I’ve been hosting exchange students for over 20 years, and I’ve shared with many of them my passion for astronomy. My wife and I even tried to find the perfect student with whom to share the 2017 eclipse by choosing a student who specifically said she was interested in astronomy, though we were defeated in that plan by an inconvenient school boundary change.
This year, we didn’t focus on specific interest areas and instead picked a student based on other criteria. Even so, we offered her the opportunity to come with us to the Oregon Star Party (OSP) which was taking place shortly after her planned arrival in August. The OSP is one of the premier dark-sky observing events in North America. It takes place in central Oregon, far from any city’s bright lights, and attracts some 500-700 people each year. Our new student agreed, and we brought Malina to the U.S. a couple of weeks early to enable her to attend.
She arrived a week prior to the Star Party. We took her out for a quick observing party with friends, where she got her first look through a telescope — her first look ever.
She loved it.
At OSP, conditions were tough, as we experienced our hottest daytime temperatures in the history of the event, as well as smoke which marred the clarity of the night skies. Malina persevered, and familiarized herself with the night sky, the operation of the scope, and the use of charts with impressive speed.
The OSP offers awards for observers who record at least 20 of 25 suggested objects on a list. Malina took a look at the 2017 list and knocked out the first 10 objects the first night. Before the end of the Star Party, she’d earned her pins for the 2017 and 2018 lists.
I am convinced that she’s found a lifelong pursuit and that this exchange year has already changed her life. I am yet again reminded that this is what exchange is all about. By sharing our lives and our families and our interests with these kids, we alter the course of their lives for the better . . . what an honor and a privilege it is!
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, in the pages of his Tales From a Revolution novels. Hedbor lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Jennifer Mendenhall, and four of their six daughters. Lars and Jenn are exchange student coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year. Lars’ previous post for The Exchange Mom was An Exchange Student Wedding in 2016.
Sharing about what’s going on in your life is a great way to begin to get to know each other. What can you share with each other about your day? It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering or jaw-dropping story … just the little things.
Did someone at work say something funny? Share it with your student, and talk about some American jokes.
Did someone at school say something that everyone laughed at and you didn’t understand? Ask your host family what it meant.
Is the family’s favorite TV show on tonight? Share with your student why you like it and have the whole family join in the discussion — then watch it together.
Did the cat do something funny? Talk about all the past times the cat has made the family laugh.
Do you have a dog at home? Talk about why you think your dog is the coolest ever. Why did your family choose him? Have you had other dogs?
Sports can be another great way to bridge gaps across cultures and to get people who may think they have nothing in common to start talking. So it is not a surprise that there are organizations around the world that do their best to bring young people from different countries together to meet over their favorite sport. The question arises, though, whether these organizations offer what you personally need from an exchange.
We sometimes get questions from people interested in working with exchange students through the medium of sports. In one case, an organization in Brazil contacted us, looking to find a way to send promising teen and pre-teen soccer athletes to the U.S. as exchange students to learn about the U.S. and to have an opportunity to play competitive soccer during a school year in the U.S. In another case, a small U.S. non-profit was hoping that exchange students from another country could participate in the organization’s program while studying here in the U.S. and obtain competitive level basketball training, with the possibility of being recruited for college-level play.
We also sometimes hear from parents. One email was from a father in Greece who had visited friends in Florida with his family. The friends offered to host his son so that he could go to high school in Florida and play varsity basketball at their school, and the father wanted advice on how to make that happen. Another email we received recently was from a parent in Germany. She wanted to make sure that her son would be able to play competitive soccer during his exchange year in the U.S. Should she just tell the exchange organization she wanted to go through? Should she herself search online for a family who had a teen who plays soccer, she wondered, or perhaps she should get in touch directly with high schools that have high-level soccer programs and then contact a sponsoring organization?
Great ideas. The devil, as always, is in the details. The answer we had to give these people was essentially that they could not do what they wanted to do.
What’s the Problem?
There is a great deal of concern in the U.S. about students “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons. That concern crosses over into the exchange student world, and it’s against U.S. government regulations to place an exchange student in a school specifically for the purpose of playing a particular sport. In fact, when a family finds its own host family for their student (what we call “direct placements”), those students generally cannot play sports at their school unless they get a waiver from the local high school athletics association certifying that the student was not placed at that school for sports reasons.
Many exchange students do engage in sports at their school or in their town. But there are no guarantees. An exchange student may not be able to qualify for a school team, particularly if the team is competitive; exchange students often have to try out for a team like everyone else. Some U.S. states limit exchange students to less competitive teams, keeping varsity team spots for American students who may be using their sports experience for a longer term purpose (such as trying to get a college scholarship, for example).
If an exchange student doesn’t qualify or can’t play varsity, or if he or she isn’t able to play on junior varsity for any reason, there often are local city leagues, recreational clubs, or even possibly a competitive club in the student’s desired sport. These options would be outside the school day, and would be at additional cost to the student and his or her family. It’s also important to note that these opportunities may or may not be at the competitive level the student is seeking.
What about the option of coming to the U.S. on an F-1 visa instead of a J-1 visa, since F-1 visa students apply directly to a school? We’ve been asked this question; parents have contacted us thinking that this is a way to make sure their child can play the sport of his or choice. However, because F-1 students choose the school they will attend, they generally are unable to play school sports. The concern about “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons still applies.
Are There Options?
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Sports Diplomacy Division focuses on sports-related exchanges. These are short-term exchanges and are not intended as academic programs, so these programs are not a solution, for example, for semester or year-long exchange students. The Division’s projects include:
Sports Envoy Program: Sports Envoys are athletes or coaches who lead overseas sports programs on behalf of the U.S. They hold sports clinics, take part in community outreach, and engage youth in dialogues on the importance of leadership and respect for diversity. Read, for example, about Neftalie Williams, who has used his love of skateboarding and his participation in the U.S. Sports Envoy program to bring skateboarding to Syrian refugees in the Netherlands and to Cambodian youth as a representative of the U.S. government.
Sports Visitor Program: A short-term program for young people to come to the U.S. for a two-week intensive sports-based exchange.
The bottom line is that if you are primarily interested in playing a particular sport at a competitive level, high school exchange programs are probably not the right vehicle for your student. But if you are primarily interested in the exchange experience — cultural and language immersion, growth in self-confidence, learning how to deal with new situations — then high school exchange may be the right answer, regardless of whether you can play a particular sport at a competitive level during the exchange. While on exchange, we always encourage students to take advantage of opportunities to engage in high school sports or other non-academic activities; it’s a great way to get to know other students at your school, and it can be a lot of fun. The experience is worthwhile!
It‘s hard to reach out to people of different cultures when you feel you have nothing in common. But bring out a soccer ball to a field, and kids who do not speak the same language will flock to it and play together without understanding a single word the other child says. As adults, the effects are the same. You don’t need a common language to forge friendships, just a shared love for a sport and respect for one another.
Regardless of whether your child is in secondary school or university, an international exchange program will be an enriching experience. There are many benefits for parents: your child will return with added maturity, a more serious approach to their studies, improved language fluency, and a greater comprehension of human nature and the experience of making new friends. Parents will discover that allowing their child to be an exchange student will be among the best experiences of the child’s entire life.
Of course, you will dearly miss your son or daughter. But the homecoming and the awareness that your child has grown up so much that they can become your friend, as well as be your child, is enough reward to consider this route, even with the challenges that your child will face and the difficulties it poses for parents. As parents, we strive to do anything and everything to enhance our children’s future, but this long distance arrangement doesn’t come without its share of parenting challenges.
Let’s face the facts: it’s not easy being a parent. We often battle with ourselves, questioning if we’re doing the best we can for our children. It’s a lot of pressure realizing that you only get a limited window of time to prepare them to develop into dependable, balanced, and emotionally healthy adults. When your child is away for six or ten months in a different country, there is the extra challenge of being geographically distant from them. But it’s not impossible to parent from halfway around the world. The key is laying the groundwork correctly, both with yourself and with your child.
Here are some suggestions on how to be a parent when your child is in an international student exchange program:
Communication is key
Probably the most valuable approach to ensure you have a secure connection with your kids is to do everything possible to keep communication lines open. This isn’t always easy, but it’s among the best strategies to keep up with what’s happening in your child’s life. Find out when a good time is to get in touch with them on weekends and set a particular time to contact them. Try not to bother them much during the week, as they will be at school and in a completely different time zone. You can connect with the host parents, as they might be aware of any challenges that your child could be having in school or at home. Your child might not want to burden you with their struggles or may not be keen to share any information that might lead to conflict. Speaking to the host parents might just put your mind at ease for a few days at least.
Technology is your friend
Nowadays it’s easier to stay connected over a distance. Besides telephones, there are many ways to connect that aren’t that expensive. If you have internet access at home, make use of text messages, email, instant messaging, and Skype, to mention a few — but not too often! Reserve time weekly to ‘visit’ for ten to fifteen minutes. Video calls make it possible to not only verbally correspond, but also to see each other occasionally. You may also want to follow your child’s social media posts as they will probably be sharing a lot of pictures on these platforms.
Send a care package
Children of all ages would love to receive some homemade cookies or other treats. A note or a card to tell them that you’re thinking of them and that you love them, carries much weight. But nothing says I love you like a thoughtful package from back home. Never follow up your packages with phone calls. These calls might make it look like you are fishing for a thank-you. Gifts are most efficient as relationship builders when there aren’t any strings attached.
Don’t forget to discipline
Parenting your child from a distance can make you feel as though you’re losing control over your everyday responsibilities as a mother. This doesn’t have to be the reality. Don’t stop disciplining your child because you feel guilty, you need things to be “nice and comfortable,” or because you are worried your child will rebel and push you away. Now, more than ever, your child must fully accept that distance doesn’t affect the “rules” at home. Being away from home is not a reason to break the rules and take advantage of the situation. You should continue being consistent about family morals, and loving your child does occasionally mean saying “No.” If your child is living with a host family, it’s also important for your son or daughter to understand that they have to follow the rules of the family they are living with. This can be hard for parents, especially if the rules are different — which is certainly common in a different country!
In the same way as discipline, your child needs to recognize that the host family takes care of them on your behalf. Thus they should respect them as if it were you.
Visit your child
Something that can be fun both for you and your child is if you get to visit them during their exchange period. This could give you a better understanding of their experience, and you might even get to partake in it. Talk to the host-family and find out if a visit will suit them. Don’t proposed a visit in the middle of the exchange, because you don’t want to interfere with your child’s experience. Wait until towards the end! If they have space and are comfortable with it, you might be able to stay with your child or in the alternative you can book a hotel nearby.
The world is getting smaller, faster and much more complex. Approaches to learning and teaching are shifting. To be successful in tomorrow’s world, young people need the skills essential for a consistently growing number of industries, and possible career paths. They need an understanding of different cultures, a chance to interact with people from various linguistic backgrounds, flexibility and tolerance, an appreciation for alternative perspectives and the maturity to make sensible choices and decisions. Never before has studying a second language been so crucial.
By allowing your child to travel on exchange, you are helping them discover a whole new world. Even though it’s hard to parent from far away, it’s possible to maintain a great relationship with your child and enjoy this experience with them.
Jana Grobbelaar is an entrepreneur, editor, and mother of three. She is the founder of Moomie, a popular online parenting forum in South Africa.
On August 12, 2016, I arrived in California. I still remember when I got off the plane, seeing unfamiliar faces holding a sign that has my name on it. I was nervous and terrified that they wouldn’t like me; I thought it would feel awkward to live with a family that I had never met before.
We see similar worries from our own students every year:
“I am worried. I don’t think my host family and I have anything in common. I won’t have any host siblings.”
“I am so nervous. My host family has small children and I am not used to that. What if the kids don’t like me? What if I make mistakes, will my host parents get mad at me?”
It’s not just the students who worry that their host family won’t like them. Host families worry just as much. We hear from parents who worry that their student won’t like the food, or that they’ll be homesick and the host parents won’t know how to comfort them. We hear from host siblings worried that their new host sister or brother won’t be able to make friends — or the opposite, that their student will be so popular that the host sibling will be left out.
Everyone is excited … and everyone worries. Here’s what we tell them.
First — you are not alone. It’s exciting to step off the plane into a new adventure, and it’s exciting to host someone from another country and culture. It’s normal to be nervous about how it will work on an everyday basis. Recognize your feelings and talk about them to each other. It’s ok for students to admit they’re nervous about leaving their home for 5 or 10 months. Some of our host families, too, have admitted that they’re nervous. Clear communication — and sharing feelings — is important, even at this early stage.
Second — All students have this idea in their heads about what their host family will be like. Then the host family and the community turn out to be something different, and the student panics. Host families do the same thing! A student is different from what the family thought they saw in the student’s profile and the family wonders “will it be ok?” Students and host families express surprise to their coordinator: “I had information about my host family, and they are not like what I read about,” or “My student is not the way he seemed in his profile.”
But think about it … for students, is it really a surprise that a family you’ve never met is more complex and different from what a one-page summary told you? For families, is it really a surprise that a three- or four-page application didn’t reflect the whole picture, or that a teenager’s likes and dislikes may have changed in the 6 or 9 or more months since an application was filed? For everyone — is it really a surprise that people from another country act differently from what you are used to?
Some students are nervous because their host parents don’t have children in the home. Some students worry about whether they will have enough privacy and personal time because their host families have toddlers. Some students are nervous because their host family lives in a big city; some students are nervous because their host family lives in a small town or on a farm. Families worry for the same reasons: a student doesn’t have siblings so may have difficulty getting used to having a host brother, or comes from a small school and will be attending a school of 1,500 students here in the U.S., or will have to get used to not having public transportation just outside. They want to be the best family possible for their student, and they want to help their student have a successful and fun experience. They worry about whether their plans to do that will work.
The basic thing to remember is just this: you don’t know each other yet. Be open to the experience. It takes time to get to know people! It’s hard to do that before you get here, and it’s not possible to do it in a week or two. Before students arrive, you can text, email, and Skype — but you won’t really get to know each other until you have lived with each other for a while.
Students and families may be worried about the whole adventure. A semester or academic year is a long time to live with someone you have never met. Now that the time is approaching, it feels real. Years ago, shortly before I left for my study-abroad semester in Switzerland, I, too, started to worry. I didn’t know French … maybe I shouldn’t go? I didn’t have a specific schedule since I was doing an independent study project … maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all. Our own son began asking similar questions almost five years ago as the departure date approached for his six-month exchange program in Ghana. What if I don’t get along with my host family, he said; they don’t have teenagers. Maybe it’s too expensive, he said. Maybe I shouldn’t go, he said.
I went, of course. So did our son. There were challenges, of course. But challenges are part of life, and now I can’t imagine not having gone. Our son, too, values his experience and is glad we didn’t let him change his mind.
Being an exchange student — or hosting one — is exciting, fascinating, and an amazing experience that you will all remember forever. It also takes work. Very few students have a perfect fit into their host family and their host community from Day One with no issues or conflicts. There’s no magic wand to build instant relationships. Everything takes time. That’s one of the reasons your coordinators and your exchange program are here — we want to help you build relationships and help you feel like a member of our community.
We’ll close with this statement from Mariam, the student we quoted at the beginning of this post, on how she felt at the end of her exchange year:
Now they are my second family. I have learned how to support each other no matter what, and how to always be helpful and positive. They made my exchange year way better. They showed me what it means to be a member of an American family. I am so thankful and blessed for having them in my life.