Exchange Students: A Multicultural Experience

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When 17-year-old Marnouk arrived in Indiana, she immediately noticed corn fields, lots of corn fields. This small detail is an example of how strange a foreign land can be to a newcomer.

Marnouk had visited the U.S. before, but not Indiana, where she expected to spend ten months as an exchange student. To an Indiana native, cornfields are normal, but not to a teenager from Holland.

Host Families
Bringing a teenaged exchange student into your home for a semester of six months or a year of ten months can be daunting. Every family is different, but it is a challenge for even those with the best intentions. Since the experience affects the entire family, everyone needs to be consulted and should talk it over before deciding whether to enter the program.

Accommodations must be made in sleeping arrangements, rules, household duties and meals. Families are expected to provide suitable living space and all meals to the exchange student. Spending money and health insurance are provided by the student’s family. Sometimes, the student wants to treat the host home as a hotel and keep to themselves. Rules must be explained clearly from the beginning to avoid such situations.

Meal planning can be difficult for Americans who may eat out frequently or eat a lot of fast food. My daughter-in-law, Ana Maria, from Colombia, was an exchange student in Illinois in 1990. She put honey on everything because to her the food had no taste.

Families who host exchange students have the opportunity to learn about other cultures. They are introduced to the basics of a foreign language if they don’t know it already. From the adult’s perspective, the opportunity to help a young person grow and mature is an enriching experience. Hosts provide guidance while the exchange student explores new worlds and experiences. In many ways, guiding an exchange student through their daily life is like guiding your biological children through these experiences, but in other ways it is very different since other cultural norms must be considered.

The Students
Students selected to participate in cultural exchange programs are teens, generally in good health. They are good students with open minds. Still, students find themselves in a different school environment in addition to the new home environment. The differences in educational practices around the world expose students to new ways of solving problems. Soon they will be able to use multi-faceted learning approaches and apply their skills to many different situations and problems.

Students usually speak English. However, it may be textbook English and not the easy, conversational English spoken by teens in school or the family environment. In general, exchange students improve their language skills while they’re in the U.S. Marnouk arrived speaking four languages, her native Dutch and German, French and English. She decided to take Level I Spanish in her Indiana high school because she loves languages and wanted to try another one.

The lifestyle of the exchange student may be very different from the average American teenager’s lifestyle. Marnouk rides her bicycle from her village to her school every day when the weather is nice. It’s a 45-minute ride.

Positive Experiences
The main purpose of the volunteer organizations promoting intercultural exchange programs is to create an enlightened population that will work toward a just and peaceful world. Yet families may encounter difficulties in hosting a foreign exchange student. Rarely, the student will request that he or she be reassigned if the host family is not a good fit. Some students cannot adjust to being away from their homes and want to return to their countries early. This, too, is unusual.
Most of the students selected as exchange students are bright, mature and ready to take on the challenge of months abroad without the support of their parents or friends. Many want to return to the U.S. to study in college. For students who complete their exchange program, the rewards are great. They have matured even more. Their language skills have improved considerably and they are eager for new adventures.

For the host families, the rewards are even greater. The entire family has had the opportunity to learn about another culture without traveling. After the exchange program concludes for the term, the host family may be motivated to visit their student’s country and gain first-hand experience with the culture. In many cases, the host family wants to repeat the exchange experience with another student from the same culture or another culture.

If the experience has been highly successful, the host family and the exchange student will bond and find it is difficult to part at the end of the school term. What better reason to host an exchange student than to discover that you love them and hate to see them go? ■

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