Host Family Tips: How Can I Help My New Exchange Student in The First Few Weeks?

airplane with welcome words

Bringing a student into the home is not an automatic “we will live happily ever after” situation. It requires work and time to build a good relationship. It amazes us every year to see the lengths that families go to welcome their students: taking them on excursions around the community, showing them the local high school, and just spending time with them. Even with such enthusiasm, however, it can be helpful to think a bit about how to direct your efforts.

Here are some of our basic recommendations.


Your student may not be up for a major tour of the city when you pick him or her up. She may have just come from her home country, or she may have spent several days at an exchange program’s post-arrival orientation. Either way, she won’t have slept much. Food is generally appreciated; you might want to stop at a favorite eating spot on the way home or make sure to have something tasty ready at home.

camouflage-1297384_640Even if your student seems alert and says he/she is not tired, the change in time zones will cause fatigue and confusion in ways the student may not realize, and not just the first day or two after arrival. Listening and talking in a foreign language is physically exhausting, too. Don’t be surprised if your student wants to take naps for awhile even if she has had a full night’s sleep; this can continue for several weeks.

If you are thinking about inviting family friends and neighbors to a welcome party, you might want to wait a few days. You might think a party is a great idea, and the extended family may be excited about meeting your new family member. We’ve found, however, that meeting all those new people — with their many different voices speaking English in many different ways — can be overwhelming to teens struggling to stay on their feet and desperately trying to understand what is going on around them.

Confusion and Hesitation

It’s normal to feel stressed or anxious in a new place and to feel overwhelmed by the “foreignness” of it all. Many students arrive thinking they will not have adjustment difficulties. They think they know the US from having been here on a vacation, perhaps, or from watching so many TV shows and movies. They arrive … and suddenly they realize that streets are different, stories are different, houses are different, and the way people walk and talk are different. They panic, sometimes consciously but sometimes at a deeper level.

Let your student know that it is OK and normal to be homesick, and that you can help them. Encourage your student to talk about how he or she is feeling. Try to get them involved in something to keep busy: read a book, watch movies or TV shows in English to work on language, talk walks to get used to the neighborhood, go to the mall. Ask your local contact if it’s possible for your student and others in the program to get together.


Students must have a reasonable command of English in order to be eligible to be an exchange student. That doesn’t mean they are fluent.

Students in the beginning will likely understand anywhere from 70–80% of what you and others say. It’s the 20-30% they don’t understand that causes miscommunication and results in host families and students complaining about each other. Your student may nod at everything you say, either because he is sure he understands (and he probably really believes he has understood the important parts) or because he doesn’t have a clue but is too polite to say so. Speak slowly, be careful about using slang or idioms, and be prepared to repeat yourself on the same subject several times. Your student’s brain is literally working full-time trying to translate. Feel free to ask your student to restate a key point back to you to make sure it got through.

Start Conversations

Host families often tell us in the beginning of the year that they think their student is quieter than he or she comes across in the student’s application. The same students will tell us they are too nervous to talk and so remain quiet. Don’t assume that the quiet hesitant student you may see the first few days is the “real” person.

You can help your student to start talking. Have you heard of a conversation jar? Put possible conversation topics onto strips of paper and put the topics into a jar. In the evenings at dinner, pull one out at random and make everyone say something about the topic. You can easily find conversation jar lists online (sample lists here and here), or come up with your own! Another idea is to ask your student to come to the dinner table prepared to talk about a “story of the day” from the news.

Start Small

Take your student on errands. Things that may not feel like a major excursion for you — or a fun one — will be new for your student. Grocery shopping can be an event in itself. See if your community has a store specializing in products from your student’s home country; perhaps you can buy ingredients to make his favorite meal and learn something about your student’s culture and cuisine at the same time.

Show your student around the house and begin to explain how things “work” in your family. Does he have laundry yet? Talk about the washer and dryer. When do you want him to change the sheets on his bed? Explain where you keep the sheets and where to put dirty ones. If your student goes for a walk or takes the bus into town while you are work, do you expect her to tell you ahead of time? Explain, and tell her why it’s important.

ice-cream-1101396_640Take a walk with your student around the neighborhood and show him key spots and interesting places. Is there a park nearby, and is it OK if she goes for a walk or run on her own through the park? How far is the grocery store — can she walk there? Do you have an extra bike she can ride (with a bike helmet)? Show her the way. Where are the post office and the library? For teens, snacks and “hangouts” are important; show them where to get ice cream or frozen yogurt, if you have a good place nearby.

In short, think about what you might want to know in a brand-new place, and try not to make assumptions about your student’s personality or what he or she knows or understands. Watch her, listen to her, and get her involved at school. Talk about conflicts early. Following these recommendations now can help you set the tone for the whole year.

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

An Exchange Student Wedding

My wife, Jenn, and I spent this past Saturday at the marriage of my former exchange student, Nha, from Vietnam. Nha spent the 2003-04 school year with my family through EF High School Exchange Year. She returned to the U.S. to go to college and recently started working at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU).

It was a lovely ceremony, held mostly in Vietnamese. It was followed by a wonderful reception, with all sorts of tasty and interesting dishes from Nha’s homeland.

weddingThe only phrase I remember in Vietnamese from my year with Nha was “cam an,” which means “thank you.” Some of the food was familiar, but some—being celebration food—was new, such as the chicken dish and two whole roasted pigs. The ceremony itself had some differences from what I’m used to, including a sort of karaoke performed by the wedding party.

After we left, Jenn pointed out that our experience in a crowd full of happy, talkative, outgoing strangers, separated by a language barrier, was probably a good deal like the experience of a new exchange student. There was no shortage of good will and desire to communicate, but it was very hard to understand everything that was going on in overwhelmingly unfamiliar surroundings.

We realized that this is what it must feel like to students who have just arrived in their host country.

I found—the way a person who has one sense dulled notices other senses strengthening—that I was paying closer attention than usual to body language to figure out what people were doing. Smiles and gestures got us through most everything; things like table assignments at the reception required more careful and detailed translation.

New students go through this same process as their English skills develop. Misinterpretations are part of the learning process.

The wedding ceremony was held under the auspices of a relatively familiar religious affiliation, so its rhythms and progress were relatively easy to follow. However, the language barrier wiped away any distinctions between what might have been a cultural practice and what was there simply because the two young people at the altar wanted it that way.

That confusion is what we see with our exchange students. What’s culturally American and what is peculiar to our households becomes indistinguishable, and can cause students to make assumptions that they later find to be invalid.

The ingredients in the wedding food were largely familiar, but prepared and seasoned in unfamiliar ways. The overall flavor and texture palette were at turns delightful and off-putting. Hunger, and a desire to be gracious, overcame some of our nervousness…but some differences are just too much to overcome. Chicken feet are past my limits.

A student sitting down to her first few American meals must experience the same thing. Processed cheese slices may be beyond our students’ ability to deal with unfamiliar tastes.

By the end of the evening, watching Nha dance with her new husband (I stayed dry-eyed up until I saw her starting to cry during that dance, I swear!), and seeing the joy in the little interactions between friends and family, it was clear that no matter how different they were from us, it was far easier to see the humanity that unites us all than to focus on the cultural and individual differences between us.

Our students have the same experience, as they grow to know the warmth of our hearts and our homes.

Nha’s wedding offered a powerful lesson in understanding the struggles—and the rewards—our students face, particularly in the early days of their time with us. It was a reminder to Jenn and me to be patient and compassionate in helping them through the period of culture shock and of the shared joy that awaits on the far side.

Lars D. H. Hedbor is an amateur historian, home brewer, astronomer, fiddler, linguist, and baker. His fascination with the central question of how the populace of the American Colonies made the transition from being subjects of the Crown to citizens of the Republic drives him to tell the stories of those people, whether in television appearances, classroom presentations, or in the pages of his Tales From a Revolution novels. Hedbor lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Jennifer Mendenhall, and five daughters. Lars and Jennifer are exchange student coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year.

Reverse Culture Shock: What Language Do You Dream In?

One of the things we think about at this time of year is the fact that our students will be returning home soon. We’ve written about that before; see, for example, Tips for Exchange Students: I’m Ready to Go Home, I’m Not Ready to Go Home and 10 Quick Tips for a Successful End to the Exchange Year. Readers who haven’t hosted an international student or who haven’t lived abroad for long periods of time might not understand at first that there might be issues to talk about. After all, wouldn’t it be good to return home after a long time away?

But returning home can be more complicated than you might think.

We see these complications in the high school exchange students we work with each year. They feel comfortable now in their host families and in their host communities, but they’re still “foreigners.” Yet they don’t feel exactly German, Brazilian, or Australian anymore, either. They don’t really know what to expect when they return home. Will their friends be jealous of the experiences they have had? Will their parents be upset that their teen is more independent than before? Will their boyfriend/girlfriend have moved on? They miss their parents and friends, but they know they will miss their host families and new friends here. Yes, they look forward to going back home. They also want to hold on to the life they have developed in their host country.

The disorientation often begins before a traveler returns home. Many of our students are beginning even now—three months before most of them will leave the U.S.—to share their confusion and anxiety. The mixed feelings can continue for a long time afterwards, as well.

Reverse Culture ShockMany people have written about “reverse” culture shock, a term pinned to the disorientation people feel about re-immersion into life back home after a significant amount of time abroad. You might think that one more book couldn’t add anything new. Perhaps that’s true. H.E. Rybol’s new book, Reverse Culture Shock, may not add anything new. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t add anything useful. It does, and there’s a difference.

“Reverse culture shock” does not have a simple, one-sentence definition or solution. Rybol explores what this concept means through reflections and personal stories. It’s an easy read – and at the same time a difficult one. Rybol covers her own experience, as perhaps is the best way to explore an issue that is deeply personal. She covers the challenges of living abroad, as you cannot talk about the impacts of returning home without bringing in what happens before you go home. She talks about comparing cultures when you’ve experienced cultures that seem so different. She looks at the impacts on friendships. She talks about how immersion in a second language can confuse the brain (have you ever switched languages several times in the same sentence?).

Our students, who come to the U.S. to spend 5 or 10 months immersing themselves in our culture, often tell us what Rybol describes. They go home and friends tell them they have an American accent — something that they have perhaps worked hard to achieve during their time here, but which now seems like something negative. They struggle to express themselves in their own language after being immersed in English for so long; one of our own students related to us a few years ago how he got off the plane and walked into the airport terminal to a circle of family and friends — and for a moment, could not remember a word of German.

Upon returning home, our students—like Rybol—say they think about things differently. This can range from different ways of problem solving that is a natural outgrowth of being compelled to deal with new and sometimes challenging situations, to having a changed perspective of what “America” is all about after having lived in an American city, small town, or farm. They are not American, of course. But in a way they are no longer German, Thai, or Brazilian. They’re something more.

The return home is not seamless. This transition into “something more” can be a difficult process. Rybol talks about the return as being part of a mirror:

“When you visit your country of origin. . ., it can feel disconcerting when you realize you don’t fit in as you used to. You feel disconnected. There’s no mirror, no one reflecting that new part of you.”

Other long-term travelers have described this feeling in similar ways. Cate Brubaker, of Small Planet Studio, finds it helpful to distinguish reverse culture shock from the general re-entry process. Reverse culture shock is part of re-entry, she believes, but she does not consider them the same thing:

Re-entry, the way I see it, is a more holistic way of looking at the part of your abroad journey that occurs once you go “home.” Your abroad journey doesn’t end when you step off the plane. Your journey simply transitions from being abroad to being in re-entry.

I don’t know if Rybol would characterize it exactly the same way. But she does describe this transition as something that can be a positive experience. She talks about ways that have helped her to readjust to life back home after long periods abroad. She feels the process can teach you that going outside your comfort zone can expand your thinking and teach you new skills. It can help you understand your own culture better than you did before. It can remind you that “[f]eeling vulnerable and lost is a way to learn about the need for kindness and compassion.” In other words, it’s really part of the entire cross-cultural experience.

Reverse Culture Shock is a different kind of book. It’s not a “how-to.”  It’s reflective and personal. You may not get the answers you seek on how to deal with your feeling of anxiety, confusion, happiness, and sadness, although Rybol does give some suggestions. What you will gain, however is the perspective of somebody who has been there, who has herself experienced the ups and downs, unclear feelings, uncertainty — and the feeling that the rest of your life is better for having had this experience:

This trip helped me realize that connecting across cultures can make us kinder, more compassionate, grateful and understanding. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. Instead, we should be aware of how the effects of connecting across cultures can positively impact the lives of everyone involved. It has a ripple effect.

Reverse Culture Shock is available at Amazon. Find out more about H.E. Rybol at her website.

Photo credits: H.E. Rybol and Samuel Zeller.



When You Hear an Exchange Student Needs Help – What To Do?

A reader of the ExchangeMom blog recently posed this question:

My question is not about my student, but about another student in another state and program that is a friend of his. He has told me that her placement is not good. They are denying her medication and socialization. They are extremely religious and are forcing those beliefs on her. She has spoken with her representative and the school, so what are her next steps?

I hear reports like this quite often. Sometimes it comes from a host parent who has heard something from a friend, sometimes it comes from a student we are hosting or a student we are supervising. We always take such reports seriously, since the well-being of exchange students is our paramount concern. But I also discuss with the communicator of the report how students (both the one reporting to us and the friend) often jump to conclusions, feel insecure, or just don’t understand as much English as they think they do.

When you hear a story like this, remember several things

When we hear stories like this, we ask the person telling it to us to remember a few key points:

1) Teens have trouble believing their friends would not be 100% honest or factually correct in reporting their situation; adults, too, have trouble believing someone they know and trust could be mistaken or intentionally deceive them. Even our own student this year – who hears from us, as a result of our role in the program, quite a bit of information about how we work with students in the region — told us about a student he knew who was being sent home for underage drinking when (according to him) she hadn’t had any alcohol to drink; she had told him and others that the program made it all up.  We had quite a bit of difficulty in convincing him that this simply didn’t make sense. “She wouldn’t lie,” he said.

2) Miscommunication is the name of our game in the world of study abroad. Let’s face it — most of us aren’t great communicators to begin with, and most people of any age try to avoid conflict. Add to that mix teenagers from another country. Teens as a group act impulsively; as exchange students, they are acclimatizing to living in a foreign country and speaking a foreign language every day. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the result, if not managed, can be massive miscommunication.

Truth is in the eyes of the beholder

Truth 478611913The situation reported by the reader of our blog cries out “Miscommunication! Misunderstanding!” to me. On the religion issue, it may be that the host family is not forcing religious beliefs on their student. Rather, it could be that the student is uncomfortable with going to church, but sees that it is important to her host family and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Maybe she’s not a talkative or outgoing person and isn’t sure how to talk about this issue with her host parents. When we had a similar situation a few years ago, the host parents were horrified when we told them how their student felt. It was never their intent to force her to go to church. They believed they had been clear that she didn’t have to go. But she had felt that would be rude, and had said nothing, leading them to believe she enjoyed going and resulting in her being miserable.

Similar misunderstandings could be the cause of the student’s statement that her host parents are denying her medication. One possible explanation that comes to mind, for example, is that perhaps the student came with a batch of medicines and treatments of various kinds, and the host parents were uncomfortable with the student having control of it. (If you haven’t seen our blog post on this topic, read it here.) Our own student this year came with his personal small pharmacy that included everything from rash treatments to antibiotics, with no instructions; in fact, much of it wasn’t even in original packaging. Students from Eastern Europe and Asia sometimes come with entire travel bags of undecipherable items. In this case, “denying her medication” could be a responsible action for a host parent in the United States — what makes sense elsewhere doesn’t necessarily make sense here (and the reverse is also true!).

We are not trying to say that an adult who hears about such stories and situations should ignore the complaint. Not at all. The very fact of a complaint does suggest that there is a problem, even if it it’s not the problem the student is announcing. If a student is complaining, she’s unhappy about something, which someone needs to investigate. Whether she is unhappy because she is being mistreated, or because she is having trouble adjusting to the host environment, or simply doesn’t understand key elements in each sentence that is being spoken to her – something is wrong. True, it’s a lot easier for teens to blame the people around them than to take a long honest look at themselves, and culture shock can sometimes be quite a challenge. But you don’t want to ignore it.  The situation a student is describing could be mostly true. Even if it is not mostly true, there is a student who is having problems adjusting to her host family and community. If we can get to the bottom of it sooner rather than later, we can help solve the problem and with any luck the teen and her host family can have a rewarding experience. In some cases, however, the student may need to be moved.

When we get stories like this from host families or students, we recommend several things:

myths and facts 485017745* We encourage the concerned host family or student to really try to get the student who is upset to talk to their program coordinator. If they say “but she already did, her coordinator won’t doing anything/doesn’t like her,” we encourage them to tell their friend to try again. Maybe the coordinator didn’t understand what the student was trying to say, or maybe the student has more information than they did the first time they tried to talk about it. Maybe the student didn’t really talk to his or her coordinator, at least not enough for the coordinator to really understand there was a problem that needed to be addressed. Sometimes I can remind a student of something they themselves have complained about, and get them to remember our own conversation about it; that sometimes triggers an agreement (even if reluctant) that it’s not always easy to figure things out and that there usually are several sides to a story.

* We encourage the concerned host family or student to tell the student who is having difficulty that he or she can call the national office of her program, too, if she feels she is not getting support from her local coordinator. All exchange students should have a contact name and number for their main office.

* We encourage students to talk to another adult in their lives if they are having difficulty talking to their host parents or their local program contact. Of course, it’s preferable to talk to one’s host family or program contact – we want communication between students and host parents, and coordinators are there specifically to help guide families and students through the rough patches. But when you’re dealing with people, it doesn’t always work seamlessly. If a teen is close to a teacher, or a guidance counselor at school, that adult can help pave the way towards improved communication – or even just let the program and host family know that there is a problem that should be addressed.

If all else fails, and if you really do believe an emergency exists, any student or concerned citizen can call the U.S. Dept of State office that handles foreign exchange students. All exchange students have that contact information on their program student ID cards. People naturally (and for good reason) are reluctant to involve the government when they realize they don’t have all the information needed to determine if an emergency does exist. But the option is there.

As always, communication is the key to success in a cultural exchange and study abroad program. Those who know us know it’s our “mantra” – but it’s a good motto to remember.