Holy crap we’re hosting an exchange student — now what?!

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Photo by malias, used under Creative Commons license.
My husband and I were recently approached by a friend coordinating host families for a three-week cultural exchange program for students from Spain this summer. We decided to go for it — it will be a neat experience for us, and it’s a nice thing to do both for our friend and for the student who will be staying with us. The other day we got the email that we’d been approved as “host parents” and matched with a 17-year-old young man!

We’ve figured out the logistics of which bedroom he’ll have and all that jazz, but we’re oddballs in the host parent world in that we don’t yet have any kids of our own and don’t know too many families with teenage kids. We’re probably closer in age to “our” student than any of the other host families will be (I’m 28, he is 30). But the last time I interacted with a teenager for three weeks straight I was one! We’ve read all the materials the program coordinator has provided us about how to make our student’s stay welcoming and fun. We have some ideas about fun things to do with him. We’ve even exchanged emails with him and he seems very cool (we share a taste in music, thank God!). But I know that on the evening he arrives, at some point we’ll all just be staring at each other thinking, “Now what?!”

So for those of you who have experienced host parenting, or have teenagers in your family — words of advice for how to interact with these strange, wonderful creatures? And for those of you who have been exchange students — what made your stay particularly great/awful? Has anyone been in the position of student with host “parents” on the younger side of things? — Kisså

Comments on Holy crap we’re hosting an exchange student — now what?!

  1. I’ve never been involved in student exchanges, but from my cousin’s experience and from what a language professor told me it is definitely important to be aware of cultural differences. I know in Spain many people eat dinner closer to 10 pm, so you might want to just give him a heads up about basic stuff so he isn’t totally confused, like when you usually eat, does everyone do their own laundry, etc…

  2. I dated a foreign exchange student in high school. He was with his family for a whole academic year, which a bit different from your situation. From what I remember, his family really made an effort to include him in their family functions (great time to practice English), show them their jobs (culture), visit the cool sights (great pictures), allow for some downtime (let him digest the experience) and set firm limits (they didn’t want to explain anything unsavory to his parents). Have fun and let his interests lead the way. This sounds like a really cool experience for all of you!

  3. If you want to take him to do/see some fun culturally stuff be aware of his budget. Often as a student there are tons of things that I just can’t afford and hate being made feel like ‘oh you’ve come the whole way over here, another 30 dollars won’t hurt’, it will if it’s 30 dollars I don’t have! Take advantage of the fact that it’s you first time hosting. Ask his opinion on things you don’t mind be flexible with like say what foods he’d like to try or how much he would like to see of your daily life.

    • Also, with the food, be aware that there will come a time where he might be homesick for familiar food (I know I definitely was studying abroad in college). If he is interested, let him cook a meal for you or choose a Spanish restaurant to visit.

  4. When I was an exchange student it was also short term like your situation. The difference was we were matched with the student who would later stay with our family. So I don’t have any “teenager” advice. I did find it helpful for someone to explain the day-to-day houshold tasks and how things work. For example, here is how our tub and shower work, or this is what you do with your towel when you are done.
    Don’t be shy about telling him if he is doing something wrong either. I remember an incident when a group of us were sitting where we werent supposed to. It wasn’t until later our teacher/guide told us why people were glaring.

  5. Obviously he’s here to learn the american culture but maybe a trip to the international aisle in the supermarket might make him feel more settled.
    At age 17 in Spain he will probably be used to drinking socially (I’m pretty sure the legal age is 18, but it’s not uncommon in Europe to drink much younger with parents giving alcohol to their children with meals)
    I’m sure the school will have informed them of the legal drinking age in the USA but with you as young hosts he may try to push his luck more than a teenager matched to an older host family.

    Good luck and have fun with your exchange experience

    • Yes, this has been a concern for us, especially since we’re homebrewers and we keep beer on tap in our kitchen at all times. We’d planned on buying a tap lock eventually when we have our own kids, but for now I think we’ll just disconnect the kegs when we’re not around (and hope that he never worked as a bar-back at home!)

      • I’d be curious to hear how he reacts to the drinking culture of his American peers. I spent a few months studying abroad in Italy at 20 years old, and the local Italians our age made fun of the rampant binge drinking the Americans did. It definitely wasn’t the norm for them.

        • Very true – but, having worked with Spanish/Italian exchange students learning English in England, sometimes being away from home and away from parents can really bring out the binge-drinker in a kid!

          Being in a country where they cannot access alcohol as easily can also result in them trying to buy harder stuff – e.g. vodka rather than beer, and so on. They may not know their limits on this stuff, and that can be a big problem.

          At the end of the day – clear ground rules are the way to go! (Preferably written down – it’s MUCH easier to refer to, and to understand, rules in a foreign language in written form.)

      • The other catch with European exchange students (at least when we had them) was the culture around smoking. I remember my family being confused with our German exchange student’s application when she described herself as a non-smoker, then said she had a cigarette a week elsewhere. To our super anti-smoking Canadian family this was an oxymoron (you are a chain smoker or a non-smoker in my family), and because she and I were the same age, I was able to explain that she could smoke at parties, but never near the family and never ever in or around our home. It might be worth explaining how your family thinks about smoking (e.g. at a minimum maybe not around the kids) and drinking etc because it really is just so different there.

        • Yeah, my first night with my family in France they all lit up home rolled after dinner cigarettes. INSIDE! You could always spot the Americans at the train station because they were the ones who went outside to smoke.

  6. Growing up in a small rural town in California we had 7 exchange students! Most from Japan and a couple from Corsica. I always wondered why this programs picked small towns but really it ended up being such a wonderful learning experience for my sisters and I and hopefully the students. I say remember not to stress. Often the students enjoyed the everyday stuff the most- things I thought would be boring. And they make seemingly boring trips so fun- like grocery stores or another museum trip or holidays like Halloween

    • I think programs often pick small towns because the culture is a little more “authentic.” When I studied abroad we stayed in a small town where no one spoke English and there wasn’t much international food, so it forced us to really immerse ourselves in the culture. When we visited big cities, they seemed much the same as any big city in the US, complete with the same American brands.

  7. We have hosted two 19 year old au pairs, both from Europe, in the past year. One stayed with us for 4 months, the other for 8.

    While their visit was longer, and they were providing childcare, lots of things are the same. Communication is definitely the key. I prepared a notebook of household rules and expectations which went a long way towards explaining little things. That way, they could read over it at their leisure in the first few days and refer to it later.

    This included things like our typical schedules, internet passwords, bathroom/laundry logistics. It really helped them to feel autonomous pretty quickly and not have to ask a million questions.

    Also, we’ve found that it’s nice to have snacks around and a shelf or area of the kitchen where they can keep their own things. A trip to the grocery store together in the first few days really helps since food can be so different.

    Have fun!

    • Seconding the communication bit. I stayed with a woman (and her boyfriend) when I was studying abroad. She thought it was really strange to be asked what the rules were, she thought there weren’t any. Guess what! There were a LOT of rules and expectations.

      Actually I agree with the food part, too. Place to put their own food in the kitchen, and some input on the meals served.

      Which reminds me, if you’re providing meals, make sure they’re actually edible. By which I mean properly cooked. Not undercooked or burned. And don’t complain about how much food they eat, or that they ate the last whatever-it-was if you’re the last person up in the morning and the one who does the shopping.

  8. We are planning a trip to our coop market in the first couple days because they carry all sorts of food that our student guest might like, and it’s also a big part of our community.

    I’m really concerned about suddenly taking on a “parent role” and not letting it devolve into a “roommate role.”

    Thanks for all the advice so far everyone! Keep it coming!

  9. I agree with Courtney. We hosted 6 long-term and a number of short-term exchange students when I was younger, and most of the time it was the everyday stuff they enjoyed. That, or sometimes they would have specific interests that they were really hoping to enjoy stateside, like baseball or whatnot. We always seemed to have the most fun at family get-togethers like bonfires or BBQ’s, where it was relaxed and everyone just spent the day chatting or playing silly games.

    When I was an exchange student myself, my host mom (it was just the two of us, no other kids or anyone) was not clear about what she wanted out of the relationship (for example: she wanted me to sit and watch tv with her at night, but never said so and so I frequently went out at night with friends) and then would call me out in front of her friends later. So, really, just communicate. Communication is a large part of why they’re doing this in the first place!

  10. As for the first night, I recommend saying ‘hi’, showing him his room and leaving him for a bit to refresh/unpack/digest. Then when he comes down again, offer a drink and chat – about where he’s from, what you do for a living, whatever. It’ll get you both at ease. Depending on the program and time of arrival, suggest to go to bed early. He’ll probably have a jet-lag and will be tired of the journey (and if the jet-lag is the other way around, it is still a good idea to get into the local rhythm as fast as possible).
    From what I remember on being an exchange student: I really liked having meals together. I also liked time on my own – thinking, maybe calling my family, listening to music, just processing stuff.
    I remember friends going to the States on exchange and their host family showed them how the toilet and tap worked, while suggesting they would not know such things (wtf???!!!). My friends were quite offended. Europe is NOT the third world, we do have bathrooms and running water. On the other hand, it IS nice to know what is expected (what time is breakfast, what chores do you expect him to do (like putting his own cup in the dishwasher)?).

    Edit: re: the roommate role:
    I would not be too worried about that. At 17, you can manage without a parent around all the time. When I was 18 I went to Asia for a year on my own. Kids can look after themselves. Plus he’s a guest. He’ll be polite. Some boundaries will make you both comfortable, that’s it, I think.

    • I agree that they probably aren’t really going to have to take on much of a parent roll especially since it’s just a couple weeks.
      On a side note regarding toilets… If all the host families did that with all the students (in that same group you know), I would guess they were told to by one of the program leaders. I always tell guests how to use my shower because there is a little trick to get it from one stting to the next etc. I would never imagine someone would need instructions on how to flush a toilet! ha! In Russia I DID need help flushing a toilet once though. Again, it was a tricky toilet, not a normal situation…

      • As a former exchange student, this was something that stumped me (you had to lift a knob rather than press a button which is standard where I come from). I didn’t know if the toilet was broken and was too embarrassed to ask! Better just to give a quick factual demonstration of how everything works than to risk leaving a poor teenager to stew!

  11. Maybe it would help to think of what you would want to do if you were on an extended stay in his home country. Look at travel guides for your area-there may be things in there that are noted as cool to see, but since you’re around them all the time you tune them out or don’t think about them otherwise. Find out what foods are his favorites at home and see if he’d like to help you prepare some of them-you’d get a learning experience and he’d have a little taste of home. Take him to a couple of your favorite restaurants so he can experience the American way of dining out. Maybe a sports game by a local minor or major team to see how it compares with watching sports in his hometown. All of that said, definitely allow for plenty of down time. He may want to write letters home, make a few phone calls, nap, read, journal, whatever. Have fun! I’m sure as much as you hope he learns from you, you’ll learn just as much from him.

  12. I am from Spain and trust me, if he drinks, he’s already drinking here by now. Just make sure you explain what the law is re. drinking/smoking/other types of smoking where you live, he may not know them or not take them too seriously. I’ve been a student abroad (at age 17!) and I remember MANY of my colleagues getting very drunk and doing very stupid things on the street thinking that “nobody knows who we are, anyway”. I know it sounds terribly stupid, but I’ve seen plenty of exchange students come to Spain and do the exact same thing, so at least I know it’s not just a Spanish thing.

    I’d make sure he knows meal times and at what time you usually wake up/go to bed. This may be very different from what he’s used to. Also, he may know, but here in Spain the main meal of the day is lunch, and many people actually skip breakfast or have just a cup of coffee and nothing to eat because there’s a big meal coming anyway. That has made me starve more than once while living abroad.

    Do you know what part of Spain he comes from? From my experience I think a nice ice breaker would be to ask him about his hometown, or ask him to teach you a couple Spanish recipes. Even if he’s not legally allowed to drink here, I’m sure he can make a mean Sangria!

    • He’s from the northern coast of Spain, which is a region I know nothing about (except what I read on Wikipedia when I found out the name of his town) so I’m interested to learn about that. I’m curious if the “beach culture” a lot of US coastal towns have has a Spanish correspondent! Given that one of his interests a bodysurfing and he wears a Hurley sweatshirt in a bunch of the pictures he’s sent, I’m betting so!

      • Oh! Then I have information for you. If he comes from certain areas in northern Spain (including the areas around Barcelona), he may identify not as Spanish but as Catalan. My family had a seventeen-year-old exchange student about fifteen years ago. She was actually offended that we referred to her as Spanish, gave her Castilian Spanish books we happened to have around the house, etc. She was a young nationalist and, while she could speak Castilian Spanish, her language and culture were Catalan. We learned a great deal from her about how complex the cultures of Spain are.

  13. As a former exchange student (for 6 months in Thailand when I was sixteen) this is what I have:
    *Have some sort of welcome gift for him (something little that shows the local culture) because he’ll probably have something for you.
    *Ask him a lot about his culture! He’ll be in a totally new place and confused a lot. Talking about home gives him a place to shine.
    *Share a skill or hobby. My host father taught me how to play a traditional Thai instrument and it was our most meaningful time together.
    *Take him to all kinds of places, not just tourist desintations. For me, even a market in Thailand was a totally new experience.
    *Give him space to be homesick. With a short stay it’s less likely, but it may happen.
    *Use your time together to learn what is the same and different about your cultures.I once spent a really entertaining night with my host family as we showed each other how to tie a rubber band around a bag, which is done totally differently in the two countries.
    *Understand that he’s a teenager and will want freedom to explore on his own, but that you are completely responsible for his safety.

    Good luck!

  14. As a former host student, all I can really say is that as long as you are interested in him in a genuine way, you will be fine. My host family was and still is an extension of my “real” family, and I miss them and think of them every day. Any every day task could be a lifelong memory. Speaking of, let him help around the house if he asks to! My family never let me help cook or clean or anything and I felt so lazy!

    • Haha, in South Africa, my host mama totally got onto me about not making my bed with pristine hospital corners. Every day after that I’d make it so well you could bounce a quarter off of it! My (actual) mom laughed that I had to go abroad to learn homemaking skills.

  15. I’m so glad this topic came up! I coordinate an Exchange program here in my county for mostly Japanese students visiting for one month through 4-H. Their ages range from 12-18 so there can be quite a difference sometimes in what one host family needs to do for their younger delegate versus a family hosting an older teenager delegate. I would definitely agree with set guidelines/house rules, and the booklet for them to read through later about your schedule and how-to (laundry, etc) is a nice idea if they ever forget what you told them (jet lag and new environments are hard on brains, and they don’t want to be thought of as ‘not listening’ or being disrespectful, so they may just not ask).

    Our program heavily emphasizes daily life and family involvement, so we ask that families not make any special schedule and just do what they normally do. Most exchange students just want to be included and made to feel welcome, but not have a ton of pressure to act or be a certain way. Asking questions about their daily lives helps them focus on what they know.

    We have hosted chaperones since we don’t have any children the right age, and they appreciated just going wherever I was going at the time. At one point I was even planning my wedding and the chaperone loved being involved in just seeing what I was doing. Find out local events like free summer concerts, dance nights, movies in the park, etc. If the high school is running some type of public event/play that would be fun too, or just going to look at famous places around town.

    Good luck on your hosting, I hope many more people feel encouraged to host. It is a great opportunity.

  16. we had a girl from france live with us for a schoolyear while i was in high school. she arrived the day before the biggest festival weekend in the subculture dance world my family was a part of, which was an overwhelming introduction for sure. =) other than that, i think knowing your expectations and boundaries ahead of time and making them known early — but not necessarily all at once, that’s kind of overwhelming — and providing plenty of space to sit back and let him process is important. having lived abroad as a teen, i remember there being times when i was just overwhelmed and homesick and no amount of distraction could help. have ideas and options to show off your corner of the world, but don’t pre-plan too many — leave some space for downtime and digestion. show ’em the america that the movies show, and the side that is locally authentic. =) and have fun! we still keep in touch with the family of our exchange student, and will for the lifetime.

  17. Give him space! School districts often have jam packed schedules for short-term exchange students, so consult with them first before you plan anything elaborate. Decide what you’re willing to let go: men/boys in some cultures aren’t expected to pick up after themselves, and you want your time together to be positive. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and have fun!

  18. Another possible thing to discuss would be bathroom expectations. I think this is more of an issue with long-showering and water-wasting Americans in Europe than it is likely to be in the reverse. But I do know several situations of real tension over bathroom habits, specifically shower length and water use.

    This is so neat that you are doing this, and I bet it will be a wonderful experience for all involved!

  19. I think you’re already off to a great start by being so keen and invested in it being a good experience for all involved.
    I was an exchange student for 6 months, and had an absolutely miserable time of it, mainly because my host family were fairly disinterested in spending time with me or showing me around. I’m a fairly introverted person, and was left to my own devices – but I didn’t have any “devices” and floundered. I was supposed to be there for a full year but came home early due to how miserable I was and how alone I felt.

    So, activities and showing off your favourite sights etc. are great. Of course, at 17 he’ll want his own space (I was the same age, and I did manage to get around fine and make friends of my own, thank God) but I really think interest, enthusiasm and involvement are key

  20. When I was 16 I was an exchange student for one year.
    Coming from The Netherlands I lived in Iowa (never knew where that was before the exchange)

    Explain how day to day things in your house work.
    For example, where the towels,shoes etc are put away.
    Also which foods are allowed to eat and which are for special occasions.

    Sometimes as an family it is difficult to think of any house rules.
    You might think they don’t exist in your household, but when you think of
    it a bit more: every household has some ‘unwritten’ rules.
    It is always good to explain these so the student knows what is done and not done
    in your house. (laundry/ kitchen/bathroom logistics are important!)

    Also its good to explain if there are any chores you would like him to do.
    Maybe his own laundry for example.
    This gives him some autonomy, and won’t give you the extra work.

    Don’t hesitate to tell him when something is done ‘wrong’. Just explain to him that you do
    things in a such and such way. (he is here for that experience after all!)

    Include him in family functions and go out to do ‘normal’ American things.
    Grocery shopping, going to a movie etc.
    I remember going to an baseball game was such an awesome experience!
    If you meet up with other host family’s you can go and do things together. This makes
    it a bit more casual and the students have each other (and you can have a nice time with
    the other host family as well).

    I wouldn’t worry about the bar/beer tap. For Europeans drinking is not such a big deal.
    In Europe drinking is allowed from 16 but I was amazed about the binge drinking by my
    peers in the USA. That was something new for me! I was just used to the glass of wine at dinner.
    Just explain him alcohol is off limits for him in your house and during his stay. And things will be fine.

    But most of all: Have fun while learning from each other.
    It sounds cheezy but being a exchange student when I was 16 truly made me who I am today!

  21. My situation sounds different than yours. I had a family host weekend when I studied abroad in Ireland. We had our own apartments for the 5 month stay, but for just one weekend we stayed with a family. It was so nice to have a hot home-cooked meal! I didn’t even care what it was. I had gotten used to pasta with a packet of sauce every day so anything home-made was SO GOOD. The first night we just stayed in and watched a Tommy Tiernan (Irish stand-up comedian) DVD and it was my favorite night of my whole trip because it was so tailored to my interests. So my advice is make him food, and do things he likes. It sounds like taking him to a concert or a day or two on the beach sounds right up his alley.

  22. For me the most important thing is striking a balance between being involved in the exchange student’s experience and allowing them some time on their own. I have only stayed with a host family once, at the age of 23, but I so appreciated that my host family ate meals with me every day and took me on outings occasionally, but that I was also allowed to come and go when I wanted and stay home if I was feeling a little culturally overwhelmed. It was wonderful, for example, that my host mother led me literally by the arm to school on the first day, showing me how to get there and how to use public transport in Quito, but I am also really glad she only did it the once, giving me the opportunity to lead a more independent existence as I am accustomed to. Your student is a little younger than I was, but European teens are generally more independent than their American counterparts.

  23. Just weighing in, since I’ve worked in programmes that place foreign students in English families more than once. (From all over the world, but often Spain and Italy.) And I’m currently living in Italy, so I know what stuff would help me!

    – Great discussion above about meal times, rules of the house etc. I said this above, but definitely write them down! Maybe have a little welcome folder he can refer to, with info on different sections. Partly house rules, but also maybe a map of the local area? Stuff to do near you? Where the supermarket is? Emergency numbers? (911 is not international, for example). Opening hours of local shops / banks /post office? (He may be used to a system where things shut in the middle of the day.) Rules for using the phone to call home?

    A folder full of info will mean he can refer to it when he is feeling less overwhelmed, or when he has forgotten something, rather than trying to taken in a lot of spoken English on the first day.

    – Great discussion above about smoking and alcohol. Be as clear as possible in your expectations, but don’t freak out if he does come home drunk at some point. Think about what you will do in this situation very carefully.

    – Mealtimes are a big one, as is “bed time” (or curfew/coming home time). As someone said, he might be used to eating at 9 or 10. He might be used to being out with friends until 1 or 2 am, which you might not be cool with. Again, be clear in your expectations.

    – Don’t be offended if sometimes he needs some down-time! Be friendly and nice (as I’m sure you are naturally!), but let him come to you, especially at first when he may be very tired and disorientated.

    – Have a great time! Use it as an excuse to do some cool stuff in your local area you might not do otherwise. Have fun, I think you’ll be great – and trust me, you’re putting a lot more thought into it than most, and that’s a great sign.

  24. I stayed with a family in England (I’m from Canada) for two weeks when I was 15. They did have kids (a fellow teenager and two younger ones) but I found they themselves just as fun as the kids were. They were warm and funny and insisted that I help myself whenever I needed anything and I had a great time! Offer hims choices of things (food etc) so that he feels at home and ask him lots of questions about his life at home and all of that and hopefully he’ll open right up and be comfortable! Although after saying all this I am realizing that I am a girl and who knows what it going on in a 17-year-old dudes head!? Good luck!

  25. My family has hosted students for month-long stays every summer since I was 12. Its an excellent experience & I would say that you should treat this time as an excuse to rediscover your city & see it “as a tourist”. For example I live in Fort Worth and we have a great stockyard here that is very cowboy-touristy but I wold never go there if it weren’t for the exchange students. If there is anything quirky or fun about your city/state that you have seen/experienced & enjoyed, chances are he will probably enjoy it too. Also going to foreign stores (grocery stores especially) are really interesting & will give him a chance to buy things that he wants to eat/try

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