The transition from one home into another home with a completely different family dynamic added onto integration into a new culture can be quite overwhelming. Although many of foreign exchange students are well prepared prior to coming to America, or they are a more outgoing, self confident type of personality. It becomes quite easy to forget that they are simply teenagers. Teens from every country, although culturally different, are just teens and behave and react quite the same as American teens. Their bodies are changing in same manner, their minds are developing, and they are simply trying to figure out whom they are and where they belong in this world of ours.
I have found while hosting and while coordinating or mentoring, that a lot of the issues with adjustment and homesickness, while quite normal and expected, can be dealt with by open communication. Okay, these are teenagers, and “talking to the ‘rents” is not the coolest thing to do, but if you establish open chatting right from the beginning while getting acquainted with your student, and begin the process of communicating openly right from the start. This can be overwhelming at first for your foreign exchange student, so I tend to take it slowly and let the student guide how far and how fast to increase communication and openness with them.
It is always a balancing act with your own teens, but even more so with a scared, overwhelmed, lonely, possibly language challenged, and culturally shocked teenager. There is the universal language of love, compassion, and understanding that surpasses the English language! Beginning right away, during the honeymoon phase of excitement and awe, will help once reality sets in! You can begin with comparing likes of food, entertainment, movies, etc.
Play games, spend time together, show them even the most mundane things like your favorite place to get a good burger, or this is where I get my pictures developed. Most will require a school physical and or a PIAA physical if they are going to play a sport, so I often take them to my own family physician, and I offer them privacy or to go into the office with them. I try to build their trust. Offer them a balance of time together and time alone in their room to decompress. Give them the ability to lead or guide the adjustment time, but do NOT allow them to simply stay in their room alone…balance is key.
Remember, they are scared teenagers, and they may try to push you away and act really strong and cool, but they are simply a bowl full of Jello and nerves. Try to keep in mind how you felt at that particular age and multiply it by 5! In all honesty they are dying for your help or support, but may push you away to try to impress you. Read their eyes and body language, if they are fidgeting or indecisive, ask again and offer to support them. Reassure them that you are not intruding, but that you wish to help. Tell them that you understand, you may even want to share a funny story of a time when you were scared at that age, or even now.
Beginning The Process
NOW, early spring, is the very best time to consider hosting students, get approved, and make your selection. I say this for several reasons. First, there are currently 55 students available in our agency just waiting to be chosen. If you choose early, you get a better selection of children that might fit into your home or lifestyle. Second, the approval process, while simple, can take time. Third, many schools do not accept foreign exchange students after the end of the prior year, so the end of this May would be the cut off choosing and reserving your student’s spot in the school district now is best. Fourth and MOST IMPORTANT, choosing now allows you a few extra months to get to know your student, communicate with his or her family, begin to bond with your coordinator, prepare your home and family for the wonderful new addition, and read up on how best to host a child and the stages that kids and host parents experience.