Life Lessons You’ll Learn From Hosting Exchange Students

teenaged boys sitting on wall laughing

By Guest Author Sophia Jones

Now may be a great time to consider becoming a host family for an exchange student. An Institute of International Education report stated that the number of international students in U.S. high schools tripled from 2004 to 2016, and more are set to arrive. Many of these students hope to continue their education at American colleges.

Opening your home to foreign students can be a profound experience. You are not just tasked with looking after someone else’s child; you’re also in charge of introducing them to your culture. Here are a number of important lessons to gain from hosting an exchange student.

You’ll discover different cultures

Hosting an exchange student is a unique way of learning a new culture without resorting to travel. You’ll learn about your foreign student’s traditions, beliefs, cultural traits, and maybe even learn something new in the kitchen while they stay with you.

The exchange program could also help you appreciate things about your own culture. For instance, Beth Markley’s hosting experience taught her that what we consider normal school activities like proms and homecomings are unknown in other parts of the world.

Cultural interaction is one way to deepen your understanding of the importance of cultural diversity. Experiences like hosting an exchange student can help break prejudices by helping you realize that apart from your similarities, your differences are also a cause for celebration.

You’ll develop your communication skills

The language barrier is one of the common challenges host families and students face, and can vary in difficulty depending on your exchange student’s country of origin. However, this provides an opportunity for you to practice a new language with a native speaker. More importantly, through communication, you’ll learn how to establish a relationship with someone who has different customs, beliefs, and behavior.

Participating in an exchange program may prepare you for more opportunities. See, for example, Maryville University’s program in organizational leadership, in which communication is mentioned as a key skill in learning how to effectively manage a variety of groups and bring about change. This type of leadership can be applied to many areas of work, from healthcare to business and beyond. Working with an exchange program can help prepare you for leadership positions in a number of careers.

The Exchange Mom blog has previously noted the importance of communication  — not just in dealing with exchange students, but also in sharing information with your program coordinators. Open communication lets program representatives address any issues a family or an exchange student may have and help you and your student have a smoother hosting experience.

You’ll learn to appreciate mundane things more

Because of your household’s newest member, you’ll view your daily routine from a fresh perspective. The exchange student may ask you questions about how you get to work or why you watch a certain TV program. These questions help them understand the “daily grind” in America and how different ordinary life is from their own life back home. Their fascination with the smallest things we do may help you appreciate your life even more.

In addition, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to grow as a family. As the host, it’s your responsibility to help the exchange student discover your country. This doesn’t mean you have to engage in major travel plans — but you will find yourself  encouraged to do more family activities, such as going on road trips or attending community events. These moments could strengthen your ties not just with the exchange student, but with your own family as well.

One key thing to note is that many programs and many host families recommend not treating your exchange students as guests. This means that they should not be exempt from household rules. Don’t hesitate to assign them chores or send them to the grocery store. This will help them settle into their new surroundings and provide them with typical teenage life lessons.

 

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If you’re all set after reading Sophia’s post, consider getting in touch with us here at the Exchange Mom. We can direct you to a coordinator in your area, or help with the screening process and help you find the right exchange student for your family.

Image courtesy Pexels.com

Why Host an Exchange Student (or is Technology Enough?)

laptop phone book on table

This time of year, high school exchange student programs in the U.S. are seeking host families for the coming academic year. You may have seen posts on Facebook, read flyers in your local coffee shop, or visited an exchange organization’s booth at a local community event. Your thoughts might be “what a cool idea!,” or perhaps “why would anyone take a stranger into their home?”

In one of my regular telephone calls with a host parent the other day, the conversation turned to our students’ ever-increasing use of technology. She wasn’t quite sure their student this year had ever truly immersed himself into the local community and our local world. It’s harder than ever to separate the students from their home country, she commented. Once upon a time (really just a few short years ago) students rarely arrived with smartphones; now, it’s rare for them not to bring one. Once upon a time, they rarely brought  laptops; now, most of them do. Once upon a time, parents back home were content talking to their children on weekends; now, many text their teens every day.

Why host, indeed? Is there still any point to this idea of citizen diplomacy and this type of personal cultural exchange in a world where we’re always connected? With instant translation available on our phones, is learning a foreign language still relevant? Isn’t virtually visiting a foreign country through your computer just as good as being there? So does putting teens into the homes of American families for a full semester or school year still make sense?

Well … yes.

  • It’s about the look on our Italian student’s face a few years back when standing in line at a donut shop in Portland and a shop employee walked by offering a free donut to everyone waiting in line. “This. Is. America…!” he cried. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I don’t know … but it was certainly memorable.
  • It’s about coming around the curve on Highway 101 on the Oregon coast and seeing Haystack Rock loom up out of the surf and hearing the “oh wow” from the back seat from our somewhat-jaded-having-been-to-the-US-multiple-time German student. And yes, it really is a pretty cool sight … his comment reminded us that seeing your world through someone else’s eyes can re-awaken you to your own values.
  • It’s about a student excitedly talking about a weekend geology field trip he took with a few students from his class. “Excited” and “geology” are not usually terms one would use to describe a high school student’s activities. But you could hear it in his voice. It meant so much more to actually see what they had been reading about in class, he said. He talked about how they learned about how the flow of rivers had changed, and how much fun it was to take a ferry to an island.

Each of these is just a little thing by itself. But isn’t it the little things that makes the difference?

Beyond learning about another culture and how daily life might differ, these cultural exchanges challenge our assumptions about other cultures, teach communication skills, and help develop patience and flexibility. That sentence sounds like a platitude, doesn’t it? But all I need to do is look at our own experiences — and we’re just one family.

We’ve learned that what we thought we knew about Europe was just a slice off the top. Beneath the similarities lie fascinating differences between Nordic cultures in the North, Slovak cultures to the East, and Italy to the South. The slices we’ve learned about Hong Kong, Thailand, and Japan are humbling; as educated persons, you think you know something, and then you learn you don’t. Living with a student from Hong Kong taught our own two children more than a book ever could about how a teenager from a Chinese culture approaches life, decision-making, and relationships. It helped them understand the family histories and family dynamics of their own second generation Asian-American friends, and it taught them tolerance much more effectively than us parents standing there saying “be nice, don’t judge.”

We’ve learned that when people think they’re clear in what they are saying, they’re not. We’ve learned to stop ourselves and ask “do you understand what I meant when I say XXX?” It’s not something we ever would have thought about doing before we started working with international students. And in reality, it helps you realize that the potential for miscommunication is huge even when you are talking to native English speakers.

silhouetted people facing away from each other with question marks in air

We’ve learned to be more patient and to not expect perfection overnight (if ever….!). We suggest to our students to read the local newspaper to learn about the local community. We take students in our home with us when we walk the dogs or run errands to get them talking, asking them about their family back home and what their school is like, one topic at a time, day after day. We ask them how their parents expect them to manage money and try to get a sense of their financial situation, one topic at a time. We try to get students who are nervous about speaking English to talk more, a little at a time. Success in the beginning may be a sentence or two.

We’ve learned more than we could have imagined when we started down this hosting and coordinating path about seeing other people’s viewpoints and recognizing other people’s realities.

Some things seem to be the same everywhere. Teens everywhere groan when asked to do their chores before they go out with friends and roll their eyes when asked to do something they don’t want to do. Parents the world over can recognize their children are not perfect. Adults the world over make mistakes in their relationships, and adults the world over are not always better than teenagers at accepting their mistakes and learning from them.

There is no such thing as a perfect person: no perfect student, no perfect teenager, no perfect host families, no perfect adults. It would be nice if we could wave a magic wand at the airport on Arrival Day and announce “congratulations, you now have a long-term forever relationship.” But that’s not real life, and it’s not really how we learn about each other. Having someone you have never met before live in your home for 6 or 10 months as a member of your family is rewarding — and yes, it can be hard work. That work leads to rewarding experiences, and this is what long-term relationships are built on.

I think (and I hope) that it all does still make sense. If our 21st century environment of constant contact, 24/7 online connection, and no-real-life-always-texting life takes over, I think we’re done for in more ways than one. I think cultural exchanges — including but not limited to hosting high school exchange students — offer benefits far beyond being “a good citizen.” The volunteerism component is important, yes …. but it goes beyond that. I hope that these experiences are still possible in today’s ever-connected, never-disconnect-from-home world. We’ll keep working at doing our small part to make it possible.

 

Images courtesy Ewan Robertson on Unsplash and Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

 

The Beginning of the School Year: Déjà Vu or New Beginnings

Labor Day weekend marks a transition – from Summer to Fall, and from Vacation to School. True, some schools in our area started a week or so earlier this year to add instruction days. But that’s a distinction without a difference. The beginning of the school year – the “real deal” – starts this week.

Teachers understand this – the feeling that it’s the same cycle starting over, and yet at the same time, it’s completely different. That’s part of why teachers return to their classroom at this time every year, starting the cycle again – it’s different. Each student is different, even if we can see teenager trends and generalities. Each group of students is different when they are together, even if they are a group of athletes that may tend to act a certain way or a group of student debaters that may tend to act a different way. The combinations are unique.

Perhaps that’s why we’re here each year, too. The new school year is perhaps also a good time to reflect on that.

© 2015 Thinkstock.com
© 2015 Thinkstock.com

I’m a local exchange program coordinator. My husband and I work with teenaged exchange students between the ages of 15-18 from other countries who come to the United States for one semester or a full academic year to live with an American family and go to high school here. We help find host families, “match” students to a family, and supervise/guide/mentor students and host families during the exchange year. We have also hosted students ourselves, having shared our home with more than a dozen students over the past 12 years.

I started this blog just over four years ago with vague notions of sharing with others our family’s experiences as a host family and Mark’s and my experiences as coordinators, and maybe getting a few ideas from others so we could do better in both categories. It’s far surpassed my expectations. We have received emails from host parents around the world who share a few thoughts, ask for advice, and let us know how their student is doing. We have heard from parents wondering how to help their child succeed on an exchange many miles from home. We have heard from teens asking for advice on how to talk to a host parent on sensitive issues as well as asking where they should go on exchange before they’ve made any decisions. There is a large community out there!

LHK MCT Sven
Dinner in Berlin with Sven, one of our own German students, seven years after he returned home.

The emails and comments have added to the personal connections we have made with former students who have returned to their home countries, and sometimes their parents as well. We have been given tours of the city in Berlin by one of our German sons’ parents. Parents of students we supervised – students who didn’t even live with us, we just talked to or met with them every month – have offered us seven-course dinners at their restaurant, invited us to their home for family dinner, and sent us heartfelt thank-yous for helping their child develop into young adults.

It reminds us what it’s all about. The U.S. Department of State encourages international cultural exchanges as a means to improve relations between our country and others. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the goodwill and exposure to other cultures that exchange programs foster are “critical to meeting the challenges of today’s world,” and Secretary of State John Kerry has said that “international education creates life-long friendships between students and strengthens the bonds between nations.”

In a way, it’s even simpler. It’s making friends across borders, one person at a time. In a world where we continue to see destruction of cultural treasures, mass mistreatment of individuals for varied reasons, and a worldwide refugee disaster of massive proportions – perhaps continuing to take one step at a time, and helping to create change one person at a time, still has value.

Welcome to 2015-2016, another year in the world of high school exchange. We will continue to post on issues related to teen communications, cultural misunderstandings, the fun in sharing even small experiences, and offer tips on ideas for developing relationships that we hope will last far longer than the 5 or 10 months that the students live in the U.S. We hope you will continue to visit us here on the blog from time and time and share in the adventures. We welcome your thoughts and comments.

Reflections: Moving Up the Ladder?

Last weekend, my husband and I returned from a weekend of additional exchange program training, reflecting the fact that we will be managing other exchange coordinators and their students in the future.

We’re not doing it for the money. We’re not employees of the exchange program, a fact that often comes as a surprise to students and host families. Exchange coordinators are independent contractors under the J-1 visa high school program overseen by the U.S. Department of State. The amount of money coordinators receive for the students we place and supervise does not generally add up to a significant sum; it’s supplemental income, not primary income. The precise amount differs from company to company, but the concept is the same.

Because we do get paid — something — the U.S. government does not allow exchange program local coordinators to say they are volunteers. That’s OK, but it’s important to remember that coordinators are not really getting paid for what they do. Is that a contradiction in terms? Perhaps. But life is full of contradictions.

colored hands in circle 150863845There are times when we all wonder if it’s worth it. When a parent back home complains about us when we support a particular action that we believe will help their child succeed and which they may believe is unwarranted. When a student who has gotten in trouble at school, or who is having difficulty adjusting to his host family’s life or community, starts saying negative things to anyone who will listen. When a student or host family accuses local coordinators of treating them unfairly when the coordinator has made strong efforts to listen to all parties and come to a fair solution. After we have moved a student out of his or her host family home, and everyone is upset.  These things do happen; we’re dealing with people, after all, and people don’t always do what’s logical or “right” (and what’s “right” isn’t always all that clear).

Most of us who do this — year after year, repeatedly saying goodbye to kids we may never see or hear from again — really don’t do it for the income. We do it for the host families who cry when their students leave, and who immediately make plans to visit Norway, Thailand, or Italy. We do it for the kids who do tell us what our assistance meant to them during their year here in the U.S. and who send us notes when they return home thanking us. We do it for the parents from countries around the world who take us out to dinner or lunch when they visit at the end of the year and who are in awe by how much their teen has changed in 10 months, and who say they know that part of that is due to the supervision and advice their child received. We do it for the kids who return to visit; they don’t always contact us, the coordinators, when they return, but if they are visiting their host families, we have succeeded in our mission to create long-term, lifetime relationships.

So my husband and I are looking forward, albeit with some trepidation, to taking on some new responsibilities this coming year. We know that there will be times when students or families will feel that we are the evil face of authority, and that we will have to deliver messages students or families do not want to hear. We know there will be times when parents back home will expect more than we can deliver. And like so many of the other exchange coordinators in all 100 or so companies listed by the Council on Standards of International Education and Travel (CSIET), we know that this is in addition to our “normal” jobs.

But we believe in the mission: cultural and citizen diplomacy at the individual, family, and local level can improve relationships around the world, one person at a time. We can learn from the kids from Taiwan, Thailand, Slovakia, and Denmark. And they can learn from us.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted