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!



Thinking About Ghana

My 18-year-old son, Marcus, is spending a community service exchange semester in Ghana.  So I am trying to learn about the place he will be living for five months, beyond the basics such as it’s about the size of the state of Oregon (although with a population of some 25 million).

The other day I came across this link about Ghana I thought I would share.  It’s a video of Ghanaian ex-President Kufour showing off the sites and countryside of Ghana, with reporter Forrest Sawyer from Travel Channel serving as guest and narrator.  OK, so it’s tourist propaganda in a way, but what’s wrong with that?  It shows great footage of Accra (the capital of Ghana), wildlife in Mole National Park, Ashanti culture, and Kakum National Park.  Watching this video makes me want to visit this beautiful country for sure!

Kakum National Park’s famous canopy walkway  Copyright Chiappi Nicola Jan. 2007
Kakum National Park’s famous canopy walkway
Copyright Chiappi Nicola Jan. 2007

This is on top of the New York Times’ Jan. 11, 2013, article, “The 46 Places to Go in 2013,” which was published the day Marcus arrived in Ghana.  The New York Times has rated Accra #4 on this list, calling Accra a “buzzing metropolis” and noting that “the country has Africa’s fastest-growing economy and is also one of its safest destinations.”  I’m having trouble reminding myself about the cardinal rule for parents of exchange students — all exchange programs tell parents the same thing, which is “please wait until the end of your child’s exchange period, don’t interrupt their experience.”  I know, I know …. but I want to go!

Marcus, of course, is not out and about every day seeing fancy hotels, wildlife, or beautiful beaches.  He is living an “ordinary” life – that’s what exchange students do after all.  He is living with a host family in Accra and working as a tutor and school assistant; in other words, learning what it’s like to live in the “buzzing metropolis” as an ordinary person.  He is working in an after-school program run by BASICS International, a non-profit organization trying to fight poverty in Ghana by providing educational opportunities to primary school children.

BASICS International's "Nana House" where Marcus is working
BASICS International’s “Nana House” where Marcus is working

The organization’s main facility is located in Chorkor, an overpopulated fishing community on the outskirts of Accra.  The children attend school in the mornings and spend all afternoon at the BASICs after-school program.  Marcus and 4-5 other volunteers tutor students and help them with their homework.  The hope is that this will expand on the curriculum at their local school, introduce them to creative learning, such as art, music, dance, and sport, and in general help the children move up the education ladder and move out of the cycle of poverty.  Marcus has only been working a week, so he is still getting used to the daily activities — but he did bring a couple of lacrosse sticks with him and hopes to teach the children his own favorite sport!

Marcus arrived in the country two weeks ago, and he hasn’t seen any of the tourist sites yet.  But this weekend he is heading out with the other students and volunteers in his exchange program for a weekend of hiking and seeing some of the countryside outside the city of Accra.  I can’t wait to hear where he is headed. Kakum National Park? or Cape Coast Castle? or Shai Resource Reserve?  I guess I will have to write some more when I find out!


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.