Schools: The Remaining Piece of the Exchange Placement Puzzle

High school exchange is like a jigsaw puzzle: many pieces must fall into place in order for an exchange year to happen. Even more pieces have to come together for the exchange experience to be successful over the course of a semester or academic year and for it to be a positive experience for all involved.

There are many points in assembling the jigsaw puzzle where the process can encounter a problem or fall apart. Maybe a student doesn’t have high English scores, has pet allergies, is diabetic, or has other characteristics that make finding a host family more difficult. Economic hard times can make it more difficult to find host families. A host family’s medical problem or family emergency can disrupt their hosting plans; the same can disrupt a student’s plans to go abroad or require an early return home.

A placement requires not just a student and a host family, however. It requires a school. Host families and students’ families often do not fully understand the role of the host school in completing the jigsaw puzzle. Many families and students think that exchange organizations simply need to tell the school that an exchange student will be attending. It’s not that simple.

460425521First, the host family’s home address generally determines which school a student will attend (at least for J-1 visa students, the “traditional” high school cultural exchange system managed by the U.S. Department of State, which is what we’re talking about in this blog post). Host families generally cannot choose which high school their student will attend – it’s determined by school attendance maps. The “matching” process we coordinators talk about requires not only that a host family find a student that will hopefully be a good fit in the home, but also that the student will be a good fit for the  school, as well as that the school agrees to have an exchange student. There needs to be a “meeting of the minds” with a school for every student.

Many schools look forward to welcoming exchange students as a way to expand U.S. students’ horizons and adding cultural diversity to their student body. The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), working with exchange program organizations and school administrators to come up with general exchange student guidance, recommends:

American high schools should strive to accept international exchange students each year. The number of international exchange students that a high school will accept and the timing/deadlines for the process vary. These guidelines suggest a middle ground that recognizes the needs of schools and exchange programs, taking into account the increasing difficulty of securing early student applications and host family commitments. Ideally, schools should work toward a goal of 1% of the total student population being comprised of exchange students. Acknowledging that school conditions vary locally, it is important to set a personal goal that best fits each school community.

— Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, Model School Policy on International Student Exchange (2002).

But there are conflicting interests in play for schools. These are most obvious when schools face limits on teacher and financial resources. Schools may fear the extra burdens non-native speakers add to already over-worked teachers. Athletic directors and state athletic associations may express concerns about foreign students taking competition opportunities away from permanent students.

The result is that school districts and individual schools often limit how many exchange students they can accommodate. They may allocate these “slots” on a first-come first-served basis. They may assign slots to individual exchange programs they know and trust, or set limits on each exchange organization (e.g., no more than 1 student per organization at a school). They may limit how many students can come from a particular country to increase diversity. They may require language scores higher than the U.S. Department of State minimum.

Most of us working in the field think that school restrictions are perfectly reasonable. It’s reasonable, for example, to set higher criteria for language proficiency, or to ensure a diversity of country representation among exchange students.

Sometimes, however, schools go beyond the steps described above and fundamentally (if unintentionally) rearrange the jigsaw puzzle pieces required for a successful exchange student placement. Perhaps a school has encountered problems with individual exchange students in the past. Perhaps a school decides for resource reasons it will reduce the number of students it will accept in the coming year. This can lead schools to radically change how they handle exchange student applications.

Let’s look at an example of how this can come about. A school district announces it will reduce by about half the number of exchange students its schools will accept for the coming year. It will accept applications from any exchange organization, but will hold all applications until after a deadline in late Spring. The district will inform the exchange organizations a few weeks later, close to the end of the school year, which students from which exchange organizations the district will accept for the coming academic year.

The school district genuinely believes this process will address its needs. It will still have exchange students in local schools, and district officials believe that by looking at all applications before deciding, they will get the “best” students. What district officials don’t see is that by adopting this process, they are fundamentally rearranging the jigsaw puzzle pieces in a way that is incompatible with how exchange student placement works. Over time, such an approach could break the model of high school exchange. Here’s why:

  • A key constraint in placing high school exchange students is the availability of host families. The benefits of hosting a student are significant, but it’s not something that everyone is ready to do. It’s hard to find families willing to open up their home for 9-10 months and to take on the financial and other burdens of a new teenager in their home. Finding host families is a key challenge for exchange coordinators.
  • The process of looking for host families begins as early as the Fall — almost a year before students arrive. With thousands of students being placed across the country, it’s a big job. By Spring, exchange organizations have finalized the placement of a large fraction of these students and are focusing on getting remaining students placed.
  • When a school announces it will select a specific number of exchange students from all applications filed by a Spring deadline, it introduces enormous uncertainty for everyone involved. How many host families should each exchange organization try to find? What should each exchange organization tell potential host families? Please fill out all the forms, go through the interviews and background checks, and choose a student, but we can’t tell you how likely it is your student will be selected? Should host families be encouraged to pick the most physically attractive students, or just the academically most superior, in the hope they’ll have an edge in the selection process? Are these really the criteria on the basis of which host families should be choosing a student, as opposed to how good a fit the student will be for the family and the community? We would argue “no,” if we want the jigsaw puzzle pieces of a successful placement to fall into place.

Study abroad applicationIf schools all over the U.S. were to implement this kind of process, exchange organizations would suddenly have hundreds (even thousands) of “school-less” students on their hands in late Spring, just as schools all over the country are preparing to shut down for the summer. They would also have frustrated host families, and (if this were to become the pattern) many families back home wondering if their son or daughter will be headed for the U.S. after all.

Creating disruptive uncertainty around the exchange student selection process is playing with host families’ and exchange students’ lives, and far fewer students and host families are likely to pursue exchange at all. Why would potential host families go to the trouble of selecting a student and go through the host family application process if they have no idea whether they will be able to host the student? Will schools always make “better” exchange student choices than the matching done by exchange program coordinators and choices made by host families? While the students a school selects could be perfect examples of successful exchange students, they could just as likely end up being relatively poor fits for their host families, and create new problems for the school.

Hundreds of students—indeed thousands—come to the U.S. and succeed every year. And some don’t. They’re teenagers, after all, and they—and their host families—are people who sometimes do the right thing, and sometimes they don’t. We’ve learned from experience that exchange student success is almost impossible to predict from a student’s written application alone. There are better ways for schools to solve resource issues and other problems than getting into the exchange student selection business. Like everyone else involved, schools should work to understand the finely tuned nature of the exchange process jigsaw puzzle.


International Youth Exchange Data: Where Do Our Students Come From?

I’ve been thinking about the countries which send high school exchange students to the U.S. each year. As I have noted before, trends have been changing, both in the countries sending students and the visas the students are using to come to the U.S.

I recently came across an infographic showing Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET) data from 2010-2011 in a nice visual way. At first, I thought about just posting that infographic with a short “times have changed since then,” but decided to take a closer look. What I find interesting is how in some respects little has changed in the past five years; in other ways, much has changed. Compare current data for 2013-2014 (the last full year for which data are available) to the data in the infographic five years ago:

  • 29,192 high school students came to the U.S. in 2013-2014 through organizations approved by CSIET to attend mostly public high schools. This number has been more or less consistent for the past decade.
  • The top 10 countries from which these high school exchange students came during 2013-2014 have not changed, although individual country numbers have gone up or down:
© 2014 Council on Standards for International Educational Travel
© 2014 CSIET
  • The top 10 countries receiving U.S. high school exchange students (“outbound” students) are mostly the same, although readers will note the decrease overall in the number of U.S. students going to each country. South Africa and Russia made it onto the list last year, while Chile and Belgium dropped off the “top 10” list, slipping down to 12th and 14th respectively. Also, we are seeing a continued downward trend in the number of U.S. high school students studying abroad overall: 1,102 went abroad in 2013-2014, which is half the number we saw five years ago.
© 2014 Council on Standards for International Educational Travel
© 2014 CSIET
© 2014 Council on Standards for International Educational Travel
© 2014 CSIET
  • One of the more interesting changes in recent years is the trend from China, which continues to send more and more high school students to the U.S. to study. About 4,000 high school students came to the U.S. from China during 2013-2014 through CSIET-approved organizations, as compared to 545 just 10 years earlier. Compare this to Germany, which has consistently been the top country where high school exchange students come from: Germany still is #1, with some 6,500 students during 2013-2014, but the number has decreased by 1,000 students in recent years.
  • A related change is the increased number of F-1 visa students in recent years. F-1 visa students, as I have written elsewhere, come through the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security rather than the Dept. of State, with very different goals and oversight requirements. International education professionals tend to agree that the number of high school
    © 2015 CSIET
    © 2015 CSIET

    students coming to the U.S. on F-1 visas has increased dramatically in recent years. Most F-1 visa students attend private schools and may not come through CSIET-approved organizations (or any organization, as these students apply directly to a school), which can cause confusion in understanding the overall numbers.  In 2009, the number of foreign students attending private school in the U.S. on an F-1 visa was 13,700. In 2013, that number had increased to more than 73,000. The number of F-1 students attending high schools through CSIET-approved organizations also has increased during this period, although overall numbers are much smaller: 518 F-1 students during the academic year 2009-2010 as compared to compared to a bit over 4,000 in 2013-2014.

    © 2015 CSIET
    © 2015 CSIET







  • The infographic from 2010 shows the top 10 states where “conventional” exchange students (generally, J-1 visa and F-1 visa students in mostly public high schools and living in a cultural exchange with host families) end up. The list has not changed much (Oregon, which was on the “top 10” list five years ago, dropped from #10 in 2012-2013 to #11 in 2013-2014):
Top 10 states
© 2014 CSIET

I’m not sure yet what I make of all of this. Germany continues to enthusiastically send its teens to live in host families and learn about the U.S., for example, and certain areas of the U.S. continue to be more open to (or just used to) having exchange students in their midst.

That said, the dramatic increases in F-1 students choosing to bypass conventional cultural exchange programs and attend largely private schools could substantially change the nature of international youth exchange. The changes in geographic patterns for “conventional” exchange students (i.e., the traditional cultural exchange/host family experience) could also radically change the make-up of high-school exchange within the coming decade.  We know that students from China (and other Asian countries) tend to have larger cultural and language divides to overcome, which may be more difficult at the high school level; moreover, these students often have different motivations for coming to the U.S. to attend high school.  This affects their exchange experience and that of their host families.

The continued downward trend for U.S. high school students to study abroad in an exchange setting is disappointing, but the numbers are too small to draw any real conclusions as to whether something is fundamentally changing in the current generation’s outlook.

For those who are interested, here is the infographic from five years ago; you can find it online here.

International Youth Exchange
Charts and tables in this blog post are from:
  • 2014, Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), 2013-2014 International Youth Exchange Statistics: Semester and Academic Year Programs.
  • 2015, Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, F-1 Visa Trends: International High School Students in the United States 2009-2013.

The Montana Shooting: Reflections on a Tragedy and Thoughts on the Future

On April 27, 2014, a tragedy in the U.S. state of Montana shook the high school exchange community from coast to coast, and reached across the Atlantic to Europe. Diren Dede, a 17-year-old high school exchange student from Germany, was shot and killed just weeks before he was scheduled to return home. Diren had reportedly entered an open garage in his neighborhood late that night, and the owner of the house shot him. Some news reports say Diren was “garage hopping,” a fad in which teens run into open garages looking for … alcohol … soda … snacks? It’s supposed to be a prank. It didn’t turn out that way for Diren Dede.

I’ve been thinking about this horrific event, not quite knowing how to apply it to my work with exchange students. It’s an absolute tragedy for everyone involved, with ripple effects to Diren’s family and friends – both back home and here in the U.S. – and to exchange students all over the country. It’s been difficult for Germans to grasp how this could happen; many of us here in America can’t figure it out either.

risk diceI’m not planning to discuss who did what, and who is at fault for what; it’s hard to sort out the facts from a distance. But I think it makes sense to look at the situation from the perspective of exchange programs, and in particular the perspective of the 2014-2015 group of exchange students and their parents as those students prepare to leave for the United States this summer. I’ve heard, for example, that one German student’s parents refused a host family placement in the state of Wyoming because Wyoming is next to Montana and therefore it, too, must be a dangerous place to live. The reaction is understandable, but it’s unfortunate. What might that student miss by not spending the year with the host family in Wyoming who chose her application from among all others?

Lessons Learned From Tragedy

How do we in the exchange community reduce the chance of this kind of thing happening in the future? How do we further ensure our students’ safety, which is already constantly on our minds? We have to start by understanding that teenagers aren’t adults. We know their brains are not fully developed. They process risks differently from how they will view risk several years from now. Risk, for all practical purposes, just doesn’t exist for them. Moreover, we know that many teenage exchange students anticipate that their study abroad experience will be a vacation from their own parents. That’s a normal teen feeling regarding the prospect of being away from home. It takes time for them to learn that they are living a real life, not a vacation life, in their host country.

Those of us working in this field try to teach them that they are coming into a totally different environment from their lives back home, and that they have to adapt. That means they have to grow up pretty quickly; we’re expecting them to suddenly make good adult-like choices, change habits they may have lived with for years, and adapt to a different community and a different school system from what they are used to – all in a few months. We’re there to help them along that path, and to help them make good decisions. But we can’t foresee everything. Garage hopping? Most of my colleagues and I had never heard of it. But I guarantee it’s on the list now, regardless of whether that is, in fact, what was going on that night in April.

Warning our students to be careful and to make “good” decisions has nothing to do with whether they are in Montana or Oregon. In the U.S., the principles of private property are such that the idea of walking into someone else’s garage at midnight – much less someone you don’t even know — is a terrible idea. This isn’t good, and it’s not bad; there’s no value judgment. It’s just a fact, part of our “normal.” Acknowledging that Diren may have made a mistake in walking into the garage of a neighbor at midnight does not justify the action of the homeowner. But it still leaves the question of why a teenager was walking around at midnight in the garage of someone who, by all accounts, he did not know.

No alcohol imageThe simple answer is that Diren was 17 years old. If you have – or have had – a 17 year old, you “get” it. They do things like this, things that make the adults around them ask “what were they thinking?” Most of the time, a teen’s bad decisions are just dumb, with little or no long-term consequences. Some of the time, there are mid-level consequences – a fine or a court appearance for a teen caught drinking alcohol, for example, or financial consequences for crashing a car the student wasn’t supposed to be driving. For an exchange student, bad decisions can lead to the disciplinary action of immediately being sent home. Sometimes, however, the consequences of making the wrong decision are even more tragic and irreversible.

This is why, in the high school exchange community, we have rules about “act first and ask questions later” when it comes to student safety – if there is even a hint that a student is in trouble or in danger, U.S. government regulations require us to take action to protect the student and investigate the circumstances afterwards. This is why parents and host parents want to know where their children and students are when they are out on their own, and who they are with and what they are doing. This is why it’s common for U.S. teens to have curfews. It’s always hard for exchange students to understand; many of them feel they are being treated like children, and they often have been accustomed to much more freedom in their home country.

But they’re not at home now. They are in a foreign country, with foreign rules and foreign customs. Host parents shouldn’t be afraid to impose the rules and guidelines – not only are we talking about teens, with risk management brains that are far from fully developed, but we’re talking about teens who don’t understand their host country’s peculiarities – any host country, not just the United States. Natural parents of students can help by trying to understand that they can’t expect the rules and customs of the host country to be the same as their own; they can encourage their children to adapt to the reality of life in their host country. This can’t totally prevent students from making bad decisions — but I believe it substantially reduces the possibility.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, we all need to figure out how to move forward. Should we give up on the idea of cultural and education exchange in this country? I believe that would be a serious mistake. Does it make sense to cancel your child’s plan to come to the United States this August? I would strongly disagree; terrible things can happen anywhere and at any time. Should we establish a new rule that exchange students can’t go out after 10 pm? That would be silly.  How about not allowing exchange students to ride in a car? Of course not, although the fact is that the chance of being killed in a car accident is far greater than of being shot. That doesn’t stop us from getting into cars. Life does go on for the 30,000 exchange students who come to the U.S. each year, and for the new batch that will be here this coming year.

Diren Dede should not have died that night in April. He should be preparing his return home to Germany after a year that would have framed his approach to his life as an adult. I don’t know how to help alleviate the pain Diren’s family, host family, and friends feel right now. I know there is nothing I can do directly. But I also know I will continue to work to bring young men and women to my country to learn the value of study abroad and cultural exchange, and I will continued to encourage U.S. teens to do the same in reverse. If they stay home, it’s true they won’t suffer from things that could go wrong. They won’t cry from getting in trouble for a bad teen decision. But we won’t meet them, either, and they won’t meet us. And that seems like a shame for everyone. Better, in my opinion, to learn somehow from what has happened and to work to make sure there aren’t other headlines like this.

Photo credits: ©2014

How Far Will the Pendulum Swing for Rules Governing High School Exchange Students?

We recently received a note from the exchange program we work with notifying us about a new program rule: host parents who speak the language of their exchange student (even as a non-native) will be asked to sign a statement that says that host parents will “only” communicate with their student in English.

On the face of it, that doesn’t sound unreasonable.  After all, the students are here to improve their English and a key goal of the secondary school exchange program is to immerse the students in their host language and culture.  So making sure host parents speak English in the home, as opposed to using the exchange student as a year-long language immersion program of their own, is important.  Right?

Well, yes.  But host parents already sign a document comprising several dozen or more rules they are committing to abide by. Is a separate document saying they will “only speak in English” necessary, or even appropriate?  What happens when extended family members come over to visit and want to have a small German conversation at the dinner table, both to perhaps practice their own language skills and in a perceived attempt to make the student more comfortable?  What if the student is having a problem at home or at school and is having difficulty expressing himself in English (not exactly uncommon, especially at the beginning of the year); is a host parent who knows the student’s language not allowed to have a short conversation in the student’s language to ensure clear communication?  What if the student asks you to explain something to his parents over Skype and wants to participate in the conversation?

When we raised these issues, the exchange program noted that these hypothetical situations wouldn’t pose a problem.  But that’s not what the document says.  If it isn’t intended to suggest “zero tolerance,” how is it different from the general guidelines already in effect, discussed with families on a case-by-case basis, that English is the primary language?  Why is it needed, and what is the point of taking away that flexibility?

How many rules are too many?

When we expressed our discomfort with this document , the program did back down – for now.  It’s not this specific rule that troubles me, though, in the long run. I’m using this example to bring up the larger issue of “how many rules are enough?”  Government rules and regulations tend to follow the path of a pendulum.  Something bad happens, it receives public attention, and the pendulum regulationsstarts to swing in the direction of more regulation. The pendulum swings farther and farther until the negative consequences are so obvious that changes are made and the pendulum starts to swing back in the other direction. But then it often swings too far in that direction, something bad happens again, and the cycle starts again. It is a maxim of regulatory decision-making that it is very hard to stop the regulatory pendulum at the “right point,” regardless of which direction it is swinging at the time.

There are many who believe that over the last several years, the pendulum for high school exchange programs has been swinging toward “overregulation.” For each new regulatory requirement, something has no doubt happened involving one or more exchange students somewhere in the U.S. (out of the 28,000 who come to the U.S. each year), and a decision is made to implement a new general rule with the goal of preventing that particular occurrence in the future.  In today’s inter-connected world, when almost any negative news event can be public knowledge across the entire country within a day, this kind of reaction is almost inevitable: people hear about it and demand that “something must be done.”

Can exchange programs survive?

But does creating more rules really prevent future occurrences of bad events – and at what point do we see unintended consequences?  As the pendulum continues to swing, generating more and more exchange rules, how many host families might be walking away from the table? winners losersCan the public diplomacy goal of cultural and educational exchange survive the challenge of ever tighter and more numerous rules and regulations?

We have seen a number of new rules in the last few years (adding to the many already in place).  Among those that have raised eyebrows among the every-day world of host families:

  • If a host family wants the student to spend a few days with a friend’s family or with extended members of the host family (without the host family), that other family now has to go through a background check, regardless of how well the host parents might know the family. This isn’t an insurmountable challenge, to be sure, and it’s not difficult to get background checks.  But the inability to make impromptu or last-minute plans removes flexibility and can make it more difficult for students to develop relationships with U.S. teens or extended members of the host family.  It also can put local coordinators in the awkward position of telling someone that their student cannot spend weekends with host mom’s parents unless and until the parents get a background check.  Desirable in terms of student safety? Perhaps. But one can also argue there are probably very few situations in which a student is in danger when visiting an extended host family member or friend of the family for a few days.  So is “zero tolerance” the right strategy?
  •  In many programs, local coordinators often can no longer organize impromptu trips with students they supervise.  Host parents can decide on Friday to bundle their exchange student into the car for a weekend trip to Seattle, and even invite another exchange student along.  But coordinators not currently hosting a student can no longer invite students we supervise to accompany our family on a similar impromptu last-minute trip. Don’t misunderstand: we can organize trips for students we supervise, as long as it’s enough in advance to submit paperwork to the home office with all the details (when are we going, where will we stay, how many students, what is the agenda) and obtain written permission from students’ parents back home.  In other words, we can organize a trip as a travel agent/tour guide.  It’s possible to do it; but the reality is that the extra work involved reduces the likelihood that exchange students we’re supervising will be able to participate in such trips.

Do we really want to keep narrowing the definition of what’s “reasonable”?

An inevitable downside of having so many rules is that host families have trouble prioritizing all the rules, and quickly come to forget some of them. There are 26 separate “terms and conditions” in our own host parent agreement, for example. In practice, host parents don’t remember each and every item each and every day. Yes, of course, we can announce with all seriousness that you are expected to read what you sign and remember what you read.  But then there’s reality, which is that the more rules you have in place, the more likely people are to forget some of them.  And what if they forget the really important ones because they’re distracted by so many others?

think outside boxAs host parents read through longer and longer lists of rules, it gets harder and harder to instill the vision of “a fun year” in their minds.  And if it’s not fun, it’s harder to convince people it’s worthwhile! There is such a thing as too many rules.  It’s certainly true that we’re dealing with people, and people will make mistakes.  But if you perceive rules as your only hammer, you may accidentally hammer shut the lid on high school exchange.

High school sports for exchange students: a right or a privilege?

Those of us who work with high school exchange students generally are in favor of our students playing  on their host school’s sports teams.  We talk it up before the students arrive and we talk it up when we first meet the kids in August.  We tell them what a great opportunity it is and how it will help them understand American high school “spirit,” make it easier to become part of high school life in American, and will help them make some friends at the beginning of the school year.

All very true statements!  I’m supervising a couple of exchange students this year who are on their school’s cheerleading team and who are thrilled to be able to do something that is so typically “American.”  My own student (the one we’re hosting) has been happily playing soccer and was tickled by the warm welcome he received by the players and the coaches.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details.  Participating in school sports is not automatic and there are many limitations for exchange students.  The rules vary from state to state.  But here’s a quick glance at a few rules from different states:

* If an exchange student has requested a specific host family (for example, because an older brother or sister lived with them, or the student’s parents know the host family), the exchange student may not be allowed to compete in a high school sport at his or her U.S. high school.  (They might be allowed to train and just not compete; it all depends on the state’s rules.)

* If the student has graduated from high school in his or her home country, many U.S. states will not allow the student to participate in high school sports.

* Some states do not let exchange students play at the varsity level at all.

* There usually are rules about what happens if a student transfers to another school during the school year or if they are attending a school outside the boundaries of where their family lives.  This can affect exchange students if they move to a different host family during the year, or if the school district has given permission for the student to attend another high school in the district where the host family lives.

* U.S. states often require that the exchange program be listed on the advisory list of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), the standard-setting organization for exchange programs.

If a student can’t play on their school’s official team, there often are city or other regional recreational teams that can be just as much fun (or even more fun, depending on whether a student is looking for the competitive aspect or just wants to play and meet people!).  So just something to know in advance, whether you are a student looking forward to playing sports at an American high school or whether you are a host parent trying to help your new student get settled in at school.