A couple decades ago, when I was working as an exchange student counselor, I came across some information about the exchange student cycle. It was such an accurate description that I have always made a point to tell exchange students about this cycle, because it is good to be warned of the bumps ahead. If you know what to expect, when you’re in a rough spot, you can think of it rationally, knowing that soon enough you’ll move into the next part of the cycle. Everything has a season. These are the seasons of exchange student life.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re involved in a two week exchange, a three month exchange, or a year long exchange; the cycle remains pretty much the same. An exchange is divided into three sections. Each section seems to last roughly one third of the exchange. Knowing the three parts to the exchange cycle helps you understand the changes in relationships and attitudes that occur throughout the year. If you imagine a typical ten month exchange in which a student arrives in the new country in late August and is set to return home around the end of June, the cycles will be split somewhere around November and March. There is no specific line, and you may find yourself moving back and forth between two stages for a month or two. If you rotate to a new host family every ten weeks or so, you will likely experience mini exchange student cycles in each home, as well as the over-riding year cycle.
During the honeymoon phase of the exchange, everything is new and wonderful. While sometimes there is an issue of culture shock, the student is usually expecting so much change that it isn’t too difficult to accept. You’ve been warned that everything will be new and different. You’re prepared for these differences and you’re excited to experience them. In this phase, the host family is still treating the student as a guest, showing them the sites and being solicitous. The school might be particularly challenging because of language issues, but you often feel like a celebrity, and are often treated as such. You tend to be on your best behaviour making an effort to be liked and interested in the new culture. You tend to love your new culture a lot in this stage.
In the second phase, the bloom is off the rose. The family is used to having the student in the home. At this time, if there are host brothers and sisters, it is more likely that there will be some ‘sibling rivalry’ than at other times in the exchange. The novelty of the new experiences has worn off, and now the real work has begun. This is the point in the exchange when your new culture is a pain in the butt. You long for your favourite meal, your favourite snack. You want your friends. You want your old, easy life. There is more expectation for you to be functioning in the new language, which can be stressful. School seems difficult and unaccommodating. In a year long exchange, this phase tends to coincide with Christmas time, which adds another challenge. You’re used to certain weather, special family traditions and foods, etc, but now you’re in a new place where the traditions are completely different, if they celebrate the holiday at all. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different, but at Christmas time we often don’t want different, so it is not unexpected that you should be a little nostalgic for home and family. This is the period in the exchange where it feels like work. You let your best behaviour lapse and let your warts show up. At this stage, petty irritations start to become issues. This might be the point in the change when you want to give up and go home. Hang on. Keep trying, talk to your counselor, and wait it out. Luckily, at some point the challenge of this stage lifts, and one day you relax into life in your new culture. You just fit comfortably into school and family. You feel settled.
Suddenly you realize that the exchange time is moving on, and that it is not going to be long before you are heading home. Now there is a last minute rush to do all the things you wanted to do. Now is when the student starts to enjoy every possible activity, because it might be the last opportunity to do it. There is a clear awareness that you have become at home in this new culture, and that it would not be difficult to stay here forever. In the third phase everything is bittersweet. Experiences are grabbed and savoured, but with the understanding of your attachment to this world, there is a sense of impending loss. The last few weeks of the exchange can be extremely difficult, as the worst part of being an exchange student becomes clear, but we’ll discuss that in another blog.
Be prepared for the changes and celebrate the victories! You are experiencing one of the most challenging, most valuable, and most amazing year of your life. Enjoy each phase.
How to be a crappy exchange student July 31, 2010
Tags: District 5060, exchange student, Rotary Exchange student, Rotary Youth Exchange, study abroad
Over the years, I have met probably a thousand exchange students. 90% of them have been amazing young people, but some really should not have been sent abroad. Some of them had a really horrible exchange year, and they were thrilled to leave their new country and go home. Some chose to leave voluntarily before the year was over. Some were sent home. Some of them managed to get through the challenges and salvage their year.
Here are some of the strategies these students employed to ensure they had a year they have been grumbling about ever since. Of course, most of these students blamed everyone but themselves for their horrible experience.
1. Go on exchange to escape troubles at home. Leave to escape SATs. Leave boyfriend problems. Leave to avoid college decisions or family problems. Believe it or not, your issues will just follow you. You can’t escape. Deal with your issues before you apply to go on exchange.
2. Go on exchange to become a celebrity. While it is true that you may be highly recognizable in your new town, you may not be admired. Your home and host countries might be in political dispute, as when Canada seized Spanish fishing boats they claimed were illegally fishing on The Grand Banks. Your religious background might be unpopular in your host country. Your ethnicity might make you a target, like it was for the Indo-Canadian student in Germany presumed to be a Turk and bullied in the streets and refused service in restaurants.
3. Be afraid of or be overwhelmed by your host culture. If you are not willing to face crowds, language, smells, religion, attitudes, and ideas that are different from your own, you’re not going to be able to handle the stress of being an exchange student.
4. Be shy. Avoid talking to people. Don’t make friends at school. Hide in your bedroom and don’t socialize with your host family. Don’t attend Rotary meetings. If you do, don’t talk to the Rotarians. Stare at the floor a lot.
5. Insult people. Take your nationalism to extreme. Make sure that everyone knows where you are from and that your home country is MUCH better than your host country. Explain how they are stupid, backward, or ignorant in your host country.
6. Borrow money. Whenever you go out, whether with host families, school friends, or other exchange students, make it a point to leave your wallet at home, and ask others to pay for you. Never pay them back. This is particularly effective when people learn that you are receiving several hundred dollars of spending money every month from home.
7. Lie. Pretend you are going to school when you aren’t. Claim you’re making lots of friends when you’re in your room on the computer all day. Tell your family you’re with friends, but go to a bush party, get drunk, and then get in a car accident. While in the hospital, keep telling people you weren’t drinking at a party… (These students were sent home , one with a broken neck and severe brain damage).
8. Moon over your boy/girlfriend back home. Spend all your time on the phone or sending email messages to your love back home. Neglect making friends and participating in events so you don’t miss chat/call opportunities. If you don’t believe either of you are mature enough to handle separation without daily contact, you are probably not mature enough to be on exchange.
9. Be a snob. Whether because of insecurity, inferiority or actual narcisism, some students behave as if they are much better than those in their new community. Show this by refusing to do chores your host family assigns, refusing to help in Rotary service projects, or refusing to attend functions. You can also show this with a bored or uninterested attitude when you do deign to attend an event or by talking about yourself and never showing any interest in others’ interests or opinions.
10. Never spend a night away from home before the exchange. The trauma of homesickness from kids from tightly emeshed homes almost always ensures the kids are home within a month of their arrival in the new country. Your mother will probably be thrilled to have you back, tied to her apron where you belong.
11. Be disrespectful to your host mom. The most important person for you to impress is your host mom. She is the power behind the home. If she likes you, you will be eating your favourite foods, going to special places, and receiving gifts for years. If she dislikes you, well, let’s just say that you will probably be very uncomfortable.
12. Whine a lot and complain about your treatment by school mates, family and other exchange students. If it seems to be a universal opinion, consider that perhaps you aren’t very likeable. Study points 1-10 above and determine what you need to change about yourself.
Be aware: If you aren’t usually so obnoxious in your home country, the manifestation of a few of the above points may indicate that you are suffering from culture shock. Please speak to your club exchange counselor. If s/he can’t help, speak to the district exchange officer. If you address the issues early enough, you can turn your horrendous time into a wonderful, enriching exchange. It’s not the host family, your club, or your circumstances that create a great year. Your attitude is the most important thing, so if you find yourself having problems, decide what YOU can change to improve the situation.
PS. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that more than a few of the points above applied to my own exchange year. I think I had a great year abroad, but like everyone, I had some things I could have done better in order to have had an even better experience.