I hope you found this post because you are thinking about being a host family for a foreign exchange student. I wrote a post earlier offering advice to students thinking about becoming an exchange student and I wanted to balance it with a post directed toward potential host families.
I have tried to mirror the previous post as close as possible, sometimes word for word, for several reasons. First, I think most exchange programs already offer detailed advice on the actual nuts and bolts of hosting a student. Second, I feel that foreign exchange is a two-way street and I wanted to provide balance to each point given in the previous post. Finally, it was an interesting exercise to take all the individual points, flip them around, and look at them from the opposite perspective.
If you say yes to everything, then I think you are probably prepared to be a host family. If you say no to one or more items, I think it prudent for you to do some long reflection before continuing on in the host-family process.
Host Family Advice
1. The fundamental purpose of being a host family is to provide a young person the opportunity to learn a new language and to experience a different culture. This is the big fundamental. This is the point from where most everything about your hosting experience will succeed or falter. If you understand and believe this statement from the beginning, you will likely achieve positive results as a host family. If you dismiss or forget this statement, then you will likely find conflict and failure.
If you do not speak the native language of your country in your home, you should not host an exchange student. You will be denying your student valuable experience in practicing their new language.
The purpose of hosting is not to gain a babysitter or housekeeper for a year. Neither is it to gain a language tutor, to stack the local basketball team, or to provide a companion for yourself or your children. An exchange student may fill some of these roles, but when it happens you should consider it a pleasant bonus.
Ask yourself, “Is this my purpose?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise you to rethink being a host family.
2. Don’t expect your exchange student to change your family or a family member in any particular way. Remember the fundamental purpose of hosting an exchange student. If you decide to become a host family because you think it “would be good” for a family member or will solve some preexisting family issue, then you are making a questionable decision. Hosting an exchange student can be a life changing experience, but you need to know those changes are unpredictable and not guaranteed.
Ask yourself, “Am I hosting for the right reasons?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise you to rethink being a host family.
3. Hosting an exchange student requires you to be a parent. You must be willing to take over the parenting role from the student’s natural parents. As with any teenager, you must be prepared to set rules, lay out expectations, and define limits. As with any teenager, you should be prepared for them to test you, and you need to be willing to apply discipline when necessary.
You should expect to deal with normal teenage issues and crises. Cultures vary greatly around the world, but being a teenager is amazingly consistent. You must also be prepared to help your student to deal with your culture, culture shock, and other issues unique to being an exchange student.
You will need to establish a nurturing parental role with your exchange student. The success of their exchange may depend upon it.
Ask yourself, “Am I ready to be a parent for an exchange student?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise you to rethink being a host family.
4. Be open-minded and beware of expectations. Although when looking through profiles it may seem like you are ordering a student out of a catalog, this, of course, is not the case. Every exchange student is an individual. They will each come with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Some will be responsible, and some will not. Some will be excellent students, and some will not. Some will be family oriented, and some will not.
Remember the fundamental purpose of being a host family. If you remember the fundamental purpose, you will realize that you can successfully host a wide variety of students and personalities. For those families that have hosted multiple times, variety is something that makes hosting for several years fun.
If you decide to host, you are making a commitment to the student and their organization to host for the year. If the student is fulfilling their purposes of exchange, it is irresponsible to have a student removed simply because they are not meeting any other expectations that you may have, or because you have hit some minor difficulties with the exchange.
Ask yourself, “Am I willing to accept my student for who he or she is? Assuming the student is actively fulfilling the purposes of their exchange, am I committed to the hosting experience for a full year?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise you to rethink being a host family.
5. You need to be willing to follow the rules of the organization and honor the commitments. There are many rules in exchange organizations. Many rules are directed toward the exchange student, but many are for host families. In addition, your student will have commitments, such as meetings, that you must be willing to support. You will also have commitments such as host-family orientations.
Read through your program rules and ask yourself, “Can I and my family live with the rules of the exchange program? Is my family prepared to honor the commitments?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise you to rethink being a host family.
6. Take the time and effort, and be honest in picking out a student who will be a good fit for your family. The profiles may not be much, but they are all you have, so take them seriously. Hopefully, the students have taken the time to write a honest application. Students will usually list a few ancillary goals on their profile and they will be appreciative if the host family that chooses them is willing to support them in achieving at least some of these goals.
In reviewing profiles, reading between the lines is always necessary to a certain extent. Don’t get so caught up in the idea of hosting that you accept any student. If you don’t find a student that is a good fit, be prepared to tell the exchange organization that you will pass at this time. On the other hand, keep in mind the fundamental purpose of hosting an exchange student and remain open to students with different interests and personalities. You may never have been interested in high-school sports before, but you never know…being involved for a year with athletics might be an interesting change of pace.
Be forewarned that you really don’t know what student you are getting until they get off of the airplane. Applications are usually submitted six months to a year a head of time which is a long time for a rapidly changing teenager.
You should be brutally honest with yourself about what your family and community is all about. You need to set aside your ego and realize that not every student is going to enjoy living in your home. The selection process is not about picking the flashiest profile…it’s about matching the exchange student to a host family where everyone involved is happy and satisfied.
Ask yourself, “Am I willing to take the time and effort, and be honest in picking out a student who will be a good fit for my family?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise you to rethink being a host family.
7. Exchange students eat a lot of food. Boys and athletes eat more. Athletes who are also boys can consume calories at a frenetic pace.
Ask yourself, “Am I prepared for the expense of feeding my exchange student?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise you to rethink being a host family.
8. Host families must be open, honest, and communicative. You must be honest with your student, the natural parents, and the exchange organization. Never lie to any of these people, telling them “things are OK” when they are not. Your success as a host family depends largely on the communication you have with these three groups of people. You must be willing to communicate issues early on to the representative of the organization so that they can handle problems before they grow larger.
Ask yourself, “Am I willing to to be honest and communicative about my exchange student?” If the answer is “no”, then seek out a different type of program.
9. You are a host family. Hopefully, your exchange student is expecting you to take their language learning seriously and to support their taking part in the culture of the country, the community, and home. This can mean providing transportation to school, social, and other events. This does not mean unlimited taxi service anymore than it would for your own child. It can mean trips to buy athletic clothing or a prom dress. It can mean spending time planning a Halloween costume.
Being a host family means adding another family member to the household and accepting all the problems as well as all the joys. It means the exchange student will receive their fair share of family attention; Everyone in the host family must agreeable to this before you accept a student. Being a host family means being a true parent. It means providing a safe and secure environment. It means treating your exchange student as you would want your own child treated if they were overseas.
Ask yourself, “Am I willing to hold up my end of student exchange?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise you to rethink being a host family.
10. If you have problems, be patient and work through the system of your exchange organization. Hosting an exchange student is rarely trouble fee. If a problem occurs, work within the system. Solve problems first within your family, then involve the representative of your organization, then the regional or national office if needed. It is great if natural parents are on your side, but it is important for you to act as the parent while the student is in your home. When serious problems occur, be patient but persistent. Allow those in charge the time to gather all the details and work out a solution. Of course, if the problem is serious, you should expect your organization to move with due haste.
Ask yourself, “Am I willing to work through the exchange organization to solve most problems?” If the answer is “no”, then I advise you to rethink being a host family.
I hope that you will find my advice for host families helpful. Good luck!