Host Family Tips: Before Your Student Arrives

words welcome to our home

June and July are strange times for those of us working with international students. Our students who have been here for a semester or school year are returning to their home countries — yet at the same time, we’re looking for host families for the coming school year and beginning to reach out to our new students who will arrive in July and August. We have to put on different hats depending on who we’re talking to that day!

For those of you who see my social media posts talking about saying farewell and thinking about how our students have grown all year — here’s an example of switching hats. What kind of tips and advice do we give to our new host families who are beginning to get ready for their exchange student?

Contact Your Student a Little Bit at a Time

We recommend starting with an email to introduce yourself and your family, perhaps attach a few photos. Find your student on social media outlets: Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and WhatsApp. Start small a long email or text message may feel intimidating to a teenager who may be nervous about his or her English ability. There’s generally plenty of time to follow up with another short message, and another one after that. Before you know it, you will be having a real conversation. You can think of many different short chats you can have with your student: ask your student what activities he or she likes to do, for example (don’t assume that what a student wrote down in the program application six months or a year ago still best reflects his interests). Ask him whether he has thought about what activities he might want to join at school and whether he wants to try something new. Is she interested in sports, art, or music? You can ask about your student’s community and find out if she is used to a small town or school or a large one. Does she like movies, reading, or going on walks? Get on Skype and have everyone in the family say hello. Perhaps do a short house video tour while you are describing your home to your student and his or her family. Perhaps your student can show you her home the same way. These topics can be multiple conversations through Skype, email, or instant messaging; it doesn’t and probably shouldn’t be one marathon conversation.

Do a Basic Bedroom Setup

Send your student a photo of his or her new bedroom. You don’t need to remodel or get new furniture, but you do need to have a bed, a place for clothing, and somewhere to study either in the bedroom or elsewhere in the home. Think about something small you could do to make the bedroom personal — your student’s “place.” A stuffed animal for your student’s bed can make it feel more like a home rather than a hotel. If your student loves a particular sport, perhaps get her a blanket with a sports theme; the blanket can double as an extra layer at chilly evening outdoor events.

If your student is sharing a room with a host sibling, think ahead of time about how you will divide the space. Talk about it with your son/daughter and with your student (another topic of conversation!). It’s possible neither of them have shared a bedroom before; if that is the case, set some guidelines with them.

Be Prepared for Arrival Day

Think about making a poster with your student’s name in large print with some fun designs and colors. If you’re not artistic, just a big sign with their name on it in a bright color will do the trick. Balloons are great, too. Whether you are meeting your student at the airport or at a central meeting place determined by the exchange organization, try to bring the whole family! Don’t be nervous about showing your excitement. Conversely, don’t worry if your student doesn’t immediately show the same excitement coming off the plane — they’re excited inside, but are likely to be exhausted after untold hours in the air and probably several sleepless nights as the time drew near for their exchange year.

Have a small welcome gift ready — nothing extravagant, just something to welcome your student into the host home and host community. A t-shirt or jersey from your family’s favorite sports team would show that you want your student to be part of the “family team,” for example. Have an extra house key made up before your student arrives, so that your student will know you thought about it, and have it sitting on the student’s bed (with a good-sized key ring so it won’t get lost!).


Perhaps you can tell from the nature of the things I’ve listed that it’s not as hard as you might think. You know the old saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff …. and it’s all small stuff”? We like to flip that saying around so that’s focusing on the positive: *do* think about the small stuff because it’s the small stuff that counts. It’s the little things that help make a relationship. It’s the little things that your student will remember. In a way, it’s all (or mostly) little things all the way, one little thing at a time, one small step towards a new relationship.

August, we’re ready for you!

coffee cup adventure begins forest and river background


Photos courtesy of Pixabay and Matthew Sleeper on Unsplash

Is Culture Shock A Good Thing?

We’ve written before (see here and here, for example) about the impacts of culture shock as our students arrive on our shores thinking exchange student life will be easy and then realizing — rather suddenly — that life is harder than they thought. We’ve also shared thoughts (see here and here) on what it’s like when our students return home.

We recently came across the infographic below, which argues that we should not only anticipate culture shock, we should embrace it. We agree! Culture shock isn’t a bad thing or a good thing. It’s a neutral term, used to describe how people feel when they arrive in a place far different from the place they are used to. “Shock” probably isn’t the best word to use, since it implies something negative has happened. The experience is more “culture engagement” than “culture shock,” whether we’re talking about landing in a foreign place for the first time or returning home feeling like a stranger.

world connected
Becoming connected is a process that takes time and effort

As the infographic notes, this transition experience is “entirely normal, usually unavoidable, and is nothing to feel embarrassed about.” Embrace the differences you see and keep yourself busy as you get used to new things. Think about the idea that the confusion and anxiety starts even before you leave home; we reported a few weeks ago about students who were already nervous about their new host family and whether they would be able to adjust to their new life.

What can students and host families do?

Communicate (with each other!).

  • words share your storyStudents: Of course, you will want to communicate with your family back home. But think about the connections you are trying to make here in your host country. Start conversations with your host parents and host siblings. If you won’t have any host siblings, ask if there are ways to meet people of your own age before school starts.
  • Families: Help your student to get to know you and to open up by starting conversations. Conversations can be on issues as small as “what’s your normal dinner time? Let’s compare!” to political issues of the day. Want some conversation starter ideas? Find some suggestions here and here.

Do something with each other to help get past the initial awkwardness.

  • Students: Offer to cook some meals from your home country. Ask your mom or dad for a recipe. Ask your host sister/brother, host mom/dad if they can help. They will probably be excited about the idea of cooking something new. Go anywhere and everywhere you can with your host family. If your host parents ask if you want to run errands with them, say yes even if it doesn’t sound exciting — it might be more interesting than you think, since it will be new to you. Watch TV with them, even if you’ve never watched that show before or have some trouble understanding new voices.
  • Families: Do all of the above in reverse! Have a meal or two based on recipes from your student’s home country. Take your student grocery shopping and on other errands. Explain the plot of your favorite TV show when everyone sits down to watch. Involve your student in as much as possible.

Stay busy.

As a new exchange student, think about getting involved in something in your host country — a sport, drama, music, art. Take walks. Go for a run. Offer to take the dog for a walk. Take the bus into the downtown area. Ask your coordinator if you can meet other students in your area. Families can help with all of this; show your student local walking trails or where it’s OK to go for a run. Show your student local public transit. Call other host families and arrange movie nights or excursions.

Embrace culture shock; it’s why you’re here!

why culture shock is a good thingThe original infographic can be found at Photo credits and

Our Exchange Student Needs to Register For Classes: What’s the Process?

Most exchange organizations will take care of making sure exchange students are properly enrolled at the local school. It’s quite likely, however, that the host family will help their student choose classes and sign up for school activities, much as they would help their own children. If you have never had a high school student, this process can be confusing.

So, here are some general tips for how to handle registration. Local guidelines and processes may differ, so host families should check with their local program representative and their own school.

Forecasting Classes in Advance

Some schools will send forms to host parents ahead of time and will ask that the student choose classes before he or she arrives. Returning students generally make these choices the previous Spring, listing classes they want as well as second/third choices.

In most cases, exchange students won’t be able to do this before they arrive. For one thing, they have a lot to do before they leave their home country; choosing classes for the Fall is not at the top of the list. In many cases, students will be in school until late June or early July, and may only have a few weeks after school ends before they leave for their exchange year. Also, they often do not understand what choosing classes means; in many countries, the idea of electives at the high school level does not exist. The concept of choosing photography, marketing, weight lifting, or band as a class is difficult to understand if you have not dealt with this before, and it can be a challenge for host families to describe it long distance.

I dont knowNew host parents may be anxious about their student not being able to choose classes until shortly before school starts. Will their student be locked out of classes? The answer is maybe, maybe not. No one can guarantee that any exchange student will be able to take all the classes he or she wants to take. That will depend on the demand for any given class by resident students as well as local school policies. However, J-1 students are not here only for educational purposes. They’re also here for cultural exchange and learning. We want them to have a full sampling of classes, even though we can’t guarantee what those classes will be.


Registration includes signing up for classes, getting a photo taken for school ID, and getting a locker. It may include being “cleared” to join a sports team and signing up for clubs or other school activities. Registration generally will be on designated days a week or two before the scheduled first day of school. There may also be a “make-up” or “late” registration date, or a separate date for new students.

If you are on vacation during the assigned registration days, just talk to your school and see what can be worked out.

Some suggestions for host families

Call your school ahead of time to see about setting up an appointment with your student’s guidance counselor for shortly after he or she arrives. Some schools have a designated counselor who manages exchange students. Some will assign counselors by alphabet and some will assign according to a family’s existing counselor if you have high school students already.

high school curriculum guide cover pageSend your student the school’s curriculum guide. Some students will look at this before they get here. Some won’t. Do not assume your student doesn’t care just because he/she doesn’t think about it before arrival. They really are busy in the several weeks before they come to the U.S. Just try to have them do it when they arrive so that when you go to meet the counselor, you have a list of possible classes.

Forms and Contact Information: School usually ask host parents to fill out a registration contact form and will probably ask for a utilities bill or some other document confirming a host family’s address. We have found this to be common even though the exchange organizations provide schools with the host family’s address and contact information; it’s just how schools process new students. We recommend marking yourselves as “other” if that is an option, and write in “host parents.” This just helps make sure that the relationship is clear. Host parents are not legal guardians, and there certainly are things that a student’s parents must approve or be notified about, but host parents can make day-to-day decisions.

Where forms ask for the student’s doctor and dentist, put “not available” or your own children’s doctor if you have one. Schools generally understand that an exchange student, as someone new to the community, will not have an established physician.

Emergency contact: We suggest that you put your exchange organization local contact as the #1 emergency contact. If you want to put host grandma or grandpa as a secondary emergency contact, that’s reasonable. But remember that the exchange organization needs to know immediately if there are any critical issues involving  your student, so it’s a good idea to have them listed first to ensure they will be notified.

Check with your program contact/coordinator: Your exchange organization may have its own guidelines you should follow, and your program representative may know what the school prefers.

In closing, there’s no need for host parents or students to worry about the registration process. It’s paperwork, to be sure, and there can be some confusion. But follow the basic recommendations and before you know it you’ll have your student signed up for English, US history, maybe math and science, some fun classes, yearbook, and more!

Photo credit:

Charitable Tax Deductions for Host Families

Many families hosting J-1 exchange students may not be aware that if they itemize their taxes, they can claim a deduction of up to $50/month for each month the exchange student lived in the family’s home. This deduction should be included in the charitable contribution section of one’s tax return. Key elements of this deduction are:

  • The student must have been in the home for most of the month; if it was only a week, don’t claim it!
  • For two students, a taxpayer can claim two deductions.
  • If the student was in your home for over two calendar years, the deduction is taken over two tax years. That means for 2015, a taxpayer would list the months during 2015 that the exchange student lived in the home. Next year, the taxpayer would be able to claim the 2016 portion.
  • Taxpayers do not need a letter of confirmation from their exchange program to claim the deduction. However, If you want a confirmation letter, the organization with which you work should be willing to give you one.

Please note: we are not giving you any legal tax advice on this. We’re just providing information because we know from experience that many families are not aware that the deduction is available. Talk to your accountant and to your exchange program for more information. You can also review the IRS publication that explains it all: IRS Pub 526.


Is Instantaneous Communication a Good Thing for Cultural Immersion?

We had a meeting a few days ago with one of our students and her host parents to talk about concerns the host parents had expressed about behavior. The student had also expressed frustrations. We learned that the student was spending so much time online with friends and family back home that she has not really integrated into her host family or community. If she has a question, she asks someone back home. When she is upset or anxious, she confides in someone back home. Whenever she just wants to chat about life, she talks to someone back home. She texts or talks to friends back home first thing in the morning before she leaves for school, and she texts them during the day.

This isn’t unusual in our experience, and we don’t intend to single out this student for any particular reason other than it’s just the latest example. We’ve written about technology concerns before — close to two years ago. We thought it is a subject that is worth reviewing again for our readers. We all assume that advances in technology are positive and talk excitedly about how we can do things that were not possible just a few years ago. But are new capabilities always an “advance”?

This week, we have published an updated version of the original blog post on BlogHer, a blogging platform, research hub, and social media publisher. Host families, students, and parents back home can all benefit from reviewing the pros and cons of having so much technology and instantaneous communication at our fingertips.

You can read our new post here: Technology is the Best Thing to Ever Happen to High School Exchange … or is it?

We welcome your comments and thoughts!

Young man with computer and phont Alejandro Escamilla