“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.