If you are considering being an exchange student or hosting an exchange student, you may have gone to the internet to gain insight and information. Unfortunately, what you will mostly find from this resource is one-sided perspectives rather than realities of the exchange student experience.
Why is this the case?
First, I can say from personal knowledge that problems in student exchange can be extremely emotional and traumatic. It is understandable why students or host families who have had a bad experience need to express themselves and to find others with common experiences for support. Second, people do not have the same need to discuss the positive which leads to a vast over-representation of negative exchange experiences. Finally, as we all know, horrible and sensational stories make better press.
What are the realities?
I think it is important to first understand the scale of student exchange. In 2007-2008 academic year, there were approximately 31,000 exchange students traveling either to the United States or from the United States to countries around the globe. Even if as many as 100 of these students had a truly horrific experience such as rape, injury, or death, that represents only about only one-third of one percent, 1 in 3000, of the students on exchange. For comparison, in 2005, the teen-death rate in the United States for all causes was 1 in 1500. In terms of days of participation (number of students * days of exchange), the incidence of a bad experience on exchange would be .0024 per million. Compare this to the fatality rate of skiing at .79, swimming at 1.26, and biking at .38.
This is not to meant to diminish even one tragedy that has befallen an exchange student. However, the reality is that, compared with other activities of life, an exchange student has a more than reasonable expectation of a safe experience. Don’t be scared away from exchange by what you read on the internet. Bad things can happen to students while on exchange, but bad things can happen to students who remain at home. There are certainly different risks in traveling to a foreign country and living with new family. For this reason all exchange students should be aware of those risks and how to handle them should they occur.
Another reality to keep in mind is that the exchange student experience is a convoluted mix of agendas and priorities of all four of the primary groups involved: the students and their natural parents, the recruiting organizations, the placement organizations and local representatives, and to a lesser extent the host families. Often these agendas and priorities are in conflict with one another. In other words, there is a certain amount of conflict that seems to be inherent in student exchange. Students are supposed to be on exchange for language and culture, but they can also be seeking continued schooling or immigration. Recruiting organizations are supposed to send qualified students overseas, but it is difficult to deny a determined student with money to pay. Placement organizations should find quality host families, but they are under pressure to find placements or the students are not allowed to travel. When reading about exchange student problems, or dealing with them personally, keeping this in mind will help you understand why things sometime happen the way they do.
Finally, there are two common themes which I find often on the internet and which I feel need to be addressed.
Theme #1: All exchange students are spoiled rotten brats who are sent abroad by their parents to get them out of the house.
The reality is that out of ten exchange students, one or two will have serious issues, one or two will be the dream exchange student, and six to eight will need various amounts of support and guidance to successfully make it through the year. If you are a host family and your student turns out to be one with serious issues, act sooner than later to have the student removed from your home. A host family serves in a voluntary role, and there is no need to prolong the agony of a bad placement. But remember, it is also the job of the host family is to help the student through the difficulties of exchange…having a student removed at the first sign of trouble is irresponsible.
Theme #2: All exchange organizations and programs are evil and are concerned only with exploiting students and taking their money.
The reality is that there are good, mediocre, and bad law firms. There are good, mediocre, and bad mortgage companies. There is no reason to expect anything different from exchange organizations and programs. If you are a potential exchange student, you should do your homework. When choosing a program, approval by the U.S. State Department and the CSIET is a good start but is by no means a guarantee. In your research, beware that of the stories you find on the internet, some are true, some are false, but most lie in the gray area between. Most present only one side of the story. Another reason that you should be wary of individual narratives is that, as any person experienced in student exchange will tell you, your experience will largely be determined by your local representative. A bad representative can ruin an experience for a student in an otherwise quality program. Conversely, a good representative can mitigate the problems of a bad organization.
I would like to recommend that you also read my posts Advice for Exchange Students and Advice for the Host Family. For a more balanced view of student exchange I suggest two forums: cultures-shocked for students and hostparent.com for host families.