“Help make the world a better place”, “give your family the gift that keeps on giving, “experience student exchange without leaving home”; these wonderful slogans are written to inspire and recruit potential host families for foreign exchange students. Hosting an exchange student can be a wonderful and endearing experience, or, it can be your families’ worst nightmare.
While building my business, I subbed (as a substitute teacher) for many years to supplement my income. It was during this time that I became interested in foreign exchange. A student exchange program was recruiting a “community or local coordinator” so I went for the job. Soon I found out that although it was touted as a “volunteer position” there was some money to be made. In addition, there were trip and prize incentives which added to the package. I decided to give it a try and see if it could replace the income I was making as a substitute teacher.
Initially getting started was difficult. I was given a stack of “student profiles” and told to come up with idea/potential families for 3-4 students. For example, if a student expressed a strong passion for figure skating, I would contact the families of students who were also avid skaters. Or, if a student expressed strong religious views, I would contact someone from a local synagogue, church or mosque to see if I might be able to post that students profile in an organizational newsletter or bulletin. Then I would leave my phone number for potential families to contact me.
It was always exciting to go and visit potential families, yet it was somewhat unsettling to think that parents were trusting me to find a safe and healthy home for their children. There were several steps to screening host families. First, we would check with the school (if they had school age children which was usually the case) to see how their own children fared in school. Lastly we checked references given to us by the host family. Typically this would be a co-worker, employer, pastor or family friend. Of course most of the time good things were said, but on a few occasions I rejected families because of what might have been said in these interviews.
If you are considering hosting an exchange student, here are some things you should consider:
1. What is the reputation of the agency you are working with? This is extremely important. Talk with school counselors and administrators to see what experience they’ve had with the agency and to ask about the pool of students that have come from this agency. Also try and talk with host families who have worked with this agency before. Ask how they’ve dealt with problems, how responsive they’ve been to the families needs, how much are they in contact with the family, etc. Lastly, are they accepted by CSIET – Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (this has been somewhat political in the past but acceptance can be a good indication of good management).
2. Always keep in mind that the local coordinator/representative is first and foremost a sales person. Their primary goal is to find that student a home. Many of them will even ask for the student to stay in your home short term. This is a desperate move and they are hoping that they will later be able to persuade you to keep the child in your home. Some of them can be like “high pressured” sales people so you need to treat them as such. If you really don’t want to take a student, be very firm about your “no”.
3. Ask to see written polices and procedures before saying “yes”. For example, what happens if you and the student don’t get along? What is the procedure for removing the student from your home should this be necessary? What are the expectations for the student academically? Is this student required to have his/her own spending money, in other words, what kind of financial burden might this be on your family? Get this clear because every agency is slightly different.
4. Each student will have a profile. Take the time to really study this profile. Thoroughly read the essay and if possible give the student a call and/or e-mail them. I can’t tell you the number of times a student was rated “high in English” and then they got here and I discovered that their English was very poor causing great stress for the student, host family, agency and school.
5. Keep in mind that the students are paying for this experience. Even as a coordinator it took me a while to grasp this concept. It was only when a student was adamant about moving from her host family that I really got the message that she was the “customer or consumer”, and what’s the saying “the customer is always right”. Considering this fact, don’t be pushed into taking a student who right off the bat will probably not be happy in your home. For example, the student says they want to be placed in sunny California and you live in windy Chicago. Unless you communicate with this student directly and they say their okay with coming to Chicago, decline taking this student. They may accept your home because they are desperate to come to America. This in the long run can be a potential problem.
6. Try not to come in on the tail end of the recruiting season. Exchange students begin arriving in the U.S. in about mid-August for the fall semester, and early January for the winter semester. If you take a student the week before school starts, this is probably either a last minute applicant, or a student that was “left over”. Repeat host families will get in on the game early and pick what I might say “the crÃ?Â¨me of the crop”. If you come in at the last minute, you will more than likely get a less than average student, a student whose photo or profile indicates “trouble”, and/or a student with poor English skills.
7. Don’t move by emotion, this is not like buying a new car. I’ve seen it so many times. Your teenager just has to have an exchange student in their home. Be sure they understand that this is a commitment. Whether they are thrilled with this student or not, you will be expected to fulfill your obligation of providing a home for this student for a semester or a full school year. It sounds good at the beginning, but make sure that both you and your children are committed. This may or may not turn out to be the sister or brother he/she always wanted.
8. No matter what they say to you, it’s not easy to move a student out of your home. Please keep this in mind. These children are human beings entrusted to your care and it is a serious responsibility. Think of it as a short-term adoption. Until they find that student another home, they will more than likely be with you even if it is a bad situation.
Although I’ve given you a lot of things to consider, please note that I have had wonderful experiences with exchange students. Most of them have been very respectful, cooperative, serious about their education, flexible and overall wonderful to work with. On the other hand, there have been one or two that have simply been arrogant, aggressive, pushy, uncaring, obnoxious and the like, and I couldn’t wait for them to get on the next plane home.
I’m sure that you and your family are considering hosting because you want to be a part of making this world a better place and desire to share your life and culture with a foreign student. This is wonderful and admirable, but to make this a positive experience, do your homework first!