Wry Exchange

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.


Early Returns – Voluntary Terminations

I wrote about involuntary terminations a few days ago.  There are a few different types of early returns.  One is semi-voluntary, usually because of an illness or death in the family.  (Most of our students have health insurance policies that permit a few weeks of compassionate leave to go home for a sudden illness, emergency, or death.  Some students choose not to complete their year abroad.)  That’s completely understandable, and not what I’m talking about.
  A voluntary withdrawal from the program is a failure for everyone-student, family, hostfamily, and counselors.   The worst part?  Almost every student regrets quitting within 2 days of going home.  If I know a student wants to go home, I’ll do everything possible to change his mind.  I think it’s a huge failure that will stay with the student forever. 

“Expensive Vacation Returns”-I’ve known of kids who wanted to come home as soon as the plane landed.  One boy a few years ago said he knew he made a mistake halfway through his flight.  Some students can tough it out for 3 or 4 weeks then quit.  These are students that perhaps weren’t trained enough, didn’t have realistic expectations, or should’ve been weeded out before they left home.  Sometimes parents can’t let go.  Husband and I had a student once who had never been away from home before.  He never even stayed overnight at Grandma’s house.  He lasted two months until Daddy visited.  We had an early return this year.  I think Mom was a big factor.  Let the student vent, but try to help her be strong.  Most of these students have already graduated from high school.  Generally if a 15 year old goes out, they have a reason to get out of the house.

Voluntary Returns-These are the tough ones.  Some students miss their bf/gf, and spend their time online and Skype-ing instead of building a life in their new country.   Most of the kids who give up just have bad luck.  They have a crappy host family, school sucks, they live in the sticks, and their counselor doesn’t care about them.  These are the kids who just can’t take it anymore.   These kids are the ones who feel alone and hopeless.  Our son P’s year was like this.  We told him he was going to complete his year if it killed him.  We dragged him through it.  I wrote about his year.   These are the kids I want to help.  They can tough it out if someone cares enough to be a cheerleader for them.  They need an adult to look for a different host family, to care if they try new activities, and to listen.   The best advice is to make it day by day or until Christmas.  Make a goal, and then another, and then another one.  Generally, if a student can stay until January 1, they’ll stay the rest of the year.  January first is a big hump day.   Former exchange students who had tough years are great mentors.  P has helped me help many students in the last seven years.   Go hug an exchange student!

Exchange Student FAIL -Early Termination

 Not all students complete their exchange year.  Students return home for many reasons.  I tell the kids if they can get through this year, they can do anything for the rest of their lives.  Nothing will be too  too tough.  I think it is like five years compressed into one.

Involuntary-FES may be kicked out of the exchange program or country.  The most common reasons for termination are marijuana possession, a spectacular drinking incident, or “inappropriate dating,” a gentle way of saying to the parent “Your snowflake was found nekkid with a friend or two.”  🙂  I’ve never known a student to literally be deported; we’ll say ‘kicked out’ when FES gets into legal trouble, and promises to leave the country quietly and quickly in return for dropping charges.  Students have also been evacuated from countries that are no longer safe-all students in Venezuela were pulled out several years ago mid-year.

I’ve told students they’ve been terminated.  I’ve voted to terminate kids.  I HATE IT.  It’s the worst thing we do, and it affects me for a long time.  Thank gawd it doesn’t happen often.  I’m cognizant that it will impact the student for the rest of her life.  In our program, we have a group of committee members vote, and if it’s not unanimous, FES doesn’t go.  Typically, it’s the Chairman, Assistant Chairman, inbound student chairman, country chairman, and the student’s counselor who meet and vote. 

I have lots of stories about creative disasters.  Most of the memorable ones are unique, and I don’t want to identify the guilty.  We’ve had American parents interfere so much their child has been asked to leave the program.  Arrest, physically endangering someone else, and running away with a boyfriend are go-home offenses.   I would suggest if a student is drinking underage that vodka and root beer in a Gatorade bottle isn’t a good idea. (blech)  Gatorade doesn’t make brown.   It may also be a good idea to clear your camera’s memory card before loaning it out, and password protect your laptop.

Advice for those students in potential termination situations-Don’t lie.  Apologize, beg for mercy, but never lie. Husband and I have no sympathy for liars.  Don’t be so arrogant as to think we won’t know the truth, or that you are the first student who got caught drinking, screwing, driving, or smoking weed.  (Not to mention Husband was the baddest of the bad boys when he was young.)   If someone who is trying to help you in a foreign country asks if you’ll test positive, and you say ‘no,’ you better not be knocked up or have THC in your system.  I think most students who are sent home early are terminated for being stupid.

Voluntary go homes tomorrow.