Sending Your Child Off This Summer for a High School Exchange Year? Here Are Six Tips For Parents

1. Take the Opportunity to Learn About Your Son or Daughter’s Destination

* Read a book or two about the country where your son or daughter will be living.  Research the region – the eastern part of the country may be very different from the west, or the north or south.  Try to find out something about differences between rural and urban areas. (See this blog post for a little bit about what I learned about Ghana when our son left for his one semester exchange.)

* Ask your son or daughter’s host parents for some advice on how to learn more.  Do they have a particular book they recommend?  What about a magazine or newspaper you could read online?

* Are there specific laws that are different from those in your country that your child needs to know about?  The exchange program will give you some information on this, but don’t hesitate to ask.  For students coming to the U.S., for example, it’s important to understand that they cannot legally drink alcohol – anywhere, with anyone, at any time whatsoever – until they reach the age of 21.

* Look online for student blogs about living in the country where your son or daughter will be, both past and present.  Find out if your exchange program has previous students who might be ‘on call’ for information.  Ask your student’s local coordinator/liaison if there are previous students from the region or even perhaps the same school who your son or daughter could get in touch with.

* Research the issue of safety.  Don’t just rely on the mass media – television and cable news stories may not give you thorough or balanced information about a particular political situation, natural disaster, or other safety issue at your child’s destination.  Remind your child that he is responsible for following his host family’s and the program’s rules, and that these rules are for his safety.

2.  What to Take?

* With current international baggage restrictions, most exchange programs advise students to stick to one suitcase and one carry-on.  Your child will, no doubt, add to his belongings during the year!  It may well make sense for your child to buy winter clothing after he/she arrives.  In some cases, your child might be able to borrow a coat from his or her host family.

* Be prepared for the need to ship items back home at the end of the exchange year, or else have your child buy an inexpensive suitcase and pay the baggage fee for an extra piece of luggage.

* Specific suggestions to think about include:

  • English dictionary or electronic translator – small pocket version that the student can carry in purse or pocket.
  • Camera!  I’ve never met an exchange student who doesn’t love to take photos.
  • Laptop computer – more and more students bring this with them.  Please remind your student that their host family may have family rules on computer use.
  • Prescription medicines — If your child has prescription medicines that he or she takes on a regular basis (such as asthma or acne medicine), it is best to bring enough for the whole year.  Ask your child’s host parents or the program representative about non-prescription medicines; in many places, it is probably simpler and easier for your child or his host parents to buy such items when needed, rather than having your child bring things like aspirin or first-aid cream, with her.

Tell your child’s host family about any medications your son or daughter is taking; remember that teens may forget, and such information is critical for the host family to help keep your child safe.  In an emergency, they will need to know if their student is already taking any medication before new ones can be added safely.

  • If your student wears glasses, send along an extra pair.
  • Mobile phones – Generally speaking, do not buy your child a phone before they travel.  In most locations, the simplest option is for your child to buy an inexpensive phone upon arrival, and buy a pay-as-you-go plan with a local phone number.  Most such plans include texting options.  Students generally cannot sign contracts or sign up for long-term plans.  Your son or daugher’s host parents may also have a low-cost phone option they are planning to take advantage of for your child.
  • Clothing – Will your child be required to wear a uniform, or a particular style of clothing?  In the U.S., for example, most public schools allow students to wear ordinary street clothes such as blue jeans, T-shirts, and sweatshirts to school; however, there are limits on the kind of clothing that may be worn.  Make sure your child has at least one nice outfit for special occasions.  Note that the clothing your daughter may be accustomed to wearing may not be considered appropriate in an American school.

3. Financial Issues

* Try to get your son or daughter started on a budget even before he or she leaves.  Give your child a set amount of money, tell him or her it’s for the entire month, and give some guidelines.  Teach your child how to take money out of the ATM a bit at a time, so that he doesn’t have too much cash.  Suggest a schedule (perhaps taking cash out once/week, and trying to live on that for the entire week).  Try not to interfere while she is learning how to manage a budget (at least, don’t get mad!).  It’s a learning experience for you, too.

* Talk to your child about budgets and finances before he or she leaves.  What kind of expenses can you foresee now? Does your exchange program have recommendations on an average amount of expenses to expect per month?

* Get a pre-paid card that can be used much like a credit card as long as you have put money in the account; best is to have it be through Visa or Mastercard.  Make sure the card can be used at an ATM.   Test it out before your child leaves to make sure it works.

* Ask your child’s host parents if there are particular expenses they expect your child to have.  Does the school charge fees if your son or daughter chooses to play a sport?  When would that need to be paid?  Are there fees for any textbooks, or are they loaned for free?

* Think ahead of time about the possibility of your child traveling during his/her exchange year.  There may be opportunities to travel with her host family, on a school trip, or on a trip organized by the exchange program.  You may not be able to find out about all these possibilities ahead of time, but you can ask the program what might be likely.  You should think about what your family’s financial limits are so that you will be more prepared when the question of travel comes up.  How much are you prepared to spend over and beyond the exchange program fees? Ask the program where your child will stay if he/she cannot travel with the host family.

4. Communicating During the Exchange

* Keeping in touch with your child is important; it’s also important to remember that your child will need to be focusing on his or her new life, and immersing himself into his host family’s activities, his new school, and making new friends.  The hardest part of being the parents back home is figuring out the right communications balance. (See my January blog post for a bit about our nervousness when our son left home for his one semester exchange program to Ghana.)

* A good plan might be to suggest talking to your child no more than once/week, generally on weekends, for no more than 30 minutes to an hour – and force yourself to stick to this.  For some families, even every other week will be enough to know what is going on in your child’s life.  Remember that in between these times, you can email your child – and she can email you, too, sometimes.  Try not to text or call your son or daughter more than this – the less often, the better.  We know it’s hard – and as a parent who has sent her own son abroad, I can speak to this!  But it’s important to let your child find his or her own life, and it’s critical to their success that you step back.

* Blogs are an inexpensive way to keep in touch – suggest to your child that she write a blog about her exchange adventures.  You – and friends and other family members – can easily follow along.

5. Visiting Your Child During the Exchange

Many families look forward to a child’s exchange year almost as much as the student.  We know we did! We looked forward to the idea of visiting Ghana ourselves, regardless of whether our son would be able to join on our travels around the country or not (he joined us for 4 days out of the two weeks we were in the country).  You, too, may want to visit your child during the exchange semester or year.

* Take a deep breath, and remember it’s your child’s experience.  If you do visit – and it certainly is an opportunity for your own family to travel to a place you might never otherwise have thought about visiting – do it within the exchange program’s rules; most programs ask that family and friends wait until the end of the exchange period, when your visit is not likely to interfere with your child’s adjustment or host family life.

* Do not visit during any key holidays in the host country.  In the U.S., this would include Thanksgiving, the last two weeks of December, and Easter.  Find out what the key holidays are in your child’s host country, and avoid those dates; remember that these are times for your child to spend with her host family and local friends.

* Do not visit at any times your child’s host family has major family activities or travel plans.

* Try not to visit when school is in session.  Your child is expected to attend school and to pass all classes.  It can complicate his or her experience if you want to take your student out of school.  It could also affect your child’s relationship with her host family, and could negatively affect the exchange program’s relationship with the school.

* Show thanks to your child’s host family by bringing a small gift, or perhaps taking them out to dinner.  Stay in a hotel rather than asking if you can stay with them.

6.  Letting Go

One of the hardest lessons for parents of exchange students, in my experience, is that you are no longer in control of your child’s life.  You often do not know what your child is doing on a daily basis anymore, and you do not know your son or daughter’s friends.  You cannot change this; indeed, it can be harmful to your child’s experience if you try.  The exchange students who have the most adjustment problems tend to be the ones whose parents insist on calling or texting every day, the ones whose parents try to convince the host parents to do things the way their child is using to doing things, and the ones whose parents tell their child, when the teen complains about a particular host family habit or rules, that “you don’t have to put up with that, I’ll take care of that today!”  Help your student have a good exchange year; don’t do these things!

* If your teen tells you “I don’t like my host family because XXXX” or “My host family won’t let me go out with my friends,” or any other complaint – don’t offer to solve the problem.  Encourage your child to figure out ways to solve the problem themselves.  Have they talked to their host parents about why a particular rule exists? Have they asked their local coordinator/liaison if this particular rule is normal for teens in the host country?  If it is considered normal in the host country, guide your child towards acceptance.

* Don’t expect to hear from your student every day while he or she is abroad, and don’t make your student feel bad for not being in daily touch.  Don’t call or text more than once/week, or even less.

* Talk with parents whose children have studied abroad, as well as parents whose children are currently in your child’s program.  How have they dealt with various situations that have come up?

Finally …..

In closing – As you prepare to send your child to a far-away place for 5 or 10 months, don’t downplay your own feelings.   It’s hard to send your child off to places they’ve never been before.  It’s hard to watch your teen stride through the airport security, give you a final wave, and trot off to the gate (and of course, they don’t look back at their worried parents!).  Remember – good things and positive experiences don’t always come easy.  Your teen will come through this experience a better and more mature person; perhaps you, too, can learn something new.

Heading for Ghana

This Sunday, my husband and I are heading to Ghana for two weeks.  Our younger son, who is 18, is taking a gap year before heading to college at the University of Oregon this Fall.  As part of that, he is spending six months in Ghana on an exchange program.  He is doing a community service volunteer program as a teacher’s assistant in an after-school program, and is living with a host family.  Of course, we have planned to visit since the day he left!

I’m beginning to understand how my students feel as the date for their departure to the U.S. approaches.  Oh, I’ve always understood intellectually … but I’m beginning to understand it in my heart.  It’s just for two weeks, so I know we don’t have the same anticipation and anxiety that my teenaged students faces each year as they get ready to come to the U.S. for 5 or 10 months.

But on a very basic level, it’s really the same. I’m traveling to a place I’ve never been, a place that is so different from my suburban/urban life as to defy translation. I will suddenly be noticeable – a white American in black Africa.  The culture will be different, the weather will be different, the food will be different.

And I’m psyched.  Nervous, a bit anxious, but excited and psyched.

Kotoka International Airport, Accra, Ghana
Kotoka International Airport, Accra, Ghana

We start in Accra, Ghana’s largest city.   Accra has a lot to offer — the New York Times named it #4 on its list of place to go in 2013.  We might as well check it out! 

After a couple of days in Accra, we will head out to Tamale, a large city in Ghana’s northern region.  From there, given our graduate work in the study of the international wildlife trade and our lifetime work on environmental issues, it won’t surprise many readers that we insist on spending some time in Ghana’s Mole National Park.  As the Lonely Planet says:

It’s not everywhere you can get up close and personal with bus-sized elephants. Face-to-face encounters with these beasts, plus roving gangs of baboons, warthogs, water bucks and antelopes – 90 species of mammals in total – are possibilities at this national park, Ghana’s largest at 4660 sq km and best as far as wildlife viewing goes.

From Mole, we will drive to Kumasi, in the Ashanti region, home of the fabled Ashanti Kingdom.  We will stay in the center of Kumasi, a city that is considered the cultural “heart” of Ghana due to its history.  It contains places such the Manhyia Palace, which was the residence of the Ashanti kings.

Manhyia Palace, Kumasi (Source: Wikipedia)
Manhyia Palace, Kumasi (Source: Wikipedia)

We will now be halfway through our two-week trip.  We will visit some Ashanti towns and villages, learning about the weaving of kente cloth in the village of Bonwire; the cloth printing technique called Adinkra stamping in the village of Ntonsu; and wood carving in the town of Ahwia.

On the 27th, we’ll head back to Accra, and then we’re off for a few days for a coastal trip, where we will visit Ghana’s famous (and infamous…) Cape Coast and one or more of the many castles formerly used in the slave trade.

Elmina Castle, Cape Coast
Elmina Castle, Cape Coast (Source: Wikipedia)

Beyond all this amazing history, we have several personal places to visit on this trip.  Our tour guide, when he is not arranging trips like ours so full of history it’s mind-boggling, also works with Framework International, a non-profit organization based in Portland, Oregon, which is building schools in Ghana.  A group of Linfield College graduates founded Framework; they took an idea that started on a college trip to Africa and ran with it.  My husband and I connected with Framework through a colleague in the environmental field, who is working with Framework on business development. So of course when we are in Ghana, we will visit one of Framework’s schools.

Finally, we will visit our son and his host family.  This is a new experience for us.We have hosted about a dozen students over the past 10 years, and we have had a number of our students’ parents and families visit us towards the end of the exchange term.  But now we’re the “family back home,” coming to visit and throw ourselves into our child’s new culture. The Brown family in Accra have hosted our son since January, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for taking our son into their home and making him a part of their family.  As our own exchange students have become a part of our family forever so that we now have “children” around the world, we hope that Marcus has found a second home in Ghana which will forever be a part of him.  We are excited to be able to see a bit of the world where he has lived for the past five months.


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.