Sports as a Tool For International Youth Exchange

high school lacrosse players

Sports can be another great way to bridge gaps across cultures and to get people who may think they have nothing in common to start talking. So it is not a surprise that there are organizations around the world that do their best to bring young people from different countries together to meet over their favorite sport. The question arises, though, whether these organizations offer what you personally need from an exchange.

We sometimes get questions from people interested in working with exchange students through the medium of sports. In one case, an organization in Brazil contacted us, looking to find a way to send promising teen and pre-teen soccer athletes to the U.S. as exchange students to learn about the U.S. and to have an opportunity to play competitive soccer during a school year in the U.S. In another case, a small U.S. non-profit was hoping that exchange students from another country could participate in the organization’s program while studying here in the U.S. and obtain competitive level basketball training, with the possibility of being recruited for college-level play.

We also sometimes hear from parents. One email was from a father in Greece who had visited friends in Florida with his family. The friends offered to host his son so that he could go to high school in Florida and play varsity basketball at their school, and the father wanted advice on how to make that happen. Another email we received recently was from a parent in Germany. She wanted to make sure that her son would be able to play competitive soccer during his exchange year in the U.S. Should she just tell the exchange organization she wanted to go through? Should she herself search online for a family who had a teen who plays soccer, she wondered, or perhaps she should get in touch directly with high schools that have high-level soccer programs and then contact a sponsoring organization?

Great ideas. The devil, as always, is in the details. The answer we had to give these people was essentially that they could not do what they wanted to do.

What’s the Problem?

There is a great deal of concern in the U.S. about students “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons. That concern crosses over into the exchange student world, and it’s against U.S. government regulations to place an exchange student in a school specifically for the purpose of playing a particular sport. In fact, when a family finds its own host family for their student (what we call “direct placements”), those students generally cannot play sports at their school unless they get a waiver from the local high school athletics association certifying that the student was not placed at that school for sports reasons.

Many exchange students do engage in sports at their school or in their town. But there are no guarantees. An exchange student may not be able to qualify for a school team, particularly if the team is competitive; exchange students often have to try out for a team like everyone else. Some U.S. states limit exchange students to less competitive teams, keeping varsity team spots for American students who may be using their sports experience for a longer term purpose (such as trying to get a college scholarship, for example).

If an exchange student doesn’t qualify or can’t play varsity, or if he or she isn’t able to play on junior varsity for any reason, there often are local city leagues, recreational clubs, or even possibly a competitive club in the student’s desired sport. These options would be outside the school day, and would be at additional cost to the student and his or her family. It’s also important to note that these opportunities may or may not be at the competitive level the student is seeking.

What about the option of coming to the U.S. on an F-1 visa instead of a J-1 visa, since F-1 visa students apply directly to a school? We’ve been asked this question; parents have contacted us thinking that this is a way to make sure their child can play the sport of his or choice. However, because F-1 students choose the school they will attend, they generally are unable to play school sports. The concern about “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons still applies.

Are There Options?

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Sports Diplomacy Division focuses on sports-related exchanges. These are short-term exchanges and are not intended as academic programs, so these programs are not a solution, for example, for semester or year-long exchange students. The Division’s projects include:

  • Sports Envoy Program: Sports Envoys are athletes or coaches who lead overseas sports programs on behalf of the U.S. They hold sports clinics, take part in community outreach, and engage youth in dialogues on the importance of leadership and respect for diversity. Read, for example, about Neftalie Williams, who has used his love of skateboarding and his participation in the U.S. Sports Envoy program to bring skateboarding to Syrian refugees in the Netherlands and to Cambodian youth as a representative of the U.S. government.
  • Sports Visitor Program: A short-term program for young people to come to the U.S. for a two-week intensive sports-based exchange.

Other programs managed by the Division include the Global Sports Mentoring Program for women, the Sports and Sustainability Initiative, and the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange.


The bottom line is that if you are primarily interested in playing a particular sport at a competitive level, high school exchange programs are probably not the right vehicle for your student. But if you are primarily interested in the exchange experience — cultural and language immersion, growth in self-confidence, learning how to deal with new situations — then high school exchange may be the right answer, regardless of whether you can play a particular sport at a competitive level during the exchange. While on exchange, we always encourage students to take advantage of opportunities to engage in high school sports or other non-academic activities; it’s a great way to get to know other students at your school, and it can be a lot of fun. The experience is worthwhile!

It‘s hard to reach out to people of different cultures when you feel you have nothing in common. But bring out a soccer ball to a field, and kids who do not speak the same language will flock to it and play together without understanding a single word the other child says. As adults, the effects are the same. You don’t need a common language to forge friendships, just a shared love for a sport and respect for one another.

 –League Network, 6 Ways That a Shared Love for Sports Can Bring Cultures Together, February 2017.


I’m an Exchange Student Headed for the U.S. — What Do I Need to Know?

Students will sometimes ask us this question: what’s the most important thing to know about the United States?

To some extent, the answer to this question will differ depending on where in the U.S. a student ends up living and studying. The United States is a big country, and there are definite regional differences. This is one of the (many) things we want exchange students coming to the U.S. to learn — that we are not just one single group of people who are all the same just because we share a particular citizenship.

There are some general things, however, that students can keep in mind which will help them to adjust to life in their host family and host community.

Politeness in ordinary conversation

Saying “please” and “thank you,” especially to adults, is important. This can feel strange if you come from a culture or community where appreciation may be implied and you don’t have to say this often.

Directness and “honesty”

Americans consider themselves to be “direct.” There are different degrees of “directness,” however. The graphic below, created by Erin Meyer, a professor at the global business school INSEAD, shows cultural differences in two key categories — degree of “directness” or being “confrontational” in normal everyday life and degree of emotional expressiveness. (Her 2015 Harvard Business Review a­­rticle, Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da, is worth reading for anyone who deals with other cultures in either a personal or professional setting.)

culture map
©2015 Erin Meyer and Harvard Business Review

Here in the U.S., we tend to mix some of that directness with the ordinary everyday politeness mentioned above; according to Erin Meyer, the U.S. is somewhere towards the middle of the different characteristics. We’ve heard students from expressive and “talkative” cultures say that Americans get to the point too quickly; we’ve also had students from “direct” cultures tell us that Americans never get to the point at all! This combination can be confusing to students from other cultures as they try to figure out what, exactly, does someone mean when they say something.

Here’s an example (and a hint…). When your U.S. host mom or dad asks, “Could you take out the garbage?,” that generally means “take out the garbage” (and sooner rather than later!). Students who are used to a more direct culture often interpret this language as meaning they have a choice. In return, those students tend to speak in a way that may come across as demanding rather than requesting. Those students might announce, “I am going out to see friends,” rather than phrasing it as a question: “Would it be OK if I went out to see my friends?” The question format would be preferred in many U.S. homes.

Small talk and social conversation

Social conversations are those in which one talks about what’s going on in the community, what movie is showing at the local theater, which teacher is annoying and which one is just fun to have a class with, and even the weather. Many students find these conversations difficult. “Why does the cashier at the grocery store ask me how I am doing?” asked one of my Austrian students last year. “Why would she care how my day is going? She doesn’t know me and I don’t know her.”

School system differences

U.S. high schools are quite different from schools in many other countries. High school students in the U.S. change classrooms for every class. Students usually receive grades not only on exams at the end of the term, but also on in-between quizzes, class participation, and homework assignments that must be turned in. Some of this may also apply at the college level. At both the high school and college level, teachers are more approachable than in many countries (although that doesn’t mean you call them by their first name). Students ask teachers questions, visit teachers during office hours before or after school, and generally are encouraged to have a dialogue with teachers.

Sports, music, and art activities are a key element of school life

In U.S. schools, students become involved in many activities beyond traditional academics, activities that in many countries have no connection to the school system. Some U.S. states and schools may have limits on activities in which exchange students can participate. But if it’s possible, participating in a sport, music, or art activity at your school is an excellent way to become part of the school and host community.

Sports are also a part of everyday life. Almost everyone will have a favorite sports team. This could be a nearby professional team (football, soccer, baseball, basketball), or it might be a college team. Rivalries exist between neighboring high schools, college teams within the state, and with professional teams in nearby cities. Here in Oregon, for example, we have a long-standing rivalry between the yellow-and-green University of Oregon Ducks and the orange-and-black Oregon State University Beavers. You’re either one or the other. On days when the two teams play each other, neighborhoods come alive with team colors plastered in windows, on flags and banners, and on cars. We also are quite proud of our professional soccer team, the Portland Timbers, who, of course, are better than the Seattle Sounders. (Darn straight!)

UO and OSU ice cream
You can even get ice cream honoring your favorite team!

Wherever you are going, you will find “your” team — not just your new favorite sports team, but also your host family team, your school friends and teachers team, and your program’s support team. Enjoy the experience!

Exchange Students and High School Sports: Adjusting to the Reality

Those of us who work with high school exchange students generally encourage our students to sign up for a sport of some kind. It’s a great way to find some like-minded classmates especially at the beginning of the school year when the exchange students are feeling isolated, lonely, and wondering how they will make friends in a strange land. It’s also a good way to ensure a teenager will get regular exercise and get out of the house and into the community on a regular basis.

Of course, the students want the sport they play to be on a team at their host high school. They have heard all about “school spirit” at American high schools, and how athletics play a key community role. They want to be part of that spirit and participate in that excitement. Coordinators for the exchange programs talk it up before students arrive (“you play soccer? Join your school team!”) and we talk it up when they arrive in August (“Sports practices start next week – what sport are you trying out for?”). We remind them how it will help them be a part of American high school spirit, make it easier to become part of high school life in America, and will help them make friends at the beginning of the school year.

But participating in school sports is not automatic. High school athletics in the U.S. can be extremely competitive; it is not unusual for students to move from one school to another to get access to a better team that might give them a better chance at a college scholarship. State associations oversee sports and impose rules to limit such efforts.  Unfortunately, these rules can impose limitations for exchange students. And it’s not just football: the same rules often cover other activities that are either “sports-like” or which just have regional and state competitions, such as cheerleading, choir and band, and more.

We’ve had a number of these situations come up during our eight years as local coordinators:

* Direct placements: If an exchange student has requested a specific host family the exchange student may not be allowed to compete in high school sports at his or her U.S. high school, although in some states, the student might still be allowed to train with the school team even if he/she cannot compete.

Know The Rules with red marker
Copyright 2015

Direct placement students (defined as placements in which the student has chosen this particular host family rather than being “matched” by the exchange organization) might be able to get a waiver from the rules through a defined appeals process. In Oregon, as in many U.S. states, exchange students on a direct placement cannot play on any school team governed by the state athletic association unless they get a waiver. Generally, of course, exchange students coming on a direct placement are not coming to a particular school primarily to play a sport; rather, they are coming to be with a particular family.  As a result it often may not be difficult to get a waiver. But each case is treated on its own merits, and for each case, the host family has to convince the school’s athletic director and coach to apply for the waiver and go through an appeals process. If the direct placement student were to play on a school sports team without such a waiver (even out of ignorance of the rules), the team could be punished and be prohibited from competition.

* Out of district students: Students who are attending a school outside the boundaries of their family’s neighborhood school may be prohibited from playing on teams at their new school, due to concerns that students may be moving specifically for athletic reasons.

Three years ago, we had that situation. A potential host family learned that their neighborhood high school – barely a mile away – had no more exchange student slots. They asked the school district if they could still host a student and have their student attend one of the other district high schools. The district agreed.

Unfortunately, under the state athletic association rules, the student could not play on a sports team at her high school, since she was now at that school on a transfer request. Once this was communicated, the host family and student proceeded to have the student join the cheerleading squad at her “home” high school; they felt it was more convenient for after-school activities. Additional misunderstandings resulted in the “home” school administration not realizing the student had joined the team and the coach not understanding that the student was not actually attending that high school. When the state athletic association learned of this arrangement, the student was removed from the team and the state athletic association imposed a competition ban on the school’s cheerleading squad for a period of time.

These rules do not just apply to exchange students. In our own school district this year, a student from one high school was a member of the orchestra at the other high school due to schedule conflicts at his home school. The orchestra was banned from the state competition because it had a student from another school as a member.

* Transfer students: In some states, there may be limits for certain periods of time on students who transfer to another school during the school year as to their ability to play on a school team at their new school. This can affect exchange students, if a student moves out of one host family and into a new host home in another town. As with other examples, there may be a process in place for an appeal of the rule.

* Students who have graduated: If the student has graduated from high school in his or her home country, there may be limits on his or her participation in high school sports here in the U.S.

* Varsity limitations: Exchange students may be prohibited from playing at the varsity level in high school. On the other hand, sometimes exchange students can only play on a varsity team if they are considered seniors at their U.S. school, regardless of their athletic skill.

Many of these rules were established to keep a few high school sports from turning into a business enterprise where coaches might be tempted to recruit students specifically for their teams. The rules may seem totally out of place when it comes to exchange students. But regardless — the rules are there, and they have to be addressed.  Students and host families need to understand so that they can have realistic expectations for the exchange year.

Ballet Dancers
Copyright 2015

So what can you do if you are a student or host family in one of these categories? One option, certainly, is to see if there is an appeals process and if so, whether an appeal is possible in your situation. But also consider other sports activities. There may be sports-related classes that are outside the state athletic association’s governing range such as martial arts, ballet, or fencing.  These can be fun choices for a student interested in the opportunity to try new things while here in the U.S. Also, think about other kinds of sports teams. If a student can’t play on their school’s official team, city or other regional recreational teams may be available in your area. Those city or community leagues can be good choices; given the competitive nature of U.S. high school sports as noted above, joining a recreational city league can give a student the opportunity for exercise and meeting people without the pressure of high-level competition. As a student, think about these options; as a host parent, try to get your student to look beyond the narrow traditional scope just of school sports. There are always choices!

How to Help Your Exchange Student Adjust to Life Here in the U.S.: Tips for Parents

Recently I wrote about the communications challenges and cultural shocks that teenage exchange students face at the beginning of their academic year.  Today I thought I would expand on some concrete “tips” for helping them through this period.  These tips can help families and students move on to the next stage in their relationship now that everyone is beginning to get to know each other and students are getting used to life in a U.S. high school and American family.

Be understanding of the difficulties in adjusting to a new life, but be firm about the need to be a contributing member of the family.

At this point in the exchange term, students and families are beginning to settle into a routine. This is good – but beware of falling into a negative pattern, or of failing to keep those communications lines open.

  • Continue to push your student into the host culture.  Don’t let him stay home all the time, even if he seems comfortable with being a “homebody.”  Take your student everywhere, including to the grocery store or dry cleaners.  Even the shopping mall may be different from what your student is familiar with back home, and can be a way to start conversations and talk about how things are different.
  • If your student has not yet done so, push your student to get some regular exercise.  Your student can join a sport at school or sign up for a recreational or city league team.  Suggest that she start her own individual exercise or sport activity – she can go for hikes, take the dog for a walk every day, or go for a run on a regular basis.
  • If your student does not want to join a school sports team (or even if he does), try to get your student involved in a non-academic school activity.  How about a club – chess club, international activities club, Spanish or German club? One of my students last year revitalized the German club at her school, and used her interest in becoming a teacher to help use the club as a means of teaching German to her classmates. It was a hit; more students came each month, and the American students helped create games for learning the language.  Have your student join the Key Club or sign up for drama, either as a class for the next term at school or perhaps through a local theater.
  • Encourage your student to hang out and socialize with the family.  Don’t let them spend too much time in their bedroom by themselves, and discourage closed doors even if they tell you it’s normal for them back home.  Perhaps set up a place to do homework in the kitchen or living room.  Have family members get together after dinner to watch a favorite TV show several times a week.

It’s OK to set rules for your exchange student as if he or she was your own teen.

In fact, it’s not just OK — it’s critical.  The sooner you can get past the notion that your student is a guest in your home, the better off you and your student will be.  Give your student a printed list of the household chores you expect him or her to do. Explain how to feed the dog and where the clean dishes should go.  Be clear that you expect everyone to do their homework before getting on Facebook to chat with friends.

Stick to your rules.

Follow through on consequences.  These teens are not visitors – they are members of your family.  Normal consequences for failure to follow family rules, such as losing one’s cell phone privileges and not being allowed to go out with friends, are OK – and advisable — for your exchange student as much as they are OK and advisable for your own child.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “It’s not fair for me to impose a consequence on someone else’s child.”  This isn’t your child’s friend; it’s your exchange son/daughter.

If you think your exchange student is having a problem at school, talk to your student and your program contact. 

Just the other day, I had a conversation with a student who currently has an F in one class and is barely passing another.  She was shocked by the F, as she felt she had done the work in class and had participated in class. It turns out she had not turned in a number of assignments, and seemed surprised to learn that this matters.  She knew (sort of…) that she should turn them in (and I’ve mentioned it to each student several times), but it had STILL not registered on her that this really was important.  (In fact, it turned out she had completed several of the assignments and they were sitting in her notebook.)  Regarding the other class, she said she was able to do most assignments during class time and admitted she did not do any reading or studying outside class. That may be normal for them back home – it usually won’t work here.

No matter how often I remind the students at the beginning of the year to turn in their assignments and that they may have to spend more time than their American classmates doing the reading since the vocabulary may be unfamiliar – around this time of year I get panicked calls from students and worried calls from host parents about a low or failing grade.  Now is the time host parents can help clarify their expectations regarding school.  The educational expectations of the host country system may be very different, and the language barrier may be harder than they thought it would be.  Exchange students may be afraid of failing, and of the possible disciplinary process that could result, since they are required to pass all their classes to remain on good standing with their program and government visa requirements.  They may have difficulty keeping up with constant homework assignments, as back home they may not be required to turn in assignments every week.

The student I mentioned earlier? I told her no more TV until she had done all the missing assignments and had communicated with the teacher.  I also told her that yes, I do expect her to do school work outside the classroom, even if that means you stay up until 11 pm reading the material. I made it clear I expected her to spend the weekend working.  To her credit, she did.

So set the rules, don’t back down, use appropriate consequences, and don’t hesitate to call your program representative.

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.