  (Answer: yes, he is, for the time he is living in your home!)  Some host parents feel that if they don’t have express, specified tasks for their own children, it’s not reasonable to start an express list for the exchange student.  (Answer: try to remember that your own children have figured out what’s expected after 10, 12, or 15 years; your exchange student does not have that family knowledge.)  Some host parents feel that it’s not fair to make a student mow the lawn on top of getting used to a new culture, immersion in English, a new school, and a new community.  (Answer: yes, it is “fair”; it’s what they signed up for! They’re here to learn what American teens’ life is like, and that may include mowing the lawn, emptying the dishwasher, and cleaning the bathroom.)

Successful host families understand that communicating expectations is critical to setting up a relationship with a new member of the family – and that continuing to communicate and talk about one’s lifestyle and customs will help, too.  The students want to help, and let’s be honest – most of them are used to walking the dog, emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, or keeping their room (reasonably) tidy.  There may be cultural differences around the world — but “chores” is a universal!

5. Encourage your exchange student to do school activities, sports. Great way to meet people, learn school spirit!

Host parents are sometimes hesitant to require that their student do something outside the academic requirements of the high school; they may feel it’s not their place to require something of a child who is not their own.  The student may be hesitant, too, to sign up for something.  This is especially true if he or she has never done the activity before.  Even if he has participated in a sport or other activity, he may be nervous about signing up here in the U.S., not knowing how U.S. schools organize teams, or what the expectations are in an American high school sport, music group, or theater/drama club.  It’s certainly our job as parents – and host parents, and local coordinators — to encourage independence and a move towards adult decision-making in our students.  The truth, however, is that teens sometimes may need a nudge in that direction.  For an exchange student, getting involved in a non-academic high school activity can be a critical step towards becoming part of the high school community.  It’s hard – not impossible, certainly, but hard – to make friends in the classroom itself.  So encourage (or even require) your student to do something outside the classroom, whether it be joining the school soccer team, signing up for a chess club, joining a martial arts class, or signing up for an acting class through the parks and recreation department.

Practical Tips for High School Exchange Students

I sometimes tweet a “tip of the day” for exchange students or host families.  Here are my tips from January for students, with some thoughts on each.  I’ll post more tips from time to time, both for students and for families.

Have a meaningful conversation today with someone in your host family.

Start a conversation on something you think might be interesting.  Don’t agonize about this, just do it! Talk about something that happened at school, even if it’s a small thing – the goal here is to get the conversation going.  “Meaningful” does not mean profound or wise; it just means a “real” conversation. Are people dressed differently at your high school as compared to back home? Was there an assembly? A fire drill? Talk about how good the food at school was today – or how awful it was! Pick a subject from the newspaper, and talk about that.  Ask your host parents something about their country or the local community.  Is a new bridge being built in your city? Ask about the bridge’s history.  Is a new store being built? Ask what was there before.  Does your high school look new? Ask your host parents or host siblings how old the school is.  Tell them about your school back home – how big it is, how many students, is it in the city, how long does it take you to go to school.

Learn a new word in your host country’s language each day.

Think about words you need to know in your classes at school, words that would be helpful in talking about your favorite sport or activity, or words that would help you talk to your host family about something they do in their daily lives.  Put a word on the refrigerator every day in your host language.  Post your new words on a bulletin board in your bedroom.  Ask your host parents what this means and what that means – don’t worry, you won’t offend them!

Offer to make dinner for your host family one day a week.

Parents LOVE not having to cook dinner.  It’s not that hard, either, you can start with something simple.  Spaghetti is easy to make and everyone loves spaghetti.  You could make some soup, chili, or super-duper sandwiches.  Talk to your parents back home and get some recipes and make something from your home country.

Ask your host parents if you can take the dog for a walk — it’s a small thing but they will appreciate it.

Most exchange students have a few chores here and there – putting dishes into the dishwasher, cleaning up the kitchen, doing your own laundry, vacuuming, and so on.  Offer to do something you’re not required to do once sometimes — it will work wonders.  People really appreciate it when you volunteer to do something! If the family has a dog, taking the dog for a short walk is a great way to make friends with the dog.  Are you supposed to help out with feeding the dog at mealtimes? No? Offer to do it! Clean the cat litter! Shovel the sidewalk or driveway if it snows! Rake up the leaves in the yard! (You get the idea!)

A tip for when you go out with friends in the evening: Tell your host parents who you are with at all times. It’s hard but it’s important!

Being an exchange student isn’t all fun and games, as those who have been here since August now know. So this is a more serious item.  This “rule” is hard for exchange students coming to the U.S. from many countries to both understand and accept.  Many students in Europe, for example, are used to much more personal freedom in their daily lives than teens in the U.S.  So it comes across as strange to European 16 and 17 year olds to have to tell their parents they are leaving Joe’s house to go to Nancy’s house, or asking permission to go from someone’s house to the movies.  If you are one of my students, I tell you “it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.”  We know that getting used to a different way of life is tough, especially if the rules seem stricter than what you are used to back home.  But we also know that it’s important for our students to follow these rules.  You’re here as a guest of the U.S. government, so you have a special status.  Your host family has taken on the responsibility of caring for you, and they take that seriously!

Never be afraid to try something new. That’s why you are living in another country after all!

Things my students have done this year that they have not done before:

  • Air ballooning
  • Skiing
  • Snowboarding
  • Cooking
  • Target shooting
  • Scuba diving
  • Para-sailing
  • Lacrosse
  • Acting in a high school play
  • Carving a pumpkin at Halloween
  • Learning Japanese
Alex on his "fun cycle" at the Oregon coast (2010)
Alex on his “fun cycle” at the Oregon coast (2010)

I’m sure when my students read this they will remind me about all the things I haven’t listed — because there’s a whole lot more, and we’re only halfway through the exchange year.  If you’ve done something while on your exchange that’s not listed, let me know!  Take risks (well, reasonable ones!).  Do something you’ve never done before!  Be brave!