How to Help Your Exchange Student Adjust to Life Here in the U.S.: Key Issues Facing International Students

International students experience frustrations including culture shock, language difficulties, adjustment to customs and values, differences in educational systems, isolation and loneliness, homesickness and a loss of established social networks.*


* Rawjee and Reddy, Exchange Students Communications Challenges, Paper presented at International Conference on Communication, Media, Technology and Design, Istanbul, May 2012.

As I write this, the exchange students I work with have finished their third week of high school in the U.S.  Most of them are exhausted.  They have told me things like:

  • “My brain hurts.”
  • “I am so tired I am in bed by 9 pm even if I don’t have homework.”
  • “I am so afraid I will say something stupid.”
  • “I feel like I don’t understand anything my math teacher says.”
  • “I keep my head down when I walk through the halls because when I look up I realize I don’t know anyone and it makes me scared.”

Is This Normal?

Host parents: remember that this may be your student’s first time away from home for more than 1-2 weeks.  It takes time to adjust, sometimes 2-3 months.  Yes, exchange students are selected based on a number of criteria assessing if they have strong motivation, a sense of adventure, good grades, and decent English skills.  But they are still subject to the difficulties any international traveler may face, compounded by the fact that they are not just visiting but living in a family and attending school: they face the literal shock of having to do everything every day differently from the way it’s done back home.  They face the shock of realizing that their “A” in high school English and their 4-7 years of English study has not fully prepared them for 5-8 classes taught in 100% English with high school level reading material containing words they have never seen before.  They face the different habits their host family may have as well as different values and lifestyles.   They face different rules at school for if/when you can re-take a test, do you need to turn in your homework assignment, what happens if you are two minutes late, etc.  They have not yet made many friends so they are lonely.

On top of all that, they are teenagers.  They go to bed late, they sleep late.  They nod their heads to say they understand the garbage must be taken out, and then leave it inside the garage.  They tell you they are about to go out to walk the dog, and then completely forget to do it.

What Can I Do to Help?

Suggestions I’ve given to my students and their host families include:

* Work on basic communications: Listen carefully to what your student is saying.  Sometimes it is worth repeating back to make sure you are hearing what they intended to tell you. They may not be using the correct words, or they may be trying to make it “shorter” to make it easier on their brain which is furiously translating in their heads.  When you explain something to them, have your student repeat it back in his or her own words.  Be careful about using abbreviations, acronyms, and slang.

* Encourage conversation at the dinner table.  This is a common problem with teenagers, of course, but in the case of exchange students especially, silence is not golden!  Your student may be reluctant to contribute to dinner table conversation, perhaps feeling he or she does not have the vocabulary or thinking that you are not interested in what he or she has to say.  You can help, by coming up with open-ended questions and topic ideas.  Ask your student to report on a story from the local newspaper, even if just a 30-second review, for example, or ask them to tell you about a specific reading assignment they have for a class.

* Make sure your expectations are clear: Give your student a printed list of the household chores you expect him or her to do. Explain how to feed the dog.  Walk through the process of loading and unloading the dishwasher.  Be clear that you expect everyone to do their homework before getting on Facebook to chat with friends.  And importantly: follow through on consequences.  These teens are not visitors – they are now members of your family.  Normal consequences such as losing one’s cell phone privileges and not being allowed to go out with friends are OK – and advisable — for your exchange student as much as they are OK and advisable for your own child.

* Keep them busy: This time of year is “prime time” for homesickness.  Make sure your student has things to do: walking the dog, going for a regular jog in the park, participating in a sport at school, join the Key Club, volunteer at church.  Encourage them to go to the school football games and other social activities.  If they do not know anyone at school yet, see if you can help them find someone – a neighbor, a friend’s child, someone from church, etc.

* Ask them about their own country and culture: “Exchange” is a two-way street, after all.  How about Italian night at your house? Or German brunch on the weekend? Get your students’ parents to send a favorite recipe or two and make a family event out of dinner.  Learn about the city or region where your student comes from.  Make dinner conversations about the similarities and differences.

As the Parent 5,000 Miles Away, What Can I Do to Help?

Parents back home should not be left out of the adjustment equation.  Suggestions for parents include:

* Try and limit how often you talk to your child.  As hard as this may be, the best things you can do for your son or daughter is not to text or Skype every day.  Indeed, even once/week may be too often.

* Try and limit the depth of what you share with your child.  Your teen will want to know what the family is doing, of course.  But sometimes there is a concept of too much information, particularly if there are things going on that may upset your child who is 5,000 or more miles away.

* Try to support the rules and decisions of the host family.  Try not to insert your own feelings that “it would be better to do it the way she/he does it at home,” or “I don’t think what your host family wants you to do makes any sense.”  If you truly feel the host family is being unreasonable, talk to your exchange program representative and ask them what is normal for the country and region where your child is living.  If necessary, your program can get more information for you so that you can feel more comfortable that your child is living a “normal” life – a normal life for where she or he now is living.

Wrapping Up … (For Now, Since It’s Never Really Over)

Keep in mind that adjustment is an ongoing process.  Next week will be different for your student or child from this week, and a month from now your student will probably be in a very different place emotionally than he or she is now.

For those who might be interested, I’ve listed here a few articles that you might find useful for starting to think about these issues.

Let Them Sleep, Let Them Eat, Let It Be – The First Day of the Exchange Year

I met some of my new exchange students at the airport this weekend; six of my new group arrived in Portland on Saturday, as well as students who will be supervised and guided by other local coordinators in NW Oregon and SW Washington. Host families waited excitedly in the waiting room with colorful signs, balloons, and lots of excited murmuring.

You could feel the excitement in the air.  People would ask anxiously, “has the plane landed yet?” and “where are they, shouldn’t they be coming out by now?” and “is that them?” And eventually — “there they are!”  The excitement is contagious — I felt just as excited and nervous about it as our host families, I think!

Nora arrival photo
Arrival Day!

The students, on the other hand, looked a bit frazzled and bedraggled, although they tried to smile for their arrival photos. They dragged their carry-on luggage or looking hunched over with packs on their backs, and dragging their feet. They can be forgiven for this; this group came from a 10-day language and culture immersion camp in New England, and had to leave camp shortly after midnight to make it to the airport for their cross-country trek to the West Coast.

Some of the host families have many things planned for August: trips to family elsewhere in the state, visits to Seattle or San Francisco, excursions to summer farmers’ and crafts markets, perhaps the State Fair or the Oregon coast.  There will be visits to local landmarks: the families’ local high school, of course, where their student will attend school for a semester or academic year; their town or city’s downtown center; places where teens hang out.  In Portland, favorite places to “show off” the city include Powell’s Books, the Portland Saturday Market, and Niketown, among other fun attractions.  We will have an entry meeting to talk about rules and expectations (perhaps not so exciting) and a “get to know each other” meeting with pizza or a sleepover (perhaps more exciting).

But all that can wait.  For this weekend, as the students arrive, it’s a blurry whiz of a ride to a place they do not yet call “home,” but will; a whirlwind tour of their new home provided by excited family members; something to eat other than airplane snacks, and a long night’s sleep.  And with that, our year begins.  It may take a few days (or a few weeks….) for the students to really be themselves, and then the year really begins!

Practical Tips for Exchange Students – Preparation for Travel to Your Host Country

Every year, I send my new students some pieces of advice for them to think about before they travel to the U.S. for their exchange semester or year.  Here are some tips that expand on recent advice I’ve given to my new student group, as they prepare to leave their home for their host countries in a few weeks for the new school year.  Host families might find these tips useful, too, for thinking about how to get communications started with their new student.

Contact your host family as soon as your program gives you their contact information, and send them some photos, too.

Don’t hesitate when you get the message that you have a host family – contact them right away! You may feel that you are very busy with the end of your school year and preparations for your travels.  You may be nervous about your language skills, and you may not know what to say — you don’t know them yet, after all, so where do you start?


Dear Host Family,

I am so excited about my exchange! I am looking forward to meeting you. I want to know all about everyone in my host family!…..


Keep in mind that your host family is aware of those things; in fact, they may be nervous, too! But they are as excited to start to get to know you as you are about your upcoming exchange.  And think about how it might look to them if you don’t contact them right away, or if you do not respond to an email from them.  I think this is something teens may not think about in their excitement about all the things they need to do before they leave home.  If you do not respond to a note from your host family, they may think you don’t care very much about them, and you don’t want the semester or year to start that way.  So send them a note.  It’s OK if your first note is a short one, they will understand.  Include a couple of photos!

Get used to using email!

Teen Use of Social Media (Source: Washington Post, June 26, 2012)
Teen Use of Social Media
(Source: Washington Post, June 26, 2012 –

Many teens don’t use email as much as even a couple of years ago.  Certainly, communication styles are changing.  Contacting people through text messages, Facebook posts and messages, and Twitter is more common; for many teens these methods are their primary means of communication with friends and, sometimes, family.  But many exchange programs (at least in the U.S.) discourage host families and students from making first contact through Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, directing new host families to email or call their students first.  Even after students arrive, communication through social media sites may be limited by program rules or host family lifestyle and customs.  Email is a good way to establish contact with your host family and tell them about yourself and your family, and may be one of the ways your exchange program contacts you through your exchange period.

Ask your host family about their house rules and lifestyle now, before you arrive.

Ask your host family about how they live – if you have two host parents, do they both work? How do they get to work, and what do they do?  If you will have host brothers or sisters, how old are they? Ask your host parents for advice on small gifts you could bring for your host siblings.  Will you walk to school, or will there be a bus? How far is your host home from the city center in your community? What chores do children in the family have?  What are typical meal times in your host country culture and in your host family? What does your host family typically do on weekends?  These are all good ways to start a conversation, too, and will help show your interest in your host family’s way of life.

Learn something about your host county/city/community now, even before you go.

(Lake Oswego High School, Oregon) How far is your U.S. high school from your host family's home?
(Lake Oswego High School, Oregon)
How far is your U.S. high school from your host family’s home?

With the power of modern technology, you can find out so many things!  How big is the city or town where you will live? Where is it located in your host country? What is the weather like? How far is the high school from your host home?  Look up your high school on the Internet and find out as much as you can about the school; perhaps you can even download a list of classes offered that you could look at before you arrive.  Find a book about the region of the country where you will be living — you could read it on the plane!  Here are a couple of examples for students coming to the Pacific Northwest, where I live — one practical guide, and one that is “off the beaten path.”  You can find something equivalent for whatever your destination!

What are your goals for your exchange semester/year?

Now that your exchange is feeling very real to you – think about what you might want to do (in addition to going to school, of course!).

* For students going to the U.S. or the U.K., are you hoping to improve your English? It’s pretty much guaranteed that you will, when every conversation and every class will be in English. But there are ways you can move that process along faster and more completely; for example, you can invest in a self-study program (such as Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, or Berlitz, or check out language podcasts, videos, and apps for your smartphone) that you can work on to focus on grammar and vocabulary.  You can force yourself to start conversations in English, even when you are not sure what to say – don’t worry about stumbling over words.

* At your host high school, do you have classes you are required to take, either to get credit back home or because your exchange program requires them? Get those classes on your list, and then look at everything else — take classes you would not have the opportunity to take back home.

* Do you want to learn a new sport and find ways to make friends in your host country? Join a sport team at school if it’s allowed, or sign up for a sport through a city or town league.  Join a club.  If your host family goes to church, join a youth group (or perhaps you can join such a group even if your host family doesn’t attend church).

Finally – speak up, ask questions, talk.

Communication is perhaps the most important thing you can learn and do during your exchange.  I’m talking about all kinds of communication –

* basic questions about where things are located, how appliances work, and basic family rules in your host home.

* any time you do not understand even just a portion of what someone has just said to you – don’t assume you get it just because you understood half of it.  You may have missed the critical half.

* talking to your host parents or your program representative when you do not know or do not understand a particular host family or program rule.  They may not be able or willing to change the rule, but they should be able to explain to you why the rule exists.

* talking to your program representative if something is just not going right in your host family. Perhaps you feel you are not getting along with a host sibling, or you feel your host parents are mad at you.  Chances are it’s something that can be worked out – but not unless you tell someone and ask for help.

No teenager about to leave for their exchange year is going to do all of these recommendations – we know that!  The point is to help get things started on the right foot, and that doesn’t take a lot of work.   So think about these suggestions and do your best – ask questions, send an email or two – and pack your bags!