Wry Exchange

Today Was a Success
02-19-09, 2:53 am
Filed under: Exchange Students, Outbounds Outbounds | Tags: , ,

 I rock!  I never say that, I usually bitch and moan.  But today was a great day.   I placed a student in his first choice country.  Sounds like something I do several times a year, no big deal.  

It was special for several reasons.  “Fesland” is super popular, and they typically set their exchanges by January 1.   Fesland isn’t one of my countries;  I don’t know anything about the culture, and have no interest in ever visiting.   Fesland is someone else’s responsibility.   I respected the other volunteer, and trusted her for many years.   She never told me she couldn’t get the kid in, but just assumed the student wouldn’t mind going to Feslandia instead of Fesland.   It’s like if I couldn’t get someone into Mexico, but Canada is still North America, you don’t mind, do you? 

This student is exceptionally well suited for Fesland.   The exchange could’ve been set up in November.  Something seemed ‘off’ to me.  I stepped in to try to place FES.  There are 35 separate programs in Fesland, and I contacted every.single.one.  Today one agreed to host my FES.   I let someone else tell the student. 

Hardly anyone will ever know what I did, or how much work it was.  Husband joked FES better not complain about anything next year.  Hah.  He’s a kid, there will be problems.  But not today.


“Country Specialist”
12-21-08, 11:59 pm
Filed under: Exchange Program | Tags: , ,

Comment from a reader:  I’m a bit curious about your program. Is the country specialist local or national? What qualifies the person to be a specialist to a particular country rather than exchange students in general?

Good question, and it deserves a complete response.  “Country Specialist” is a descriptive term I made up.  I think each program calls them something specific to the program.  I try to stay anonymous.  I’ll explain what ‘country specialist’ does and why.

A country specialist is the person who sets up the exchange with a particular country.    When we have a student who wants to go to Germany an exchange must be set up.  One person here contacts someone in Germany  and they agree to swap students.  The person here should talk to the student to see where in Germany the student should go, which may not be where the student wants.   (Most students know nothing about a country other than “it’s cool”, or “my friend liked it.”)  Most countries are divided into several areas.  When the exchange is set up, we hope that it will be an ongoing exchange, and our exchange partner will take great care of our student.  We also expect hope their student is trained and screened.

A country specialist has to be willing to devote extra time needed to care for their students in other countries.  Some volunteers prefer to deal with paperwork, activities, or meetings.   People specialize in countries for a variety of reasons.   John likes Italy because his wife is Italian.   Sara likes India because she was an exchange student there.  Kevin does Costa Rico because he loves the country and returns as often as possible.  Susan likes Austria because her daughters went to Austria on exchange.   Seth was ‘stuck’ with France because the French specialist resigned, and no one else speaks French or wants the responsibility.

I like South America.   I’ll happily spend hours working on exchanges with Spanish-speaking Americans.   It’s not a duty, it’s fun.  Husband and I plan to retire to South America.  I have no interest in some countries and cultures, and would resent the time spent.  For example, I’ve been to Germany several times, and it’s not for me.  To me, it seems like everything is black or white, and I see everything in shades of grey.    I’m not interested in learning German or travelling there every few years to keep up my contacts.  I believe I’m knowledgeable about South America, and can help the students. I think it takes a good three years as a general volunteer to learn the program before someone can take on more responsibility as a country specialist.

Avoiding Early Return

 Students should know as much as possible about their new country.   We’ve had students go to India and be surprised to eat with their hands, and see poor people.   Do your homework.  If you’re going to Taiwan, you should know they study, study, study all the time, and as a result have immature social skills.  Going to Australia doesn’t guarantee you’ll be living near the beach working on your tan all year.  You could be on a sheep ranch in the middle of nowhere.  If you’re a vegetarian, Argentina may not be the best place for you.

Do your own homework.  Don’t go to Fesland because someone else liked it.   What are your goals, hopes, likes, dislikes?  What do you want out of this year?  I interviewed a girl who wanted Australia and nowhere else.  As we got into the interview, her personality didn’t jibe with “Australia” to the interviewers.  She was conservative, religious, serious, wanted to learn a language, didn’t like the beach, and didn’t want a ‘blow-off’ year.  Her reason for wanting Australia?  She watched ‘The Borrowers Down Under’ at age 12, and always wanted to go.   A cartoon influenced her.  We talked to her, gave her time to think, and sent her to Austria.  She loved it, and it was the right choice.  She wouldn’t have lasted a month in Australia.

Parents should watch what they say.  We’ve had too many kids come home early because their parents missed them.  Personally, I think it’s selfish of the parents.  Kids will call home to vent about their new family, school, homesickness, language issues, etc.  It’s the parents job to listen, offer support, and suggestions.  Help them learn how to help themselves.  Please don’t tell FES he can come home if it’s too hard.  I know it’s killing you, but remind FES this is what he wanted, it’s only for 9-12 months and he can do it.   I can’t tell you how many panicked parent phone calls I’ve received over the years only to call FES and they’re fine.   The kids are bewildered until they realize they just tell their parents the bad stuff.  It’s common for the parents and me to have different stories from the kids.

Listen to the exchange volunteers.  We know.  If I tell you Feslandia has no support, and you’ll be on your own, don’t whine that no one is there to help you.  I tried to talk you out of it, but you insisted you were 18, very independent, and fought to go there.   If I tell you Fesica is sexist, don’t whine when people pinch your butt and treat you like a toy.   If I tell you Fesway is homogeneous, and you will stand out because you’re blonde or black, don’t complain because people stare at you all the time.   If you have SAD or depression, know that Northern Europe may make your symptoms worse.  If you’re a free spirit, but insist on going to Japan, don’t complain about all the rules.

Be honest.  I’m not being nosy, I’m trying to help.  Tell me if you have medical restrictions. We’ll work with you.  Depression is fairly common, it doesn’t count against you.  I can tell you which places are easier for gay students.  I want what’s best for you.  If you tell me you want to go to France, tell me why.  I may suggest Belgium to you.  At least consider it.  Belgium placements for our program are more urban with better public transportation, and less hours at school.   If you’ve already graduated high school, you’d probably have more fun in Belgium.

Don’t choose Fesvokia because your friend loved it.  Every exchange student thinks his country is the best.  Do your own research.  Think. Ask questions.

Part 2: Where Should I Go?
09-11-07, 8:57 pm
Filed under: Culture, Exchange Program | Tags: , , , , , , ,

 We covered physical environment in part one.  Let’s focus on your personality in part two.  I have a few anecdotes about country choices. 

  • I interviewed a girl a few years ago who listed her country choices as Japan and The Netherlands.  I don’t understand how she thought she could be happy in both of those countries.  They are as opposite as possible.   Japan is all about rules and fitting into the group, and Holland is ‘do what makes you happy.’
  • I interviewed a girl several years ago who told me she wanted to go to Australia since she was 12.  During the interview, she said she had just returned from a week-long retreat, and that she was very religious.  She wore a very large cross, and came across as a serious person.  Her application was strong- great grades, glowing recommendations, she was a promising candidate.  She didn’t want a ‘fun only’ year, she wanted to go somewhere and study.  She liked history, languages, and touring old churches.  Australia just didn’t fit.  We asked her why she chose Australia, and she replied that ever since she saw ‘The Rescuers Down Under’, that’s where she wanted to go!  She ended up going to Austria, and LOVED it.  Perfect match.  She would’ve been miserable in Australia.  (People asked her about kangaroos all year, anyway.)
  • Many times students reply ‘France, Italy, Germany, Spain’ when asked where they want to go.  When asked why, they respond “Those are the only countries I know.”  Happens annually.  Don’t be that idiot.  Have a good reason why you chose 3 particular countries.

What do you want out of your year?  Do you want to become fluent in another language?  Will you be helping your future career?   Do you want to explore your roots?  Do you want somewhere exotic?  Do you want something as far away from daily life as possible?  Do you want to be a beach bum?  Do you want to study voice in Austria?  Design in Denmark? Anime in Japan?
What makes you happy?  Order? Chaos? Stringent rules?  Laissez faire attitude? Are you liberal or conservative?  Are you religious, and would you be ok living in a country without your religion?  Do you mind being stared at?  Would you enoy living in an apartment in a crowded city?  Would you be happy living in a country where women aren’t treated as men’s equals?  (About 4 years ago a female pilot sat next to a student and me.  The girl asked “Women can be pilots in your country?” with awe.)
 You have to talk with current and former exchange students both here and abroad.  For example, you wish to learn French, so you put France as your first choice country.  You’ve already graduated high school, are very gregarious, and want a fun year.  I may try to tell you that perhaps Belgium is a better choice for you.  The Seniors in France are all studying like mad for the BAC’s, they have to do well to get into a good college.  Students in France may go to school 5.5 days a week, from early morning until 5 or 6, then they study.  They may go out with friends once a week.  Most students are placed in small villages, so it’s difficult to make friends or go anywhere.  In Belgium, school isn’t so difficult, the placements are in urban areas with public transportation, and it’s a more ‘fun’ exchange.   Perhaps the people are more flexible, patient, and tolerant with Americans as well.  You have to do research to find what is right for you.  As a longtime volunteer, I’m pretty good at talking to kids and telling them ‘You’re an Asia’ or whatever. We do NOT place students in countries that they don’t want to go to, and we will place students in countries that we feel isn’t a good fit.  We explain to the student and parents why we don’t recommend a country for that student, but it’s the kid’s year, and his/her choice.