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.


Injuries and Illness While on an Exchange: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Last year, one of the exchange students in our group had to return home to Norway two months before the end of the exchange year due to illness. Potential host parents ask us questions about this kind of thing: what happens if students get sick while they are here? Do I as a host parent have the right to take my student to a doctor? How do we deal with insurance? The short answers are that each situation is different. We thought we would share some of our experiences to show how this works in practice.

Things happen.

Exchange students are like anyone else. They break a wrist while snowboarding, sprain an ankle while playing soccer, get the flu, and are diagnosed with previously unknown conditions. Most of the time, they recover. A broken wrist or 15 stitches will cause short-term pain but are also just that: short-term.

Sometimes, however, their illness or condition cannot be adequately treated so far from home. Real life examples can easily show the differences:

  • Easy to deal with: William fell onto another skier while skiing with the high school ski team at the state competition. He needed 15 stitches. The clinic at the ski area called William’s host parents, explained the situation, confirmed his insurance information, and treated him for the injury. He had his stitches removed 10 days later at a local doctor’s office near his host family’s home.
  • Short-term worry, medium difficulty: Maria was vacationing with her host family in a Broken_right_hand_in_orange_castmountain ski area several hours away from the host family’s home when she broke her wrist snowboarding. Neither the host family nor the student had the student’s insurance information with them, causing some immediate short-term stress on the scene at the hospital; this was cleared up by a call to the student’s exchange program coordinator who provided the insurance information. The hospital spelled Maria’s last name wrong and input the insurance information incorrectly into the computer. This caused issues in the following weeks as bills began to arrive requesting full payment. The situation became more complicated because the host family signed forms at the hospital agreeing to be financial guarantors for the student’s bills (something you shouldn’t do if you can avoid it). The exchange program eventually was able to intervene and help straighten out the situation.
  • High level of short-term worry: Jorge slammed his head and shoulder on the ground hard in a rugby game. He had immediate pain and numbness in his arm and could not feel anything in lower legs or feet. As a result, adults at the scene called for a Life Flight helicopter to take him on an emergency basis to the hospital 10 miles away. Over the next several hours, Jorge slowly began to regain sensation in both legs. He continued to have difficulty in moving his left arm. Doctors conducted various tests over the next 12 hours; the hospital released him after a diagnosis of nerve damage. He recovered fully.
  • Previously undiagnosed condition, life-long management needed: Sophia complained of stomach distress over a period of several weeks. After a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. Crohn’s disease is a life-long condition, which can be managed with appropriate medication and supervision. But getting to a stable managed stage can take time, since not everyone responds well to any given medication or dosage. It became clear within a few weeks that Sophia was not responding well to the “easier” medication regime and that she would need to change to a more intensive (and more expensive) medical regime with possibly significant side effects. She had to return home two months before the end of her exchange year, missing her U.S. high school graduation ceremony and other end-of-year activities.
  • Serious condition, intensive medical intervention and family counseling needed: A day or two after New Year’s Day, Alexandra’s host parents called their coordinator to say they were worried because she seemed to have lost a significant amount of weight. They had weighed their student for a school sports information form, and thought the weight seemed low for her height and age. Comparing her current weight to the weight on the medical form the student had submitted to the exchange program prior to departure from her home country, the host parents realized Alexandra had lost 20+ lbs. Within a few days, a physician had diagnosed anorexia and strongly recommended that the student return home for treatment; indeed, the physician indicated that the student was on the verge of requiring hospitalization. Within two weeks, she returned home.

Insurance helps, but may need explanation

The U.S. Department of State requires that all J-1 visa exchange students carry adequate medical insurance. Exactly what the insurance coverage will cover is not always easy to determine on the spot. This can be difficult for foreign teens and their parents to understand, since they are used to very different healthcare systems.

Lifeflight* Bills from doctors, labs, and hospitals often arrive in the mail before insurance companies have processed claims. Jorge, our rugby player, saw the $21,000 Life Flight helicopter bill when it arrived at his host family’s home before the insurance company processed the claim. He had difficulty understanding that he and his parents did not need to panic, that this was purely a ‘crossing in the mail’ issue.

* Requirements that there be a financial guarantor can create administrative confusion and worry. The clinic treating student William on the mountain for his skiing accident tried to pressure the host family into agreeing to be financially responsible. This was not an unreasonable request from the point of view of the clinic billing administrator, but it’s not a situation we want host families to face. We generally recommend that host families ask the medical facility to use either the exchange program’s contact information or that of the student’s natural parents. This approach may not always succeed, since medical providers may not understand the relationship between an exchange student and host parents. If this happens, host parents should immediately follow up with their program to help prevent it from becoming a major issue. In William’s case, the host parents were able to point out to the clinic that they were not the student’s legal guardians and had no legal relationship. The clinic agreed to put the student’s natural parents contact information on the documents.

* The concept of co-payments or deductibles can be difficult for students and natural parents to understand. The concept of co-payment may seem obvious to American readers, but may come as a surprise to exchange students and their families, who are unfamiliar with the U.S. medical system. We have had many conversations with students and sometimes their parents as well. We try to walk them through an explanation of why they have to pay this or that balance on a medical bill even though they have paid for medical insurance.

What do you need to know?

We can recommend basic strategies to be prepared. For one thing, all adults involved with exchange students should encourage students from the day they arrive to talk to someone – host parents, local coordinator, a teacher or counselor at school, someone from their program’s main office – if they feel ill or injure themselves. Teens often ignore symptoms. They don’t believe a swollen ankle is a big deal (the swelling will go down, it’s nothing) and a stomach ache will go away (it’s just something I ate). They may be embarrassed by their symptoms, and it can be difficult to share personal feelings or medical symptoms with people they do not know well.

Additionally, host parents should keep an eye on their student’s general health and eating habits, as well as on any medications their student may have brought with them from home. A student’s diet may have changed from what he or she normally ate back home. Students worry about gaining weight and may develop poor eating habits as a result. Host parents may feel uncomfortable about compelling teens they do not yet know well to eat a balanced diet, feeling that they are nagging. Host parents can help students feel more comfortable about talking about personal issues such as medical symptoms by themselves talking about personal issues and showing their student that it’s ok to talk about it. Host parents should not hesitate to take the student to a doctor; this should be an adult decision, not left up to a teen who may not understand potential illnesses.

We don’t like it when our students have accidents or get sick. Coordinators worry, program staff members worry, host parents worry, and of course parents back home worry. But the fact that life doesn’t always take the direction we want should not stop parents from letting their teenaged and young adult children from studying abroad and doing a cultural exchange. Indeed, students with pre-existing medical conditions or permanent physical disabilities should also consider study abroad – if under control, it does not stop them from being accepted into an exchange program. Thinking about the “what if” situations shouldn’t stop families from hosting a student, either; the families who hosted the students profiled above had strong relationships with their students. Jorge, Sophia, and Alexandra all have come back to visit their host families. If we stop doing things just because something might happen, we would never see anything, do anything, or learn anything.

All students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy. Photo credits: Helicopter: Lifeflight.org; hand in cast: pixlaw [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]; health image: Lafesta PIxabay.com.

Reading Resource Update: Good Blog Article

Came across a blog post today I thought my readers might like to see:

8 Things I’ve learned as an Exchange Student Host Parent

Photo credit: Beth Markley and Huffington Post, 2015

I especially like #1; it’s exactly why we decided to host high school students when our boys were 9 and 11. But the other items on her list all hit home as well.

Were we busy with running our own company, transporting our kids to soccer, taking care of the family and whatever? Sure. But as Beth Markley, the author of the article says, “Embracing the unexpected, and being determined to make the most of any situation, is the entire point.”

Why Would I Want to Host *That* Student . . . He’s So . . . Different!

Why people choose or don’t choose certain students, once they have made the decision to host an exchange student, is an intensely personal decision. People are bringing a foreign teen into their family for a semester or academic year, which is hard enough. We coordinators work hard to make good “matches,” trying to figure out what are a family’s interests and activities, what is their lifestyle, and what kind of personality would fit best.

But there is one thing that does upset me, year after year. The placement season ends at the end of August; by law, the exchange programs must have all J-1 visa students placed with all documentation completed by that time. As we approach the end of the placement season in July and August, we get the inevitable question: “Why are these students still unplaced? What’s wrong with them?”

faces 186467837 (2)Sometimes, we can see the answer to that question in the application. It’s not that there is anything “wrong” with the students, but there generally is an explanation. For one thing, girls are easier to place. Second, for better or worse, there are always a high number of German kids at the end; this is just a fact of the numbers, because Germany sends more than one-third of the exchange students coming to the U.S. every year. Sometimes the students say things that don’t come across well; they may not have realized that saying “I really want to get my driver’s license” might be a turn-off. The students whose English skills are at the lower end of the legal minimum are certainly among the last to placed. Younger students, too, are often among the ones remaining over the summer; the U.S. government allows students between the ages of 15-18, but many schools and host families (and coordinators) are leery about the maturity of 15-year-olds and their ability to handle the challenges of an exchange.

But there is a darker side to the students left in the pool. Or, to be more precise, a darker side as to why they are still there. See this comment from a former host family, after I sent them a couple of applications in case the family might be interested in hosting again this year:

respect 482299675 (2)I read their profiles and both boys sound like they will bring cultural awareness to the family they are placed with. One is Buddhist and the other Muslim, so interesting. I worry that their dietary and religious beliefs will be an issue in their placement. It seems there are not many open minded people. I know when our former student would mention that’s why she didn’t eat pork [because she is Muslim] people would act shocked and become suddenly uncomfortable. So much ignorance, which is why I feel it was great to have her here. It really brought down that wall of fear and ignorance.

There you have it. Our Muslim students, our Buddhist students, our Asian students are always among the last to be placed. It’s kind of hidden among the German/15 yr old/poor English skills statistics. But it’s there, and we know it. It’s the dirty little secret of exchange.

Want to help fix it?


Thoughts for the New Year on Study Abroad

As the year winds down and we’re all thinking about what we’ve accomplished this year and where we would like to be in our lives for the coming year, I thought I would share with my readers this interesting blog post I came across this morning: Studying Abroad: The Who, the Why, and the Why Not. It’s making me think about some of the things I try to encourage in my work with foreign exchange students and host families: what are the skills we want to encourage, the independence we want to help develop, the cultural barriers we want to break down?  It’s a two-way street … or maybe more than that.

All the best wishes for 2014 from The Exchange Mom.  Please continue to share your thoughts and comments on study abroad and international cultural exchange.