In our other lives, the Exchange Mom and Exchange Dad are an environmental lawyer and a consultant working on climate change issues. In the past couple of months, we’ve been busy creating new websites for our business . . . as a staff of two with no outside employees, we’re the definition of “small company,” and so no, we don’t have an IT department.
As the designated “website manager,” I had the honor and misfortune of being the web designer for our new sites. How has that gone, you ask?
Let’s just say that we’re not taught this stuff in law school or in exchange student coordinator training! It’s definitely not my skill set. It’s been exhausting, but a good learning experience (I think …). I do know a lot more than I did before but not enough to call myself truly knowledgeable. I know enough to be dangerous and I worry all the time about breaking our websites.
Now, I’m trying to manage our official business websites as well as The Exchange Mom, and our next step is thinking about what changes we would like to make to this site, which is long due for some sprucing up. I hope to be able to turn to that soon.
What would YOU like to see? How can this site be more useful to you as a host parent, potential host parent, parent of an exchange student, or a student yourself? Please contact us with your thoughts, either by commenting below or sending us an email.
People who are involved with hosting exchange students — whether it be as a host family, student, parent back home, teacher or counselor at school — know the basic rule that their coordinator will be contacting them by phone or in person at least once every month. It’s right there in the regulations.
Sometimes, it really is just one time during the month. But often the “at least” part comes into play with additional phone calls on a particular issue or question, text messages and emails, or public comments on non-confidential issues on Facebook or Instagram.
What families and students often don’t realize is how much time can go into being an exchange coordinator and the full scope of their involvement. Local coordinators usually do receive some payment from the exchange organization. The reality, however, is that most coordinators spend a lot more time than they are compensated for in order to help “make it work” — the “it” being the success of our students, the bonding we want to see between student and host families, and the benefits to our own children and local schools. That takes more than a monthly phone call or visit.
Exchange coordinators are full-time moms or dads with children of their own, parents who teach high school and work on exchange in the evenings, school bus drivers, grade school principals, or lawyers. Coordinators might try to consolidate their exchange program tasks, but it doesn’t always work out; if a student is upset about something back home or about something that just happened at school, he or she isn’t going to wait until the weekend. If a host family has a major concern, we hope they will call, too.
But if we do set aside a Saturday to catch up, and if it was to be combined with the usual calls out of the blue, it might look something like this…..
10:00 am. Regular monthly check in call with student. Talk about school, how are things with his host family, what activities/fun stuff has he done lately. He’s a happy guy, and promises he’ll call if he has any problems.
10:15 am. Text from a host mom. Exchange student was injured at soccer, taking him to urgent care and will circle back once she knows more.
11:00 am. Monthly check in call with another host mom. She’s a bit concerned about her student, who is struggling in two classes. We talk about things the student can do and suggestions on how the host parents can help. It’s early in the year, so we’re not too concerned yet; the issue now will be what action the student takes.
11:30 am. Work on issues related to the program: write emails to people who have asked for information about hosting, make some phone calls. Mostly I leave phone messages, but I do talk to a mom who has expressed interest in the past and who thinks this next year might be good timing for the family, and I make a note to send her some additional information.
12:30 pm. Text from host mom whose student was injured at soccer. They are at the emergency room waiting for X-rays. Student still cheerful, not complaining. She includes a photo of a grinning student.
12:45 pm. Following up on 11:30 phone call, check organization database for student applications to send based on the description the potential host mom gave me about the family’s interests and lifestyle. Pull applications of a few girls who like dance and theater since that seems to be a key family interest.
1:00 pm. Receive call from a coordinator asking how many students have signed up for our next group excursion in two weeks, and can a student she is supervising still join the activity. We agree that if the student’s host parents are OK with the trip, if she can get the natural parent permission form signed in the next couple of days, and if she immediately sends in the required payment, she can go.
1:15 pm. Call from host mom. Student has hairline fracture. No soccer for a while!
2:00 pm. Text from a student I just spoke to a week ago. It’s a bit like getting a phone call at midnight from your child in college — your first thought is “what has happened?” I cautiously ask, how are things? The student asks if she can get a job to earn some money; homecoming cost more than she expected. I explain to her that the U.S. government does not allow J-1 visa exchange students to get a regular job, but she can occasionally babysit or do yard work to earn a little cash. She’s not thrilled, but seems to understand.
3:00 pm. Text from student asking if it is ok if her parents visit at Christmas. Her host parents suggested that it might be better if her parents visited at the end of the exchange year and the student texts that this is not reasonable, this is her family. I call the student (I don’t want to have this conversation by text), and I explain that Christmas really is a time to spend with her American host family, so that she can learn about our customs and her host family’s traditions. I tell her that I know that her host family is really looking forward to sharing that with her. At the end of the year, she won’t have school or other obligations and she can really show her parents around the area. She says she understands this better now. I send an email to our main office asking them if they can get in touch with the student’s family in her home country and ask them not to visit at Christmas.
4:00 pm. Text from student asking if she can go on one of the trips our group is organizing. I ask her if she has asked her parents back home, her host parents, and her coordinator. She says her host parents and her coordinator told her she couldn’t go unless she brings her math and biology grades up and she doesn’t think this is fair. She isn’t going to be able to travel much this year because her host family doesn’t have plans to go on any big trips, so the trip is really important to her. I explain that she does have to be passing all her classes before she can go on the trip. She has several months to bring her grades up. We talk about what she can do to show she is making a strong effort. I make a note to talk to her coordinator to make sure she, too, is in the loop on this.
5:00 pm. Turn off the phone and go for a walk with the dogs.
Why do we do it? Sometimes we ask ourselves that question … especially if one of these calls is telling us about a particularly poor teenage decision that may result in a student’s early return home, or if a host family has a personal emergency that requires us to move a happy student out of his or her host family home. But then there’s this from a host parent after her student returned home:
I am trying to tell myself that nothing changes — that no matter where we all are, she remains family. And yet…no more having her come out to give a sleepy good morning hug. No more dinnertime conversations, or card games, or quick rides to the store. All that stopped as she walked down the security line at the airport tonight….I believe it. Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.
And this from a student:
I love you all so so much and words cannot explain how much it hurts me to leave this wonderful place. … I know for sure that my way will take me back here sooner or later – after all, I have family here now and lots of amazing friends. I want to especially thank my family for having me this year and making me feel less like “the exchange student” but like “our family member.”
High school exchange is like a jigsaw puzzle: many pieces must fall into place in order for an exchange year to happen. Even more pieces have to come together for the exchange experience to be successful over the course of a semester or academic year and for it to be a positive experience for all involved.
There are many points in assembling the jigsaw puzzle where the process can encounter a problem or fall apart. Maybe a student doesn’t have high English scores, has pet allergies, is diabetic, or has other characteristics that make finding a host family more difficult. Economic hard times can make it more difficult to find host families. A host family’s medical problem or family emergency can disrupt their hosting plans; the same can disrupt a student’s plans to go abroad or require an early return home.
A placement requires not just a student and a host family, however. It requires a school. Host families and students’ families often do not fully understand the role of the host school in completing the jigsaw puzzle. Many families and students think that exchange organizations simply need to tell the school that an exchange student will be attending. It’s not that simple.
First, the host family’s home address generally determines which school a student will attend (at least for J-1 visa students, the “traditional” high school cultural exchange system managed by the U.S. Department of State, which is what we’re talking about in this blog post). Host families generally cannot choose which high school their student will attend – it’s determined by school attendance maps. The “matching” process we coordinators talk about requires not only that a host family find a student that will hopefully be a good fit in the home, but also that the student will be a good fit for the school, as well as that the school agrees to have an exchange student. There needs to be a “meeting of the minds” with a school for every student.
Many schools look forward to welcoming exchange students as a way to expand U.S. students’ horizons and adding cultural diversity to their student body. The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), working with exchange program organizations and school administrators to come up with general exchange student guidance, recommends:
American high schools should strive to accept international exchange students each year. The number of international exchange students that a high school will accept and the timing/deadlines for the process vary. These guidelines suggest a middle ground that recognizes the needs of schools and exchange programs, taking into account the increasing difficulty of securing early student applications and host family commitments. Ideally, schools should work toward a goal of 1% of the total student population being comprised of exchange students. Acknowledging that school conditions vary locally, it is important to set a personal goal that best fits each school community.
— Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, Model School Policy on International Student Exchange (2002).
But there are conflicting interests in play for schools. These are most obvious when schools face limits on teacher and financial resources. Schools may fear the extra burdens non-native speakers add to already over-worked teachers. Athletic directors and state athletic associations may express concerns about foreign students taking competition opportunities away from permanent students.
The result is that school districts and individual schools often limit how many exchange students they can accommodate. They may allocate these “slots” on a first-come first-served basis. They may assign slots to individual exchange programs they know and trust, or set limits on each exchange organization (e.g., no more than 1 student per organization at a school). They may limit how many students can come from a particular country to increase diversity. They may require language scores higher than the U.S. Department of State minimum.
Most of us working in the field think that school restrictions are perfectly reasonable. It’s reasonable, for example, to set higher criteria for language proficiency, or to ensure a diversity of country representation among exchange students.
Sometimes, however, schools go beyond the steps described above and fundamentally (if unintentionally) rearrange the jigsaw puzzle pieces required for a successful exchange student placement. Perhaps a school has encountered problems with individual exchange students in the past. Perhaps a school decides for resource reasons it will reduce the number of students it will accept in the coming year. This can lead schools to radically change how they handle exchange student applications.
Let’s look at an example of how this can come about. A school district announces it will reduce by about half the number of exchange students its schools will accept for the coming year. It will accept applications from any exchange organization, but will hold all applications until after a deadline in late Spring. The district will inform the exchange organizations a few weeks later, close to the end of the school year, which students from which exchange organizations the district will accept for the coming academic year.
The school district genuinely believes this process will address its needs. It will still have exchange students in local schools, and district officials believe that by looking at all applications before deciding, they will get the “best” students. What district officials don’t see is that by adopting this process, they are fundamentally rearranging the jigsaw puzzle pieces in a way that is incompatible with how exchange student placement works. Over time, such an approach could break the model of high school exchange. Here’s why:
A key constraint in placing high school exchange students is the availability of host families. The benefits of hosting a student are significant, but it’s not something that everyone is ready to do. It’s hard to find families willing to open up their home for 9-10 months and to take on the financial and other burdens of a new teenager in their home. Finding host families is a key challenge for exchange coordinators.
The process of looking for host families begins as early as the Fall — almost a year before students arrive. With thousands of students being placed across the country, it’s a big job. By Spring, exchange organizations have finalized the placement of a large fraction of these students and are focusing on getting remaining students placed.
When a school announces it will select a specific number of exchange students from all applications filed by a Spring deadline, it introduces enormous uncertainty for everyone involved. How many host families should each exchange organization try to find? What should each exchange organization tell potential host families? Please fill out all the forms, go through the interviews and background checks, and choose a student, but we can’t tell you how likely it is your student will be selected? Should host families be encouraged to pick the most physically attractive students, or just the academically most superior, in the hope they’ll have an edge in the selection process? Are these really the criteria on the basis of which host families should be choosing a student, as opposed to how good a fit the student will be for the family and the community? We would argue “no,” if we want the jigsaw puzzle pieces of a successful placement to fall into place.
If schools all over the U.S. were to implement this kind of process, exchange organizations would suddenly have hundreds (even thousands) of “school-less” students on their hands in late Spring, just as schools all over the country are preparing to shut down for the summer. They would also have frustrated host families, and (if this were to become the pattern) many families back home wondering if their son or daughter will be headed for the U.S. after all.
Creating disruptive uncertainty around the exchange student selection process is playing with host families’ and exchange students’ lives, and far fewer students and host families are likely to pursue exchange at all. Why would potential host families go to the trouble of selecting a student and go through the host family application process if they have no idea whether they will be able to host the student? Will schools always make “better” exchange student choices than the matching done by exchange program coordinators and choices made by host families? While the students a school selects could be perfect examples of successful exchange students, they could just as likely end up being relatively poor fits for their host families, and create new problems for the school.
Hundreds of students—indeed thousands—come to the U.S. and succeed every year. And some don’t. They’re teenagers, after all, and they—and their host families—are people who sometimes do the right thing, and sometimes they don’t. We’ve learned from experience that exchange student success is almost impossible to predict from a student’s written application alone. There are better ways for schools to solve resource issues and other problems than getting into the exchange student selection business. Like everyone else involved, schools should work to understand the finely tuned nature of the exchange process jigsaw puzzle.
A Review of Berdan et al.’s A Parent Guide to Study Abroad
High school exchange program coordinators talk about the needs of students and the needs of host families. Add in the needs, resources, and limitations of the schools we work with and you have a three-legged stool supporting a successful exchange year.
But the truth is it’s a four-legged stool. Parents back home can be a key factor, particularly in today’s world of instant communications, even if those parents are often unseen and unheard; it’s just a function of how exchange programs operate that we may have little or no contact with the shadowy figures who send us these teenagers year after year. It’s not just coordinators, either; host parents may or may not have communication with their student’s parents. If they do communicate, it may be rife with cultural and language misunderstandings, and host parents often feel that their student’s parents do not fully understand what is involved in the cultural exchange experience or the study abroad process. Finally, the high schools where our students go to school for a semester or academic year rarely have contact with the exchange students’ parents. Yet, solid parent preparation and understanding of the nature of an exchange and study abroad generally are key to a student’s ability to adapt and develop a healthy relationship with his or her host family and community.
Certainly, there are resources about study abroad that can be useful to students’ parents; a recent example that comes to mind is Helene Rybol’s Culture Shock: A Practical Guide (you can read my review of Rybol’s book here). What we don’t see are books or articles specifically exploring the parental side of the equation. Individual exchange programs and university study abroad programs do provide parent orientations, and they work hard to educate parents. Nevertheless — human nature being what it is the world over — parents may not be able to fully assimilate all the information provided to them. Having an outside source can be invaluable.
Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, Allan Goodman, and William Gertz are trying to be that source. They aim to make parent preparation more transparent in their 2015 publication of A Parent Guide to Study Abroad. Published by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the book’s goal is (as stated by IIE) to “arm parents with the right mix of practical information to get involved just enough, while also giving the students the independence to learn and grow on their own.” The three authors, all well-known and experienced international education and study abroad professionals, acknowledge that parent involvement is critical for a student’s success. But as Berdan notes in her introduction, not every parent knows where to begin; and as Goodman notes in his introduction, parents need a plan.
So what is that plan, and what do the authors feel parents need to know to be effective? In truth, it’s not a lot different from what students and host families need to know, which shouldn’t really be a surprise. If you were to only look at the chapter titles, you might think it is almost the same advice as that given to students. Chapters in the book include the value of studying abroad; how to find the best program; addressing costs and means of paying for a study abroad program; staying safe and healthy; and how to prepare for success while in another country.
There are some nuances, however, that are different simply because a parent’s perspective is different from that of a student or that of a host family. For one thing, two chapters specifically address parents’ actions during and after a study abroad program. These are key areas in which parents’ knowledge and expectations can help make or break a student’s successful integration into a host community as well as transitioning back home after three, six, or nine months abroad.
Two minutes into reading the book — indeed, I hadn’t even gotten past the authors’ introductions – I found a perfect example. William Gertz, president and CEO of the American Institute for Foreign Study, compares his own three-month traveling abroad journey many years ago with his daughter’s more recent study abroad experience, focusing on his own perceived needs and well-intentioned actions:
When my daughter went abroad during her junior year, I was excited for her. I wanted her to have “my” experience” (first mistake). But life is different nowadays, and you can’t really unplug. While she was studying in Florence, we spent far too much time talking on Skype and communicating via Facebook. We were always connected; and while this was comforting for us both, it may have hampered the freedom she needed—the freedom of spirit, exploration, and trial and error that I had. Still, she came home a more confident, more accomplished young woman.
Her study abroad program was superbly organized down to every detail, perfect for the millennial generation, complete with ample hand holding. Days packed with detailed itineraries including learning excursions; volunteering trips and language courses were quite the contrast to my backpacking, hostel-hopping days of self discovery. Traveling by air on weekends, she probably had fewer adventures than I had traveling by rail. But I had to remember, this was her experience, not mine.
My strong advice is this: let your children breathe. Don’t call too much, don’t solve all their problems, let them make their own mistakes and find their own path.
I could go on — there is actually quite a bit in this short 60-page book — but this, in a way, is the nutshell of the book’s messages to parents: help your child choose the program that is right for her, not for you; don’t overuse technology to remind them of what they are missing back home while they are trying to learn a whole new world; and let them learn what it is they went abroad to learn.
The book is intended for college students’ parents; moreover, it’s written for U.S. parents. But the issues faced by parents of high school students studying abroad aren’t much different, and the themes of what a parent needs to know and think about apply equally to parents whose students are coming to the U.S. It’s important to have parental support and understanding. It’s important to think about finances; if it’s a good idea for college-age students to understand budgets and how to get access to funds in another country, it’s doubly more so for teenagers who have thought even less than their college counterparts about what ordinary things in life cost. It’s important to think about how you will stay in touch, and how often. It’s important at all ages to “develop a global mindset so that they will be best positioned for success in our competitive, global marketplace” – “one of the best gifts we can give our children,” Berdan notes.
There is nothing revolutionary in A Parent Guide to Study Abroad. It’s not over-burdened by long explanations. It’s just good, useful advice that all parents should review and periodically refer to while their son or daughter is abroad. We’ll be recommending it.
A Parent Guide to Study Abroad is available from IIE Publications for $4.95. IIE is offering a significant discount for bulk copies for schools to give to parents (20 copies for $20.00). The companion book, A Student Guide to Study Abroad, can also be ordered for $14.95, with discounts of 30%-50% for bulk orders.
The article highlighted below, written by Patrick Stephenson, former speechwriter for the NATO secretary-general, is a good piece on the value of studying abroad in high school. He touches on several topics I think important:
Encouraging U.S. students to study abroad: critical, in my opinion, for all the other reasons mentioned below.
Making study abroad more accessible to a wider group of potential students. Study abroad has always suffered from only being available to those who can afford it.
Long-term benefits from study abroad: learning another language and culture, improving one’s resume for college and future job prospects, learning about one’s own capabilities.
Importance in a global economy of having citizens who understand the world just a bit more.
I also thought this article was, in a way, a nice tribute to the bravery and motivation of the high school students around the world who take the leap and study abroad as teenagers without really having a clue about what lies before them.
As Stephenson notes:
Studying abroad is, first and foremost, an instructive exercise in failure. . . . the lesson you learn — that initial setbacks, patience and work are the prerequisites for eventual success — is more important than an A in Calculus. That lesson can’t be taught. It must be learned firsthand. A high school year abroad is a quick and dirty way to discover just how ignorant you are. As such, it’s the door to a lifetime of learning and discovery.