Exchange Industry Overview: Students, Host Families & Schools
Where to begin with foreign exchange… well, let’s start by saying: foreign exchange is amazing, potentially life-changing, and very culturally relevant and worthwhile. However, it is also an industry that inherently involves people. With people come different points of view, emotions, experiences and, sometimes, complications. Like in all things, there are good and bad elements, and a wide variety of potential experiences. However, I am an optimist, and choose to see student exchange, by and large, as a positive thing.
Approximately 30,000 high school foreign exchange students enter the U.S. every year to attend high school and live with local host families. They come from all over the world, but primarily are coming from countries where mastering English is highly valued, and positive diplomatic relations are maintained with the U.S. (more on that later). Students must qualify for a J1 visa to participate on a high school foreign exchange program, and return to their home country upon completion of one year in the U.S. There are hundreds of organizations in the U.S. dedicated to facilitating the exchange experience of both students and families.
There are five key parties involved in your typical exchange: the exchange student, the host family, the local coordinator, the school and the exchange organization.
Based on State Department regulations, students must be no younger than 15 and no older than 19 upon entering the country. The average exchange student is 16 or 17-years-old — 15-year-olds and 18-year-olds are less common. Students must meet an English proficiency and academic requirement, though the measurement standards vary according to exchange organization. Generally, though, organizations will not accept students with lower than a C average, who cannot conversate comfortably in English, or who score lower than a 40 on a SLEP test (Secondary Level English Proficiency test).
Reflecting current educational trends, a majority of exchange students are female – probably about 70%. Far surpassing all other countries, Germany accounts for the largest proportion of exchange students. Places you are least likely to find exchange students from? Africa, the Middle East, India, the former Soviet Republics and in general, and, funnily enough, the United Kingdom. There are exceptions for every rule – there are niche organizations dedicated to bringing students from these country to the U.S., federal grant programs for under-represented groups (including the YES program, a State Department grant that seeks to bring students from Muslim speaking nations to the U.S. for exchange), and specific schools and private programs that bring these students here on F1visas.
Being an exchange student isn’t cheap. Exchange students pay anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 for the privilege of completing and exchange program. The money goes towards visa procurement costs, flights, insurance and operational costs. I realize “operational costs” is rather hazy, and broad. I will go into this at a later time.
Honest truth: a lot of exchange students come from privileged backgrounds. There are, however, cases where a student’s family has saved for *years* for this opportunity for their child, or a student has won a scholarship. Don’t assume that just because a student is on a program that costs $$$ that they are rich, or spoiled. Some organizations work with grant programs and give scholarships more than others. I will give a detailed list later.
Other elements exchange organizations look for in students are independence, maturity, an open mind and wanting to go to the U.S. for the right reasons. What are the “wrong” reasons? Going because your parents want you to. Going to escape a situation at home (having no friends, etc.). Going because you think it will be glamourous, and just like TV. Going to have a “vacation” from school. Other red flags: a disdain for overweight people, devoutly religious people or an unwillingness to return home after the exchange.
THE HOST FAMILY
First thing’s first: host families DO NOT GET PAID. Under State Department rules and J1 visa regulations, host families cannot be given money for taking a student into their home. Host families are 100% volunteer. If an organization is paying a host family, they are not a J1 visa program OR are violating State Department policy. Why would someone take in an exchange student, for free? Believe it or not, some people are just genuinely warm-hearted, interested in helping young people and learning about their culture. Other reasons host families host (or should host!):
- they can’t afford to travel internationally, and learn about other cultures
- they want to expose their family to different cultures
- they want to bring diversity and culture to their small (even rural) community
- they want to share the “American way of life” (whatever that means to them) with a international traveler
- they want to make a difference in the life of a young adventurer
- they’re seeking an intensive volunteer opportunity, with the potential for life-long fulfillment
- they previously lived abroad, and miss that culture (military families are common)
- they’ve always been curious about/passionate about a culture and want to learn more, first-hand
Are there unscrupulous individuals who take in students for the wrong reasons? Yes. However, they are in the minority. Unfortunately, it’s usually the extreme exceptions who get all the press.
What is a host family expected to provide? A host family must provide: room & board and a safe, caring environment. Basically – the student needs a bed to sleep in, a place at the dinner table and should be treated like a member of the family. They don’t need their own room (however, no sharing with the opposite sex!), but they do need their own bed, and personal space in the bedroom. Host families cannot “charge” a student rent or utilities, make them pay for a share of the groceries, or use them as a maid or babysitter. It is also not acceptable for a host family to take in a student with the aim of “converting” them to their religious beliefs – a student can be removed if they feel this is happening, and students do not have to attend church if they do not wish to. That doesn’t mean families can’t and don’t share their faith with students. But if it is the main motivation, a reputable organization will not put a student in that situation.
Host families are not required to provide, but some choose to: allowance, vacations/big trips, buying the student clothes, and other additional expenditures. Students should be receiving a monthly allowance from their natural parents — most exchange organizations recommend they receive $200-$500 a month for expenses. It is up to the host family how they want to approach their exchange student/family relationship. Some families treat the exchange student exactly like their own children — they pay for them when eating out, take them to the movies, pay for school shopping and clothes and, likewise, assign the student the same chores they would their own child and expect them to follow the same rules. Other families expect the student to pay for any activities they engage in outside the house, including paying for themselves at restaurants, on trips, etc.
Who can be a host family? Almost anybody! Exchange organizations welcome families of every stripe and color — “traditional” two-parent households with children, couples without children, same-sex couples, single mothers & single fathers (with children), single individuals (without children), retired couples, young couples, etc. Currently, there are no regulations regarding income level, but a local coordinator must find the home and situation suitable – the home must be clean, have enough space for all occupants and the family should be able to afford food and other basic amenities. Fun fact: most host families are middle class or lower middle class. The higher the income, the less likely a family is to host, despite often having the most space in their homes.
There are some caveats involved, even though “anyone can host.” Single men cannot host girls (for very obvious reasons). At least one of the host parents, preferably both, must be over the age of 25. And ALL family members over the age of 18, including college students who come home for holidays, must pass a criminal background check. The agency will also conduct an in-home interview (conducted by a local coordinator) and call three references — one professional and two personal.
A host family cannot speak, fluently, the same language as the student they are hosting. So a Spanish-speaking family cannot host a student from a Spanish-speaking nation. A family with a live-in granny who still speaks Japanese? Can’t host a Japanese student, even if everyone else in the family speaks English (and just wants to get in touch with their heritage). On the J1 visa program, the host family also cannot be related, in any way, to the exchange student. If a family wants to bring a niece or a cousin, or even a relative by marriage to the U.S. for high school, they will have to look into an F1 visa program, which has no such regulation.
Schools are more important part of the process than you might think. In many cases, a school can make or break an exchange organization’s ability to operate — and a family’s ability to host. Most exchange students attend public school, though some do pay for and attend private school during their stay. But by and large, students long for the “typical American high school experience” — which is your local public high school.
No exchange student may be booked a flight to the U.S. unless there is a local coordinator within 120 miles, there is a qualified and screened host family and there is a local school that has provided a signed agreement to enroll the student. It is totally at the school’s discretion whether or not they will accept the exchange student and sign the form. Some schools are more open to exchange students than others — some will take an unlimited numbers, others set a cap at 10, others restrict the number to two, and yet others refuse to take any exchange students at all.
As a host family, it can be very frustrating when your local school will not take the exchange student you want to host. There is some debate into the right a local, tax-paying family has to enroll an exchange student. Some districts can be pushed by a passionate parent into making an exception. Many won’t budge. Schools no longer being willing to accept exchange students — often due to budgetary restrictions or a bad experience with a past student — are the single biggest threat to the exchange industry. The State Department supports international student exchange. Your local school, however, may not.
The schools who whole-heartedly embrace student exchange are exchange industry’s bread and butter. Obviously, they enable exchange students to do the whole “American high school dream” thing, but in many cases they help find host families, keep local coordinators in the loop about their students, help students make friends and join activities and provide the linchpin for the exchange student experience. You don’t have to have the perfect host family, but if a student fits in at school and loves it, they’ve gotten the experience they wanted.