Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has received many positive reactions to her push for cultural exchange and global education. In 2010, she energized the cultural and education exchange industry with a speech that barely lasted 1½ minutes. In her comments, she stated that student exchange still serves a purpose, even in the 21st century. Student exchange enriches the lives of the students, host families, and communities, she said, and helps to “build people-to-people connections that span the globe and last a lifetime.”
It’s all individual communication. Secretary Clinton emphasized that the goodwill and exposure to other cultures that exchange programs foster on an individual student and family level are “critical to meeting the challenges of today’s world.” She stated what many of us believe: that individuals can and do help – one person at a time – to improve communication among nations by “citizen diplomacy.” At its basic premise, this means that each and every one of us can contribute in our own way to improving international relations. A positive thought, to say the least. It seems to be confirmed by what we see as these teens grow up; exchange students often go on to become leaders in their own countries and bring their widened vision of the world to their vision of leadership.
Secretary of State John Kerry has made an effort to continue what Secretary Clinton started. In November 2013 remarks, he noted that “international education creates life-long friendships between students and strengthens the bonds between nations.” He emphasized that it’s not just about education; it’s an element of diplomacy and economics. Those who gain a world view can help to bring the vision of their own country to others and better meet cross-border challenges; those who have such a world view can better compete in the global economy. Secretary Kerry notes that the percentage of international students at the university level in the U.S. hasn’t really changed in the past decade (3.5 percent; the same share they represented in 2000), and he calls for a “much greater level of exchange.”
If you are interested in contributing to this vision, I encourage you to read some of my blog posts to learn more about student educational exchange, and contact an exchange program representative in your area. Don’t just rush forward immediately – I’m not that kind of advocate. Ask questions, make sure you are comfortable with the person you would be dealing with, and choose a student who you think would fit in your family’s lifestyle. Educate yourself about your student’s culture and country before he or she arrives. Accept that you will change as a result of this process, and that it will be an adventure – hopefully, one that will last a lifetime.
1. Make a copy of your student’s passport and insurance information.
For many of us, our first thought when thinking about “teens” and “important documents” is that those words do not belong in the same sentence. As host parents, we used to immediately put our exchange students’ passports into the house safe. Revised federal regulations don’t allow that anymore; students must have possession of their passports and visas. I now recommend that host parents and students find a safe place in the student’s bedroom where the student can keep his or her passport and other important documents. I would make a copy of the student’s passport, visa, and insurance information. Carry the insurance information with you, as you would carry in your wallet insurance information for your own child. If your student has an accident on the ski slopes, you don’t want to be calling all over creation trying to find the student’s insurance ID and group number while he is screaming in pain.
2. Don’t give your exchange student preferential treatment; treat your student as a member of the family.
This can be really hard for new host parents to do. The natural tendency is to treat the student as a guest – give them leeway, not too much responsibility, and maybe the rules for your own children shouldn’t apply to them. After all, they are used to different rules in their own home and you should respect that, right? If your own children brought a friend home for a day or two, you wouldn’t expect that friend to obey all your house rules or to do house chores. The same should apply with the exchange student, right?
Emphatically, no! We do respect that students are used to different rules and customs, of course. Your program liaison/coordinator can help advise your student on what kinds of rules to expect in a family in your community, and can advise you on how to help the student adjust to your rules and lifestyle. That’s the key: an exchange student needs to learn how to follow your rules as a member of your family in your community. This may not always be easy for the teen, and we do need to allow for an adjustment period. But in the end: high school exchange students are not here on a vacation. They are here to go to an American school, live in a real American family, and learn what it is like to live as an American teen, also so they can really get to know our culture. (The same, in reverse, applies to American students going to other countries on exchange programs; it works both ways.) Successful host families are able to move quickly beyond the “what a nice young man he is” phase to the “take out the garbage, please, and oh yes, don’t forget to walk the dog before you go to the movies!” phase.
3. Contact your exchange student’s teachers so they know who the host family is and can contact you if needed.
U.S. government regulations require that high school exchange students pass all their classes. Teens often think this will be easy, and may be genuinely dumbfounded when a progress report arrives at their host family’s home with a D or an F in a given class. The exchange programs take failing grades seriously, and in rare cases a student may face an early return to her home country if she cannot keep up. As with our own children, communication with and information from the teachers and school contributes to a student’s success. If you know that your student is having difficulty in a class at school, you can better advise your student on what to do. Consult with your program liaison to see if he or she has some advice and together you can make a plan for the student’s success.
4. Set expectations for your exchange student about chores. It’s OK to assign jobs, and it’s a good idea!
Some host parents are hesitant to assign chores or regular jobs to their students. They feel it’s an imposition – “it’s not like he’s my own son, after all.” (Answer: yes, he is, for the time he is living in your home!) Some host parents feel that if they don’t have express, specified tasks for their own children, it’s not reasonable to start an express list for the exchange student. (Answer: try to remember that your own children have figured out what’s expected after 10, 12, or 15 years; your exchange student does not have that family knowledge.) Some host parents feel that it’s not fair to make a student mow the lawn on top of getting used to a new culture, immersion in English, a new school, and a new community. (Answer: yes, it is “fair”; it’s what they signed up for! They’re here to learn what American teens’ life is like, and that may include mowing the lawn, emptying the dishwasher, and cleaning the bathroom.)
Successful host families understand that communicating expectations is critical to setting up a relationship with a new member of the family – and that continuing to communicate and talk about one’s lifestyle and customs will help, too. The students want to help, and let’s be honest – most of them are used to walking the dog, emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, or keeping their room (reasonably) tidy. There may be cultural differences around the world — but “chores” is a universal!
5. Encourage your exchange student to do school activities, sports. Great way to meet people, learn school spirit!
Host parents are sometimes hesitant to require that their student do something outside the academic requirements of the high school; they may feel it’s not their place to require something of a child who is not their own. The student may be hesitant, too, to sign up for something. This is especially true if he or she has never done the activity before. Even if he has participated in a sport or other activity, he may be nervous about signing up here in the U.S., not knowing how U.S. schools organize teams, or what the expectations are in an American high school sport, music group, or theater/drama club. It’s certainly our job as parents – and host parents, and local coordinators — to encourage independence and a move towards adult decision-making in our students. The truth, however, is that teens sometimes may need a nudge in that direction. For an exchange student, getting involved in a non-academic high school activity can be a critical step towards becoming part of the high school community. It’s hard – not impossible, certainly, but hard – to make friends in the classroom itself. So encourage (or even require) your student to do something outside the classroom, whether it be joining the school soccer team, signing up for a chess club, joining a martial arts class, or signing up for an acting class through the parks and recreation department.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, since we’ve been looking for host families for students arriving in January and are beginning to look for families for the 2013-2014 academic year. I get the question a lot when I talk to people about hosting a student. “My kids are too young,” or “I need to wait until my son/daughter is in high school.”
I’d like to challenge that assumption, at least for some families. In some cases, sure — waiting might be the right thing to do for your family situation. But don’t wait just because you don’t have a teen. Don’t assume, without thinking it through, that the “right time” is when your 10-year-old turns 16.
We’ve hosted about a dozen teens in the past 10 years, not including the ones who we’ve had for a few days or a few weeks as a result of our work as local coordinators/supervisors. Our children were 9 and 11 when we first hosted a boy from Germany. If we had decided that “our boys will learn more when they’re teens,” we would have missed so much. We would have missed the opportunity for our older son to learn what it means NOT to be the older son (it means a lot, and very much to the benefit of the younger son!). We would have missed the change in family dynamic when you have three instead of two, and the opportunity for there always to be someone with whom to kick a soccer ball, watch an action movie, or play video games. We would have missed the fun of playing Age of Empires (which our exchange student introduced us to) on several computers simultaneously with three boys and Dad all trying to take over the world.
By hosting when our kids were younger, we learned things about teens that came in incredibly handy later on when our own children reached that age. We learned about managing computer use and cell phones. We learned how to handle a teen slinking in late with no good excuse. We learned how to say “no, you can’t go” and not feel awful, and we learned how to say “no” even when you do feel awful. We learned that intelligent teens can make dumb decisions. We learned, even as adults who have been abroad, that living with someone from another culture teaches you things that books and popular media cannot.
Yes, it’s a different family makeup when the exchange student is older (or for that matter, younger) than other children in the family. Our sons’ relationship with Niklas, who was their 17-year-old Age of Empires companion when they were 9 and 11, was different from their relationship with Sven and Jorge, who joined our family when our children were 12 and 14, or with Alex, who became our German son when he and my younger son were both 16.
Let’s face it, American families come in all sizes and shapes. A host family is just that – a family. A family can have one or two parents. A family can have children living in the home or no children living in the home – or no children at all. A family can have children away at college, teenagers, middle-schoolers, or toddlers. The U.S. government and the 75 or so authorized exchange programs in this country encourage — with good reason — all kinds of families to host.
Foreign cultural exchange is intended to show the variety of culture within a country, and part of that is showing the variety of families. Families share one important characteristic, though: they are families. To be a host family for an exchange student, you just need to want to share that experience and expand your own family’s horizons.
11-02-2012 — I thought this interview on Wisconsin’s TV show, The Morning Blend, was worth passing along. This is what cultural exchange is all about — a good “match” between host family and exchange student, a student interested in doing things differently while here in the U.S., and a host family interested in learning about their new “exchange daughter’s” life. (OK — also a good coordinator keeping an eye on how things are going and communicating with the family and student!)
I’ve been thinking about this lately, as all the foreign student exchange programs struggled to find host families by the U.S. government deadline for all the students who had applied to come to the U.S. for an exchange year. It seemed harder this year to find families. That perception seems to be borne out by the numbers – maybe it’s anecdotal or maybe it’s just regional, but many local schools have reported fewer exchange students being enrolled than usual.
Maybe it’s the economy making people nervous about the financial burden of feeding another person. But in some regions of the country, numbers were up. So I’ll leave the mystery of “why not” to the number crunchers to figure out; I’m going to focus on the other side of the coin: why we *do* host.
Yes, the teen years can be a challenge, and yes, it’s a challenge to make someone part of your family who comes in with no connection to you. But there are many reasons why Americans (and others) have been enthusiastically choosing to host teens from other countries for many years. The desire to learn from others while passing along your personal view of life in this country is strong. People everywhere are proud of their culture and their country, and want to share their experience. Hosting a student provides an opportunity to learn about another culture from the perspective of what that culture is like on a daily basis, as students share with their host families the differences in their own families. For host families with children, exposing one’s children to other cultures can help them understand other people better and communicate across cultures, and develop tolerances for differences.
What it really comes down to, I think, is this:
* Students tasting a freshly baked Voodoo Donut for the very first time (if you don’t know what that is – come to Portland and find out for yourself!) – and reminding us how good they taste.
* A boy from Italy playing volleyball in a school tournament (a game that in America is usually considered a “girl’s” sport) and becoming known throughout the school for the rest of the school year as the Volleyball King – and reminding us that it takes courage to stand up and be different.
* 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 – and reminding us that yes, it really is a pretty cool sight.
* Just the other day, a student from Spain told me about how much fun she was having learning how to be a cheerleader. “We don’t have this at home,” she reminded me excitedly. “This is America. I am living my own American dream.”
Yes, it’s hard work hosting and advising the kids all year. Yes, it’s only September and we coordinators, counselors, and host families will have teen issues and angst to deal with in October and December and February. But we live for the grins and the smiles, the looks of awe and amazement, the courage of 16 and 17 year olds — and for the airport pickups of former students when they come back to visit a year (or two or four or ten years) later and having them shout “shotgun” to get the front seat and arguing with their “brothers” before you even leave the airport. Family is family, after all, no matter where they started.