Why Do We Host Exchange Students? Reading Recommendations

For today, I was originally going to write wise words from my experience as a host parent to explain why we do it — why some of us spend all this time and effort to bring an unknown teenager into our lives for up to 10 months (and some of us do this more than once).  But recently I’ve seen several articles in different places that say it just perfectly.

So for today, I’m going with some reading recommendations:

5 Lessons I Learned Hosting an Exchange Student


My Third Son


And these two, from May 2011, as students were getting ready to return to their home countries:

Hosting an Exchange Student


Host a Foreign Exchange Student. You Will Not Regret It, If You Live


 Read their stories – I can’t say it any better.


The Air is Full of Excitement – or Are They Bored to Death?

August – the time of excitement and glamour as the exchange students arrive in the U.S. and elsewhere for their semester or year of adventure.  What could be more fabulous than … wait, sitting around the house and watching TV?

We have two exchange students who are starting the year with us.  Viet Anh (Germany) is temporary; we’re his “welcome” family, and we’ll be looking for a “regular” family for him.  But in the meantime, we’re his host family.  He has arrived, and I suspect he is a bit bored – I’m working this week, my husband is out of town, one son is at lacrosse camp, and the older son is taking summer classes.  That doesn’t leave much room for exciting trips across the state – our level of excitement is taking a dog for a walk into town.  Our other exchange student, Pim (Netherlands), arrives next week; he is probably jumping up and down counting every minute and driving his parents crazy until he boards his plane for the U.S.

Is this a fundamental difference between the two teens?  Not at all.  With no school in session, no local friends of their own, and most parents working, students can get bored in August.  Host parents who can’t take the time off will feel guilty if they have to work – if you are reading this, try to get over that!  Check with your exchange program and see if your student can get together with one or more nearby other students for “play dates.”  That’s what we’ll be doing over the next few days (OK, we don’t call it a “play date” – not out loud, anyway….).  Even if the teens are just hanging out being bored together, it’s more fun, and they can exchange the few stories they’ve begun to gather and see that there are many different versions of a “typical American family.”

Over the next few weeks, the rest of the exchange students will begin to arrive at their host families.  For at least a few weeks they will feel like guests, and act like guests – quiet, polite, hesitant around the house.  Host families are excited and want to show the students around their community, their town, and the state, and we will hear reports of some interesting trips and excursions.  But we will also hear stories of students playing hours of X-box or watching a lot of TV.  We can’t entertain them all day, says a parent.  You’re absolutely correct, we tell them.  It will even out over time.  August – the time of contradiction, of too much excitement and too much empty time.

So, while we have this empty time, we try to make the most of it.  We give our students a copy of the school’s curriculum book to start choosing classes (did that today in our house, everyone!).  We print a copy of our house rules (ditto! I’ll report back on what he thinks about them, ha!).  We suggest they read the local newspaper and report back in the evening on a story they read (next on my list).   We take them with us when we walk the dog and get them talking, asking them about their family back home and what their school is like.   We ask them questions about how their parents expect them to manage money and try to get a sense of their financial situation. Some will have unlimited budgets, some will be on tight budgets – we want to find out if they have shown up in your household with a debit/credit card (nice) or a wad of cash (not so nice).  We teach them to use the local bus system (haven’t done that yet, although Viet Anh was asking about it!).  Maybe he and others could go somewhere on the bus while I’m working, we’ll see.

We try to get the students to use the time to practice their English.  Watching a lot of TV isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Many students will be in shock that their English is not as fluent as they thought it was, and they may panic when they cannot understand the conversation around them.  For a few weeks, they may nod at anything and everything said by the people around them.  They will refuse to answer the phone and have trouble understanding the English if they must talk on the phone.  So let them watch TV – it will help them recognize different voices!

August – the honeymoon phase of the exchange experience.  So let’s enjoy the time, boredom and all, before the boundary-pushing “what do you mean I really have to follow the rules” phase sets in!

What’s With the Signs and Balloons at the Airport?

Tomorrow, July 30th, is arrival day for our first group of students, the “camper kids” – the exchange students who have been at an optional language and culture camp before joining their host families.  The campers come to the U.S. several weeks to a month earlier than non-campers and tomorrow the first group will be leaving their two-week camp to head for their new homes.  Shortly before noon Pacific time, excited and nervous kids will begin to arrive at the Portland airport to start their high school semester or year in this country.  They will be met by people they have never met.  They may not even have spoken to their host families; perhaps the only communication has been an email or two.  Yet these strangers will meet these nervous, hesitant teens with excited happy screams, welcoming balloons or signs, open arms, and the kind of the enthusiasm usually reserved for members of one’s family.

In fact, in a way these teens *are* members of these strangers’ families.  By the stroke of a pen – well, and some required paperwork, of course – these students are now part of their new host families for up to 10 months.  These “stranger” mothers will register their new sons or daughters at high school, make sure they brush their teeth, and worry when they go out at night.  These “stranger” dads will transport them to soccer practice, make sure they eat their vegetables, and take them to a football game.  These “stranger” brothers and sisters will take them around town, show them the local sights, introduce them to the American concept of front-seat rivalry known as “shotgun,” and squabble over who gets the X-box first.

Easy, right? Well…not exactly.  There’s a bit of an untraveled road to discover first, and there may be some potholes along the way.  But there’s fun and excitement in that road of discovery, and an unparalleled opportunity to share one’s life and culture.  Let’s get to it! The 2011-2012 year begins!

Hello from the Exchange Mom

I’m a local exchange program coordinator.  My husband and I work with teenaged exchange students between the ages of 15-18 who come to the United States for one semester or a full academic year to live with an American family and go to high school here.  We help find host families, “match” students to a family, and supervise/guide/mentor students and host families during the exchange year.  We’re also a host family ourselves, having shared our home with close to a dozen students over the last eight years.

Two weeks ago, I Skyped with one of our new “supervisees” – a high school exchange student from Italy, getting ready to leave a few hours later to start his year-long adventure to the United States.

And in that ordinary conversation with a boy and his mother, it hit me.  In just a few hours, while I would be comfortably sitting on my deck in the sunshine, or walking one of the dogs and relaxing, he would get up in the dark at 2 AM, leave his home to head for Rome, and from there fly into the unknown.  How many of us could have done the same when we were 15, 16, or 17?

So I would like to start off my own new blog adventure with thanks to the people who have made this all possible:

To our new students — the ones we are supervising this year and the ones who will live with us in our home – welcome!

To the parents who are sending their children off into our care — thank you for your faith in us.  We will do our best to guide them.

To the host parents who are opening their homes to the thousands of teenaged exchange students headed this way and to the former host families with whom we have worked — many thanks for sharing your world and life with someone you have met only on paper or through a few awkward emails.

And last — but never, never last! — to our former students, both the ones we’ve supervised and the ones who have lived in our home and who are now members of our own extended family — thank you for being you and always reminding us what it’s all about.

Welcome to the world of high school foreign exchange students, their host families, and their families back home.  We’ll be posting throughout the exchange year on issues related to the students’ settling-in process, offer tips on how to help them adjust, and suggest ways to develop a relationship that will hopefully last far longer than the 5 or 10 months that the students live in the U.S.  Visit us here on our blog, and join us on the adventure.

–Laura, the Exchange Mom