In an earlier post, I described how hosting an international exchange student can be a benefit to a homeschooling family. Today I'd like to tell you a little more about the nuts and bolts of hosting a student in the United States.
When you host an exchange student, you work with an exchange student program. We hosted our student through EF Foundation for Foreign Study, but there are numerous other organizations that facilitate international exchanges. It may be better to host a student through an organization that has placed students in your area previously. They will have a working relationship with the schools near you. If you are working with an organization that is new to your area, do some research to confirm that the program has been successful elsewhere and has a good reputation online. Our experience with EF went off without a hitch, but there have been reports that some programs do not provide adequate support for students and families when there are problems.
Key to facilitating the exchange was EF's local coordinator. Other programs will have someone local or regional in a similar position who finds host families, communicates with parents, provides orientation for students, and helps solve problems if they arise. In speaking with our local EF coordinator, I learned that she had a lot of experience hosting students herself and placing students throughout our region.
Some considerations for how to host an international student
- Exchange students are required by their student visas to attend school. You cannot homeschool an exchange student even if all your children are homeschooled.
- Exchange students do not need a private bedroom but do need their own bed.
- Exchange students eat meals with their host family but have their own spending money. Families should not make "eating out" the only way a student can eat unless you're willing to pay for the meal. Their spending money may just not stretch that far, and it is not part of the expectation. However, they do not have to be "served" meals, as long as there is adequate food and opportunity for them to prepare it on days you don't have family meals. We found that adding "one more mouth" did not really change our food budget that significantly. We were able to occasionally include a meal out for our whole family, including our exchange student. If he went out with school friends, he paid for his own meal out, though he did not do this often.
- Host families do not pay for medical care of their exchange student. Our student had special insurance that paid for incidental visits to the doctor. Inquire with your exchange coordinator about how this will be handled.
- Host families are not paid, but receive a very small tax benefit.
- Some student exchange organizations only work with students from some countries. Some focus on Europe, some South America, some Africa, some Asia, and so on. If you have your heart set on hosting a student from a specific country, you should be working with an organization that places students from that country. Sometimes exchange organizations have to change which countries they work with from year-to-year due to changes in the number of visas allowed from certain countries or other requirements by the United States government or incoming students' governments. In practicality, I'd probably work with an exchange program that has experience in my community over trying to work with an exchange program that can "provide" a student from a specific country, but which has no track record.
- Exchange students can be expected to take care of their own belongings and laundry and do moderate family chores that are expected of other children; however, they cannot be expected to do general work in the home. Homeschooling parents may expect that students from some cultures are surprised by the amount and type of chores that kids do in U.S. homes -- especially homeschoolers -- and may need to moderate expectations or teach basic skills. Some exchange students from some countries may be relatively privileged, meaning they have household servants who cook and clean in their own home. Our exchange student was unfamiliar with doing laundry, vacuuming, and cooking. However, he saw that the other kids pitched in, and he learned to meet our modest expectations. I'm quite sure this was part of his cultural learning! Sometimes we joked privately that our teen exchange student was learning some of the same skills and responsibility that our 8 year old was learning. However, we could not complain about his good nature and respect for us and the situation. Of course, this is going to vary widely depending on your international student's home country and economic background, as well as your own.
- Your exchange student is required to attend school, and there are grade expectations in order for the exchange to continue. A good exchange organization and the local coordinator will have made this clear to the student. Some schools will work with you to allow the student to miss school for special opportunities, such as family travel that would give your international son or daughter an opportunity to see a different part of the country or take part in a special field trip.
- Think about transportation to school and activities. Our exchange student was served by the local school bus, but we did sometimes run him to activities, which was not inconvenient for us -- but it was, at times, like having that fourth child to run for. For some homeschooling families, this could be a consideration if you do not have public transportation or the ability to do a bit of extra chauffeuring. Technically, host families do not have to do this, but there were some opportunities we wanted him to have. Over time, our student also developed his own network of friends and parents at school who gave him rides, and our neighbors whose kids did attend school also were helpful in providing transportation. Talk to the local coordinator about expectations. A lot depends on the type of community you live in.
- House rules are important to establish but also must be considered in context. We were fortunate to have a student whose own family and culture emphasized respect of parents, and our student did not have a single significant behavior problem during his time with us. In fact, from what I heard among other host parents, most students understand the privilege of being in the United States in an exchange program and do their best to cooperate. Some homeschooling families may be quite a bit more strict or relaxed than students are accustomed to in their own countries; this is part of the cultural exchange on both sides, but homeschooling families need to be realistic about the reality of coping with differing expectations about rules and independence. Parents who have not yet had teenagers also need to realize that many exchange students are well on their way in young adulthood, so you'll be jumping in to navigating expectations about school dances, dates, and who you can ride in the car with -- without a warm-up.
- Don't have unrealistic expectations about learning a new language from an exchange student. They are busy with school, and they really want to practice their English. Yes, most will help and enjoy sharing their language with you and the kids, but it's not their job to teach a language in exchange for being hosted.
- The ideal host family is open to learning from the exchange student and having the student learn from the family. However, host families who seek to "change" a student's religious beliefs or political understandings will not have the best experience or create the best experience for a student.
While all these bullet points are important, the other thing is not to over-think. We had only vaguely considered hosting an exchange student when we were approached with a specific student who was on his way and needed a host family. In 48 hours, we reviewed his profile, met with the exchange coordinator, learned how the program works, said yes, bought an inexpensive metal bed frame and single bed mattress, and met him at the Memphis airport at 3 o'clock in the morning.
Our experience was much as Homa Sabet Tavangar described in her article for Huffington Post, "5 Lessons I Learned Hosting an Exchange Student."
Sometimes spontaneous decisions are for the best.