So What Do We Talk About With Your Exchange Students At the Beginning of the Year?

Practical Tips for Host Families (and Students, Too!)

The U.S. government requires that J-1 visa high school exchange students have both pre-departure and post-arrival orientations. These meetings cover U.S laws, program rules and regulations, expectations for behavior, how to ensure students’ health and safety, and practical tips for success.

We’ve been having our post-arrival welcome orientations with exchange students in our region over the past couple of weeks, including a larger group meeting last week. It occurred to us that our readers might find some of these “tips” useful. What follows is a summary of what we talk about with the students in these arrival entry meetings. Details on meeting content may vary from program to program; while U.S. laws remain the same, some program rules vary, so check with your own program contact representative.

What’s the overall theme?

We ask students if they can give us one word to describe the key message for success, or one phrase that they think would describe everything. Usually, they’re pretty good at getting it, and this group did not disappoint us:

** One word: Communication.

** One phrase: “Don’t suffer in silence!”

Who do you talk to if you have a problem?

We try to make sure students understand that it is not rude to ask questions about house rules, family customs, and the local way of doing things. It is good to ask your host family these questions, so that students will know what to do and how to act. Moreover, it can be a great way to start a conversation about cultural similarities and differences.

** If students are uncomfortable talking to host parents, or feel they might hurt someone’s feelings, or don’t understand a particular rule, we encourage them to contact their local coordinators and ask them the question.

** We explain to students what the local coordinators do (also sometimes called local representatives or local liaisons depending on the program). We describe how they help support students and host families during the exchange year.

** We repeat several times to please not hide issues, no matter how small. Talk to someone. Don’t say to yourself “it’s too small to bother my host parents, my coordinator, and my counselor at school.” It’s never too small, and we don’t want small issues to become big issues.

Culture shock and homesickness

We explain to the students what we mean by culture shock. We talk about how it is normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. We let them know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that we can help them get past the feelings. We encourage the students to talk about how they are feeling with their host families and their coordinators, and to let the adults around them know if they are feeling stressed or anxious. Most of the students in our group last week admitted they have felt some element of culture shock and a few admitted they have been a bit homesick. As coordinators, we were pleased rather than disturbed at these admissions, as it suggests the students are trying to be honest about how they are feeling (and were willing to talk about it even a little bit).

** We tell them (and host parents, too) that homesickness can occur at any time.

** We talk about what they can do if they are feeling anxious or sad. Talk to host parents about it, stay busy! Go out for a run or a walk. Do something with your host family. Get involved with activities, clubs, or sports at school. Share something from your culture with your host family.

** We talk about limiting time spent talking with or chatting with friends and family back home. Host parents can help with this. It’s OK to limit Internet time, for example, or to require students to turn off their smartphones at a certain hour. We get questions every year -– and have had a few already this year -– to the effect of “but she’s not my child, can I require her to do what I require my own children to do?”

Cultural differences that students may find to be a challenge

We ask the students to tell us what they find to be the strangest and the most difficult things to get used to in the time that they have been in the U.S. so far; we usually hold the meetings about a month or so after students have arrived, so they have had time to see some of these “strange” differences. We get the expected comments about cars in the U.S. are bigger than back home and grocery stores have so many more choices that students don’t know how to make a decision on which toiletry item to buy. On the more difficult issues:

** We talk about curfews. In the U.S., curfews for teens are common; indeed, in many cities and towns curfews are set by law. Most of the students in our group said that this is different from back home, and admitted that it is hard to get used to the idea that you must be home by a certain time or you will get in trouble. They found it difficult to accept that host parents can tell them they are “grounded” if they don’t follow the curfew rules.

** In the U.S., parents often expect their children to tell them where they are going and to ask (not announce) before a teen goes out with friends. Many exchange students are not used to doing this. We talk about how customs are different, and that “freedom” as they define it may need to be earned by developing trust.

496619997 teen and gadgets** We explain to the students that Internet, computer use, and cell phones are privileges, not rights. Their host parents have the right to set limits on how long they stay on the Internet in the evenings, for example. If students don’t follow host family rules, host parents can take away their cell phone or their laptop for a while, as they might well do if their own children did not follow family rules. Students sometimes feel that no one can take away their laptop or their phone, because those items belong to them, not to their host family. We explain that taking those items away for a day or a few days if a teenager doesn’t follow a family’s rules is a common consequence in the U.S., and that if they believe a particular punishment is unfair they should talk about it with their coordinator.

School Differences

At the beginning of the school year, many exchange students think school is easy. This group was no different. They were positive and enthusiastic, did not feel they had very much school work, and were confident school would be easier than it is back home. Many of them admitted they do not understand everything the teachers are telling them, but did not feel they were missing anything significant. We tried to help the students understand that they probably are missing key parts of the conversation.

** We encourage students to go over syllabuses and class requirements. A note to host parents: in our experience, students often do not understand how important this is, and they do not understand that requirements may be different in different classes (how much a mid-term is worth, how much homework is worth, does participation count? etc.).

467588985 homework** We talk about how homework here in the U.S. is work you do at home AND how most of the time you have to turn it in to be graded.

** We talk about how they are required to pass every class. We explain to students how they can help get those passing grades. We remind them that if they understand 80% of what the teacher is saying, that’s great – but they need to find out about the other 20%, because they might be missing the key points of every lecture, when a major assignment is due, or what’s on the next test.

Getting your driving license

Getting a driver’s license is an issue dear to teenage hearts everywhere. Teens from other countries often are not aware of how difficult it can be to get a driver’s license here in the U.S. They often feel that it’s worth it even if it is a challenge. Some exchange programs prohibit any student on their program to get a driver’s permit or license. Since our program allows it, we go over the guidelines. We explain that some school districts prohibit exchange students from getting a drivers’ permit. Students who are permitted to get a driving permit must pay for their own insurance. We explain that this could be expensive for a teenager.

We’ve previously written a blog post on this specific issue; interested students and host parents might find the additional detail useful.

Traveling without your host family

Travel rules differ from program to program,  For our students, we explain that students generally may not travel overnight alone, that they must travel with an adult over the age of 25, and that the adult must be approved by the program. This generally requires criminal background checks, and for longer trips may require that the adult(s) go through the entire host family screening process. School trips are generally allowed, with appropriate permissions from parents. Host parents and students should contact their own program for the rules that may apply to them.

Program Rules and Regulations

At our welcome meetings, we review the U.S. government and program rules and regulations. The students should have heard these rules before in their home country; we cheerfully repeat them again! Key points we make at these meetings include:

** Students need to be an active member of their host family. We tell them to participate in the activities their host family does – not just go along, but also actively participate and show interest.

** Do their chores around the house, and do them well! If they have never cleaned a bathroom before — ask host parents how to do it right. If they have never cooked before — maybe start with something easy, like spaghetti.

** No drugs, no alcohol. We always spend some time on this one. It can be a difficult concept for students who may be allowed to legally drink at the age of 16 or 18 in their home country. We try to help them understand that the consequences of breaking U.S. law can be severe; in their case, they can be sent home and lose the school year.

Emergencies and Issues No One Likes to Talk About

This is always a difficult part of the entry meeting. It’s difficult because no one, either adults or teens, like to talk about things going really wrong during the exchange year, such as medical emergencies, teens being diagnosed with serious long-term health issues, or any kind of abuse.

** We remind students that their host parents are there to talk to and that we hope that they are beginning to feel comfortable talking to their host parents and host siblings. If there is a problem they cannot talk to their host parents about for any reason, please call us. If there is an emergency or serious issue, please call no matter what time it is.

** We talk about how it is important to speak up if they feel they are being mistreated in serious ways — physical violence, feeling unsafe, and sexual harassment/abuse.

** We talk about their health. We talk about how having a balanced diet, and how their bodies may need to adjust to different foods here. We ask them how much Coke or Pepsi do they drink, and do they know about the effects of caffeine. We encourage them to get some exercise and to get enough sleep.

Communicate, talk, and speak English!

We end with what we start with – the concept that communicating is the key to their success. Some will have listened to everything we talked about; some will forget until they get one of those progress reports from school or their host parents get upset. We will be there to help!

*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com. Check it out and visit some new blogs you may not have seen before on international travel, education, and more!*
**Photos copyright Thinkstock.com

Mobile Phones and the Exchange Student: What’s the Answer?

The following blog post is an update from my blog post on this subject from last year. We get questions all the time on this subject, and I decided to do a quick update to reflect changes we have seen in technology and in student habits.
The information below may not be news for everyone, but I hope it gives direction to students who have not traveled extensively and to host families who have not previously had to address the issue. Options vary in different parts of the U.S. and with different cell providers, so make sure to check locally!

There is a good chance that phones from another country will not work in the U.S.

Many phones built for use in other countries do not work in the United States. It doesn’t make sense, but that is just how it is. This is happening less often than it used to, but it is still possible that your student’s phone won’t work.

Before they leave their home country, we try to explain to students the difference between “locked” and “unlocked” phones, and ask them to check if their current phone can be “unlocked” before they leave. If it’s locked, it won’t work in another country with another cell provider. More students understand the basics of this than in past years, but it still causes confusion. (Moreover, it’s more complicated than many of us think anyway: see this article from August 2013 for more details, including some recent comments, and be ready to be even more confused!)

Sometimes students believe that they have confirmed that their phone is unlocked, and believe it should be able to send and receive signals from any cell service provider. Yet the phone simply does not work once the student arrives. This, too, causes confusion and distress every year; students will fight with Sim cards and insist that their phone should work, so why doesn’t it?

Whether it’s because manufacturers design phones differently, whether it’s because cell providers define “locked” differently, or whether it’s something else entirely doesn’t really matter. Just expect that your student’s phone from home may well not work, so you may need to find an alternative.

Get a local phone number!

Even if the phone from your student’s home country does work, students need to get a local phone number. Some students feel that since they are “only” here for 10 months, why spend time and money on a local phone number? Can’t they just hand out their existing phone number, and use WhatsApp all the time?

This, too, is something we see less often than in the past. Teens are becoming more “tech savvy” every year and the exchange organizations continually update their student orientations. But it still does happen, especially with teens used to calling and communicating across country lines more often than here in the U.S.

479218942 dollar signsThe key thing to communicate is that using a phone from another country here in the U.S. abroad can be incredibly expensive. The price for each call and text message will be at high international “roaming” rates. See this article for information about roaming charges; it includes differences between the larger U.S. cellular providers and has links to other related articles.

The expense can be a shock if the student and his or her family are not prepared. If the phone also handles data, data costs using a foreign cellular provider can be astronomical. That first huge phone bill with its long list of international calls, dozens of text messages at international rates ($0.20 – 0.50 per message), and a few hundred dollars for data sent and received usually gets a student’s attention (and their parents’ attention as well!).

Additionally, many people who exchange students meet in the U.S. may not be able to call them on their foreign phone since their U.S. friends’ phones may not have international service. Even if they do, a U.S. teen is going to have difficulty explaining why he or she is making expensive international calls and texts to a friend in the next classroom. This sometimes seems strange to exchange students who may cross borders on a regular basis back home and whose cellular calling plans may reflect that different reality.

Students may have limitations on Internet use

496619997 teen and gadgetsStudents who have smart phones with Internet capability (almost all students, these days) should check with their exchange program to learn about expectations for use of the Internet. What’s normal in one country for teens between the ages of 15-18 may not be normal in another country and culture. It’s not uncommon in the U.S. for young people in this age group to have limits imposed on their Internet use. This is especially true with exchange students, since continual contact with friends and family back home can make it more difficult for students to form relationships with their host family and people they meet in the host country. It can cause difficulties in the student’s ability to fully integrate into the host culture; students who are reaching out to what’s comfortable and familiar are not learning how to deal with the unknown and establishing new relationships. As a result, limits on internet use are common. It’s a good idea for exchange students coming to the U.S. to understand these expectations and guidelines.

Examples of what high school students coming to the U.S. may find to be different from their home country when it comes to cell phones and other communication technologies:

  • Many families have rules about texting and use of cell phones. A student’s host family may have rules about texting and use of cell phones in the home. In many host families, common house rules include turning phones off at a certain hour, or leaving phones in a common area by a certain hour in the evening (no midnight texting!). Other common rules include no cell phone use in the mornings as students are getting ready for school, as well as no texting, earphones, or calls in the car when parents are taking you somewhere. We work with our students to help them respect these rules and not to “fight” them; if they have questions about how it’s different from back home, students should get in touch with their local coordinator.
  • Students may find they have limits on amount and timing of Internet use. Many families may not allow personal use of the Internet until students have finished homework, or may have limits on the amount of time a teen may use the Internet for personal use. Many families require teens to turn off all Internet devices by a certain hour. These limits may be difficult for a teen used to unrestricted Internet availability.
  • Many U.S. high schools do not allow use of cell phones during school hours, either for calls/texts or for use of the Internet.
  • Wi-fi is not available everywhere, limiting use of the Internet (unless the student has purchased a data plan) to what is available in the host family home, school if available, and coffee shops, libraries, and other locations where it might be offered. Students also need to understand that they may need to pay their host family for use of the Internet in the host family home, depending on the kind of Internet service the host family has. While some families may have service that allows unlimited Internet use, many others do not, and we often receive panicky calls from host families asking us of advice because their exchange student has gone through an entire month’s worth of data usage in just a week or so.

cell phone 187625854So what’s the answer? I need a phone!

The easiest way for students to make sure they are able to communicate effectively is usually to buy a “pay as you go” (also called “prepaid”) cheap phone and phone/text plan. This “pay as you go” option avoids the need to sign a contract, which most exchange students cannot do. Costs vary depending on the cell provider, and may vary in different geographic areas, but tend to be $25-50/month for phone calls and text messages (more if a data plan is included); see this article for a recent (updated July 2015) comparison between different prepaid plans available in the U.S. If the student’s home phone is unlocked, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, the student may be able to buy a U.S. Sim card with a pay-as-you-go option and insert that into his or her existing device.

In today’s world, the “phone” may also contain a student’s photos and useful applications, so we know that many students will choose to bring their mobile phone with them even if it’s not likely to work in the U.S. A key piece of advice we give to all who do want to bring their phones with them is to make sure to turn off all cellular service, data service, and roaming service before students leave their home country, and to only leave on the wi-fi function. There are many free messaging options available now, too, so that one can avoid the costs and use wi-fi communication options.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted

10 Quick Tips for A Successful End To the Exchange Year

Host Families: Relax and be understanding, but don’t give up on your house rules

1. The second half of the exchange year is perfect time to relax with your student and enjoy the son/daughter relationship.  For these last few weeks, think about all that you have learned and how your life has changed.

2. At this time of year, your exchange student may have mixed feelings and may feel both sad and happy. Talk to him about it; don’t just let yourself get annoyed at teenage mannerisms.  These feelings are normal.  I’ve written more thoughts about returning home and the cultural transition back to one’s home country here and here.

3. Be patient and remember that while your student may act as if he or she doesn’t care anymore, it’s really a normal separation process.  It doesn’t mean he is going to forget you at all; rather, it’s the opposite.  It’s hard to express how one feels when leaving a place after 5 or 10 months, when you have developed relationships, and when you realize that you are leaving people you now care about very much.  Be understanding — but be firm that your exchange student is still expected to be a member of the family.  He knows your expectations; it’s OK to remind him that yes, curfew still applies and yes, he still is expected to let you know where he is going.

Jan, experiencing the art of fishing
Jan, experiencing the art of fishing

4. Do something to close out the year.  Take your student somewhere special: is there a favorite restaurant or activity?  Take the opportunity to go on a last weekend outing: has she been to the city nearby or the one three hours away? Does she love the beach or the lake or the mountains?  Offer to host an end-of-year going away party.  Closure is good for everyone.

5. Remind your student that U.S. government and exchange program rules still apply.  If your student wants to travel in the U.S. on his own, check with your exchange program representative, since it may not be allowed.  If your student is making her own arrangements for flying home, make sure she doesn’t stay beyond the 30-day grace period allowed under her visa.  And above all, remind your student that illegal activity is still illegal; one bad decision can still change your student’s plans for the last few weeks and result in an early return home.

Students: Try to have fun and relax – you know your host country’s “system” by now! – but don’t forget your host family and friends

©2015 Thinkstock.com
©2015 Thinkstock.com

1. Put together a “to do” list of things you need to do before returning to your home country (and the things you want to do).  Talk to your host parents about what’s possible in the time remaining.

2. Leave a “thank you for everything you’ve done for me” note for your host parents when you go to school one day — maybe on the last day or classes, or before the graduation ceremony if you are classified as a senior. Keep thanking your host parents for everything they do for you, even though you leave soon. It still matters.

3. Take your host family out to dinner before you return home as a thank you gesture.

4. Plan a going away party or event (with host parent permission) as part of your departure plans. It’s a great way to make sure you get contact information for all the people you have come to know during your time on exchange.

5. Make a special shopping trip with your host parents to get presents for family and friends back home – do it together.

Finally (student bonus tip!):

Sven, who loved penguins, with his stuffed penguin gift at Portland airport (June 2007)
Sven, who loved penguins, with his stuffed penguin gift at Portland airport (June 2007)

Don’t withdraw from your host family. Continue to do the things you have done with them. At this time of year when you are thinking about home –- and we know you are thinking about home, and you *should* be thinking about home — remember your host family, teachers, and other people you have met and gotten to know. These are your connections and relationships, and they will last a lifetime.

Culture Shock Revisited

What does it mean to experience culture shock? Commonly said to have originated in 1958 to describe the “anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment,” the term has become a glib statement rolling off our tongues without little thought. We all think we know what it means, whether we’ve been a short-term traveler, a year-long student on a study abroad program, or an expat.

And then there is “reverse” culture shock, a term pinned to the disorientation people feel about re-immersion into life back home. The disorientation doesn’t start when you get off the airplane and suddenly feel as though you are in a foreign land rather than your home country. As many of my high school students can tell you, it begins earlier – sometimes much earlier. Even now, just over halfway through the exchange year, my students are sharing confusion (“I tried to say something in Norwegian when I was Skyping with my parents, and the words wouldn’t come….I don’t want to forget who I am!”) and fears (“I’m already not the person I was when I came to this country. I’m more American, more independent, and I like different things. Will my friends back home still like me?”)

And it can continue for a long time afterwards, as well:

“I was an exchange student for a semester in 2012 in Australia. … I have looked for everything connected to exchange experiences in the last two years, out of melancholy for my own. I just wanted to say everything you write is so true and reminds me so much of my exchange… thank you for this wonderful website, because it’s helpful to me even though I am not an exchange student anymore! Do you think it’s normal that I keep thinking about my experience and miss it all the time?“

In her succinct 2014 easy-to-read e-book, Helene Rybol has managed to tie some of these loose ends together. She comes to the issue with a focus that is practical yet comforting, on an issue that calls for practical “tips” at the same time it calls for hugs and sharing of emotions. She covers both ends of this spectrum, as can be seen by chapter headings:

  • Craving comfort
  • Processing new information
  • Coping without autopilot
  • Dealing with difficult situations
  • Dealing with alienation
  • Bringing it all together

Rybol encourages readers to remember that changing one’s behavior – adapting to the host country’s customs – will change your perspective of what is comfortable and what is not. As she says, “your own behavior can be a source of comfort.” She urges travelers to “[l]et go of preconceived notions” by focusing your attention on what is around you, not on yourself. She reminds readers to pursue the experience by exploring the new environment – embracing it rather than shrinking from the unfamiliar.

To get through culture shock, we need to reconcile the information we’re getting with our own reactions, thoughts (in the shape of ideas, preconceived notions, expectations, hopes, cultural background) and personal needs, and adapt our thoughts and reactions to that information as well. We need to let go of preconceived notions to make room for reality.

Helene Rybol, Culture Shock: A Practical Guide (2014)

 

In describing what she means by “coping without autopilot,” Rybol reminds all of us that in our normal, everyday comfortable lives we are living on autopilot. We don’t have to think about what we are doing, or even when we are doing it. We’ve done it so often it’s gone beyond “normal.” When we are living in a new world – or when we return to our “old” world after a long experience elsewhere – our autopilot no longer functions. We don’t know how the appliances work, or upon return we hesitate because for a moment we’ve forgotten. Returning home, our minds grasp for the right word in our native language after months of not having spoken it on a daily basis. The solution? Develop new “autopilots”: new routines such as taking the same roads to school or work each day until they become familiar, going to the same coffeehouse or grocery store.

We are often advising our students that we recognize it’s difficult to live in a foreign country and that part of the process is learning how to deal with difficult situations – “find the strength inside yourself, I know it’s there” is something I urge my teens. Rybol makes this advice concrete: don’t assume something won’t work, or that an outcome will be negative; don’t make value judgments; and, importantly, push yourself: “[s]ometimes being kind to yourself also means kicking your own butt out the door.”

Rybol makes a couple of points that resonate with me, as I use the same points in my professional life as an environmental legal consultant in the world of energy conservation and climate change mitigation:

• Thinking of the cultural transition process in terms of stories:

We love stories. We read them, watch them, tell them. If you look at difficult or embarrassing situations as stories, does it change your attitude? Imagine yourself telling the story to your family, friends or children. Difficult or awkward moments make great stories!

• Emphasizing the usefulness of speaking up and the need to ask questions:

If you put your foot in your mouth and aren’t sure what was wrong or why it was wrong, ask! Always ask. People will most likely be happy to explain their perspective. Then you can explain what it’s like in your culture. A great way to start a conversation and diffuse the tension.

Think positive 467086529Rybol calls culture shock a roller coaster, a blunt yet descriptive term. She refers to it as “raw but exhilarating.” Perhaps that’s the nutshell take-away. The experience is more “culture transition” than “culture shock,” whether we’re talking about landing in a foreign place for the first time or returning home feeling like a stranger. It’s not intrinsically “bad” any more than it’s automatically “good” – it just is. It’s the process of adjusting, learning, adapting, and changing. As Helene Rybol says, “experiencing culture shock is a gift that helps us find our story within a world of stories and understand how all are connected.”

 

Visit Helene Rybol’s website: http://cultureshocktoolbox.com/. Her book Culture Shock: A Practical Guide is available at her website and through various ebook retailers.

*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.*

Mobile Phones and Exchange Students: Some Useful Tips

Last week I posted a summary of what to expect regarding students getting a drivers’ license while on their exchange year. Today I address cell phones, as part of this periodic series on “things students and host families might want to know.” What’s posted below may not be news for everyone, but hopefully it gives some direction to students who have not traveled extensively before and to host families who have not had to address the issue of what to do for young people who cannot sign a contract. Options vary in different parts of the U.S. and with different cell providers, so make sure to check locally for more precise information.

There is a good chance that phones from another country will not work in the U.S.

Before they leave their home country, we try to explain to students the difference between “locked” and “unlocked” phones, and ask them to check if their current phone can be “unlocked” before they leave. If it’s locked, it won’t work in another country with another cell provider. More students understand the basics of this than in past years, but it still does cause confusion. (And it’s more complicated than many of us think anyway: see this article from August 2013 for more details and be ready to be even more confused!)

Quite often students and their families will say they have confirmed that the student’s phone is unlocked, and thus believe it should be able to send and receive signals from any cell service provider. Yet the phone simply does not work once the student arrives. This, too, causes confusion and distress every year, as students will fight with Sim cards and insist that their phone is supposed to work, so why doesn’t it? Whether it’s because phones manufactured for sale and use elsewhere are designed differently, whether it’s because cell providers define “locked” differently, or whether it’s something else entirely doesn’t really matter. Just anticipate that your phone from home may well not work.

Even if the phone from home does work, students need to get a local phone number. Many students feel that since they are “only” here for 10 months, why spend time and money on a local phone number? For one thing, using a phone from another country here in the U.S. abroad can be incredibly expensive, since the price for each call and text message will be at high international rates. This can be a shock! If the phone also handles data, data costs using a foreign cellular provider can be astronomical. Second, many people who exchange students meet in the U.S. may not be able to call them on their foreign phone since their own phones may not have international service (not to mention the problem of having to explain expensive international calls that you’ve made to a friend in the next classroom). This often seems strange to the exchange students, but U.S. host families should keep in mind that the students may come from smaller countries where crossing a border can be something one does easily and often.

Even if a student brings a smart phone, students may have limitations on use of the Internet

Students who have smart phones with Internet capability should check with their exchange program to learn about expectations regarding use of the Internet. What’s normal in one country for teens between the ages of 15-18 may not be normal in another country an477922035 no phoned culture. It’s not uncommon in the U.S. for young people in this age group to have limits imposed on their Internet use. We do pay attention to this with exchange students, since it’s a normal culture shock reaction to want to stay in close contact friends and family back home. This continual contact can make it more difficult for students to form relationships with their host family and people they meet in the host country and can cause difficulties in the student’s ability to fully integrate into the host culture; basically, students are reaching out to what’s comfortable and familiar and not learning how to deal with the unknown and establishing new relationships. As a result, limits on internet use are common and it’s a good idea for exchange students coming to the U.S. to understand the expectations and guidelines.

Examples of what high school students coming to the U.S. may find to be different from their home country when it comes to cell phones and other communication technologies:

* Many families have rules about texting and use of cell phones.  A student’s host family may not allow use of cell phones in the home after a certain hour or in certain circumstances. In many host families in our area, for example, a common house rule is that all cell phones must be turned off and left in a common area by a certain hour in the evening (no midnight texting!). Other common rules include no cell phone use in the mornings as students are getting ready for school, or no texting, earphones, or calls in the car when parents are taking you somewhere.

* Students may find they have limits on amount and timing of Internet use. Many families may not allow personal use of the Internet until students have shown that they have finished homework, or may have limits on the amount of time a teen may have to send personal emails or get on Facebook or other social media. Many families require teens to turn off all Internet devices by a certain hour. These limits may be difficult to get used to if a teen is used to using the Internet without restriction.

* Many U.S. high schools do not allow use of cell phones during school hours, either for calls/texts or for use of the Internet.

* Wi-fi is not available everywhere, limiting use of the Internet to what is available in the host family home, school if available, and coffee shops, libraries, and other locations where it might be offered.

So what’s the answer? I need a phone!

The easiest way for students to make sure they are able to communicate effectively is usually to buy a “pay as you go” (also called “prepaid”) cheap phone and phone/text plan. This “pay as you go” option avoids the need to sign a contract, which most exchange students cannot do. Costs vary depending on the cell provider, and may vary in different geographic areas, but tend to be $25-50/month for phone calls and text messages (more if a data plan is included); see this article here for a recent (updated July 2014) comparison between different prepaid plans available in the U.S. If the student’s home phone is truly unlocked, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, the student may be able to simply buy a U.S. Sim card with a pay-as-you-go option and insert that into his or her existing device.

460495493 cell phone chatIn today’s world, the “phone” may also contain a student’s photos and useful applications, so we know that many students will choose to bring their mobile phone with them even if it’s not likely to work in the U.S. A key piece of advice we give to all who do want to bring their phones with them is to make sure to turn off all cellular service, data service, and roaming service before students leave their home country, and to only leave on the wi-fi function. There are many free messaging options available now, too, so that one can avoid the costs and use wi-fi communication options.

Be informed and be prepared!

If you’ve traveled internationally, this warning won’t come as a surprise to you. But many, many teens don’t have that experience under their belt. Every year, a few weeks or month after the students have arrived, we hear from them, or sometimes directly from their parents. That first huge phone bill with its long list of international calls, dozens of text messages at international rates ($0.20 – 0.50 per message), and a few hundred dollars for data sent and received usually gets their attention! Be wise, and plan for your international communications in advance so that you can avoid these unnecessary charges (and spend your money on much more worthwhile and fun things during your exchange year).

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