I’ve been hosting exchange students for over 20 years, and I’ve shared with many of them my passion for astronomy. My wife and I even tried to find the perfect student with whom to share the 2017 eclipse by choosing a student who specifically said she was interested in astronomy, though we were defeated in that plan by an inconvenient school boundary change.
This year, we didn’t focus on specific interest areas and instead picked a student based on other criteria. Even so, we offered her the opportunity to come with us to the Oregon Star Party (OSP) which was taking place shortly after her planned arrival in August. The OSP is one of the premier dark-sky observing events in North America. It takes place in central Oregon, far from any city’s bright lights, and attracts some 500-700 people each year. Our new student agreed, and we brought Malina to the U.S. a couple of weeks early to enable her to attend.
She arrived a week prior to the Star Party. We took her out for a quick observing party with friends, where she got her first look through a telescope — her first look ever.
She loved it.
At OSP, conditions were tough, as we experienced our hottest daytime temperatures in the history of the event, as well as smoke which marred the clarity of the night skies. Malina persevered, and familiarized herself with the night sky, the operation of the scope, and the use of charts with impressive speed.
The OSP offers awards for observers who record at least 20 of 25 suggested objects on a list. Malina took a look at the 2017 list and knocked out the first 10 objects the first night. Before the end of the Star Party, she’d earned her pins for the 2017 and 2018 lists.
I am convinced that she’s found a lifelong pursuit and that this exchange year has already changed her life. I am yet again reminded that this is what exchange is all about. By sharing our lives and our families and our interests with these kids, we alter the course of their lives for the better . . . what an honor and a privilege it is!
Lars D. H. Hedbor is an amateur historian, home brewer, astronomer, fiddler, linguist, and baker. His fascination with the central question of how the populace of the American Colonies made the transition from being subjects of the Crown to citizens of the Republic drives him to tell the stories of those people, in the pages of his Tales From a Revolution novels. Hedbor lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Jennifer Mendenhall, and four of their six daughters. Lars and Jenn are exchange student coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year. Lars’ previous post for The Exchange Mom was An Exchange Student Wedding in 2016.
I thought our readers might like to take a look at the attached short article. It has some good ideas to help new exchange students (who often think Americans are Just Plain Weird because of all the “small talk” we do). Students can ask host families some of these questions, and host families can help start conversations with their students with these topics, too.
On August 12, 2016, I arrived in California. I still remember when I got off the plane, seeing unfamiliar faces holding a sign that has my name on it. I was nervous and terrified that they wouldn’t like me; I thought it would feel awkward to live with a family that I had never met before.
We see similar worries from our own students every year:
“I am worried. I don’t think my host family and I have anything in common. I won’t have any host siblings.”
“I am so nervous. My host family has small children and I am not used to that. What if the kids don’t like me? What if I make mistakes, will my host parents get mad at me?”
It’s not just the students who worry that their host family won’t like them. Host families worry just as much. We hear from parents who worry that their student won’t like the food, or that they’ll be homesick and the host parents won’t know how to comfort them. We hear from host siblings worried that their new host sister or brother won’t be able to make friends — or the opposite, that their student will be so popular that the host sibling will be left out.
Everyone is excited … and everyone worries. Here’s what we tell them.
First — you are not alone. It’s exciting to step off the plane into a new adventure, and it’s exciting to host someone from another country and culture. It’s normal to be nervous about how it will work on an everyday basis. Recognize your feelings and talk about them to each other. It’s ok for students to admit they’re nervous about leaving their home for 5 or 10 months. Some of our host families, too, have admitted that they’re nervous. Clear communication — and sharing feelings — is important, even at this early stage.
Second — All students have this idea in their heads about what their host family will be like. Then the host family and the community turn out to be something different, and the student panics. Host families do the same thing! A student is different from what the family thought they saw in the student’s profile and the family wonders “will it be ok?” Students and host families express surprise to their coordinator: “I had information about my host family, and they are not like what I read about,” or “My student is not the way he seemed in his profile.”
But think about it … for students, is it really a surprise that a family you’ve never met is more complex and different from what a one-page summary told you? For families, is it really a surprise that a three- or four-page application didn’t reflect the whole picture, or that a teenager’s likes and dislikes may have changed in the 6 or 9 or more months since an application was filed? For everyone — is it really a surprise that people from another country act differently from what you are used to?
Some students are nervous because their host parents don’t have children in the home. Some students worry about whether they will have enough privacy and personal time because their host families have toddlers. Some students are nervous because their host family lives in a big city; some students are nervous because their host family lives in a small town or on a farm. Families worry for the same reasons: a student doesn’t have siblings so may have difficulty getting used to having a host brother, or comes from a small school and will be attending a school of 1,500 students here in the U.S., or will have to get used to not having public transportation just outside. They want to be the best family possible for their student, and they want to help their student have a successful and fun experience. They worry about whether their plans to do that will work.
The basic thing to remember is just this: you don’t know each other yet. Be open to the experience. It takes time to get to know people! It’s hard to do that before you get here, and it’s not possible to do it in a week or two. Before students arrive, you can text, email, and Skype — but you won’t really get to know each other until you have lived with each other for a while.
Students and families may be worried about the whole adventure. A semester or academic year is a long time to live with someone you have never met. Now that the time is approaching, it feels real. Years ago, shortly before I left for my study-abroad semester in Switzerland, I, too, started to worry. I didn’t know French … maybe I shouldn’t go? I didn’t have a specific schedule since I was doing an independent study project … maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all. Our own son began asking similar questions almost five years ago as the departure date approached for his six-month exchange program in Ghana. What if I don’t get along with my host family, he said; they don’t have teenagers. Maybe it’s too expensive, he said. Maybe I shouldn’t go, he said.
I went, of course. So did our son. There were challenges, of course. But challenges are part of life, and now I can’t imagine not having gone. Our son, too, values his experience and is glad we didn’t let him change his mind.
Being an exchange student — or hosting one — is exciting, fascinating, and an amazing experience that you will all remember forever. It also takes work. Very few students have a perfect fit into their host family and their host community from Day One with no issues or conflicts. There’s no magic wand to build instant relationships. Everything takes time. That’s one of the reasons your coordinators and your exchange program are here — we want to help you build relationships and help you feel like a member of our community.
We’ll close with this statement from Mariam, the student we quoted at the beginning of this post, on how she felt at the end of her exchange year:
Now they are my second family. I have learned how to support each other no matter what, and how to always be helpful and positive. They made my exchange year way better. They showed me what it means to be a member of an American family. I am so thankful and blessed for having them in my life.
We have worked with high school exchange students for 10 years now — 14 if you count the several years we were “just” host parents and not coordinators! Working with teens going through cultural shock and host families going through the excitement of learning about another culture can be exhilarating. It can be frustrating. It can, at times, be disappointing. This year, two of our 39 students have had to return home early — and we’re just halfway through the academic year. A few students in our group have changed host families, each situation being completely different. Several more students and host families have concerns we are helping to (hopefully…) resolve successfully.
So why do we bother?
We bother because of the relationships we develop with students (and host families) every year. Not every student becomes a friend for life; that would not be a realistic expectation. But enough do so that we see what the experience can do for them, their host families, their teachers, and others. Teachers understand; they teach for the students who care — and for those who eventually learn to care.
I’ve included here just a few examples of those relationships. These are students who “pushed back” and students who did not. The common thread is that after the fact, they could all see some of what they gained during their exchange. (I’ve changed their names for privacy reasons.)
Sean lived with us for about six weeks at the beginning of the school year while we found him a permanent home in our school district. During those six weeks, he learned that we loved good European chocolate and Haribo gummies. Every year since, he and his family have sent a small annual Christmas gift containing a box of chocolate and a couple of packages of Haribo treats. He and his parents include a Christmas card with a “happy holidays” note.
This year — five years later — Sean included a hand-written note:
“It now has been five years since you allowed me to stay at your home, and yet I still don’t know how to properly express my gratitude for your many acts of kindness, even though I do think that my English has improved at least a bit!
And even though I probably gave you quite a bit of sorrow with my lack of discipline, I hope I was also able to leave behind something positive (or a deeper appreciation of Haribo!). So, once more, I hope you are all doing well and your wishes come true.”
Maria faced some struggles in adjusting to life in the U.S., and had to change host families during her year. By the end of the year, though, this is what she had to say:
I graduated from an American high school that became my family throughout this year. Many people say I went on a vacation. All of those people are wrong. What I learned is not comparable to what a year of regular Italian school could have taught me. I learned the meaning of setting your mind to a goal and work to reach it, I learned how to be a great leader in the community, I learned to help the others in rough times, I learned that school is not just about grades and studying but also about getting involved and participating, I learned that you don’t need to have expensive bags and shoes to be a cool person. All you need is yourself and a lot of positivity to transmit to people. I learned that is not cool making fun of people, I learned how much joy can give you volunteering and supporting the special ones, I learned that you always have to learn….
Andrea lived in a small town in Oregon in a host family with two small children. As she left, she wrote:
The past ten months have been the best time of my life so far and never ever will I forget the memories I made here or the friends I’ve made. I love you all so so much and words cannot explain how much it hurts me to leave this wonderful place. … I know for sure that my way will take me back here sooner or later – after all, I have family here now and lots of amazing friends. I want to especially thank my family for having me this year and making me feel less like “the exchange student” but like “our family member.” … I will never forget how [my two little sisters] went from calling me their exchange student to their sister….They know I will always be their sister and I promised them that we will see each other again soon.
Ending with again, one of our own … Andrew constantly pushed back during his exchange year. He conveniently “forgot” house rules time and time again. We had a lot of fun, he got along with our boys, and we enjoyed having him around — those arguments could be spirited political discussions! But he argued all the time. Five or six years later, in a Skype chat on one holiday or another, Andrew said completely out of the blue:
I wanted you to know … I know how much you tried to help me. The things you said then, they make a lot more sense now. I just want you to know how much I appreciate it. It just took me a while.
So to our young friend Sean who is now (unbelievably, to a host mom…) 21 years old: We are doing well, and you have shown us that wishes do come true. One student, one teenager at a time, as expressed by a host parent after her student returned home at the end of her year:
… no matter where we all are, she remains family, [and] our mutual love and admiration continues. … Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.
I’ve been in the U.S. for more than two months now and I don’t have any friends here. It makes me sad. I talk to my friends back home a lot since I don’t have anyone to talk to here in my host country. What else can I do?
It’s around this time of year that students express feelings such as that expressed by the comment above. Students arrive in August in an excited mood, and think that everything will fall into place quickly. How hard can it be to make friends?
Making new friendships and establishing relationships with host family, teachers, and others, however, is more of a challenge than many students realize. One of the reasons we encourage students to join a sports team (even if they’ve never played the sport) or band or drama (even if they’ve never been in band or acted in a play) is that these activities help bring students into the community and form immediate bonds with a group of students at school. It helps them feel like they belong. Even those students, however, may sometimes feel lonely, left out of an activity, or just generally homesick due to how different life is in the host home and community.
One of our students last year told us that he thinks the most important piece of advice he can give to other high school exchange students or college study abroad students is “Don’t suffer alone! Talk to someone here in your host country, talk to your host family!” We talk to our students about things that they can do to get their minds off how they are feeling. Think about what do you do back home when you are sad. Keep active. Don’t stay in your bedroom; it’s better to hang out in your host family’s living room or family room, so that you can have conversations (which can further help get your mind off how you are feeling). Go for a run. Get involved in a sport, art/music/theater. Do things with your host family, even ordinary things: watch your host family’s favorite TV show with them, go to the grocery store with your host dad, go for a walk with the dog with your host mom.
Students sometimes tell us, “but I don’t like doing any of those activities.” We tell them how any activity will help them focus on something else. Moreover, ordinary activities can help you to get to know the area where you are living, and—perhaps most importantly—host parents will appreciate the fact that their student is showing interest. That last item may seem like a small thing, but it’s those small things that add up, eventually, to real relationships.
J-1 visa students have a local contact person from their exchange program; F-1 visa students may have a local program contact or at least someone at their school who is responsible for exchange students. We encourage students to call that contact person when they are feeling a bit low. Be honest about how you are feeling. Your local coordinator will be happy to sit down with you and help you think of ways to feel like you belong.
Students sometimes think that the answer to their difficulties is to find a new host family. Teens have a tendency to think things happen quickly, so if they don’t immediately feel that they are making friends or becoming close to their host family, they think it means that they need a new school or that they and their host family are not a good “match.” We try to encourage students to think differently — to recognize that making friends, feeling like you belong, and being comfortable in a new environment takes time no matter where you live and who you live with.
Students also often feel that talking to family or friends in their home country will make them feel better. We find that usually the opposite is true. We work with students to get them to spend less time communicating with friends and family back home. If you are spending a lot of time on your smartphone or laptop with friends and family back home — think about cutting that time down. The more time you spend talking to people you know back home, the more you are thinking about what is going on back home — and the less time you are spending getting used to your life in your host country.
The key advice to succeed, in our opinion, is becoming involved and truly part of your host culture. The above examples are ways to do that. Students might be able to think of more ways based on their own personal interests, and host parents might have ideas, too. Hang in there!