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Challenge: Back to School

The Beginning of the School Year: Déjà Vu or New Beginnings?

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Labor Day weekend marks a transition – from Summer to Fall, and from Vacation to School. True, some schools in our area started a week or so earlier this year to add instruction days. But that’s a distinction without a difference. The beginning of the school year – the “real deal” – started right after Labor Day.

Teachers understand this – the feeling that it’s the same cycle starting over, and yet at the same time, it’s completely different. That’s part of why teachers return to their classroom at this time every year, starting the cycle again – it’s different. Each student is different, even if we see age-specific trends and generalities. Each group of students is different when they are together, even if they are a group of athletes that may tend to act a certain way or a group of student debaters that may tend to act a different way. The combinations are unique.

Perhaps that’s why we’re here each year, too. The new school year is perhaps also a good time to reflect on that.

I’m a high school foreign exchange program local coordinator. My husband and I work with exchange students between the ages of 15-18 from other countries who come to the United States for one semester or a full academic year to live with an American family and go to high school here. We help find host families, “match” students to a family, and supervise and mentor students and host families during the exchange year. The goal are to make life-long friendships and relationships, to learn a little bit about another culture, and for young people around the world to learn more about who we are as Americans. We have also hosted students ourselves, having shared our home with more than a dozen students over the past 12 years.

I started my blog just over four years ago with vague notions of sharing with others our family’s experiences as a host family and our experiences as coordinators. It’s far surpassed my expectations. We have received emails from host parents around the world who share a few thoughts, ask for advice, and let us know how their student is doing. We have heard from parents wondering how to help their child succeed on an exchange many miles from home. We have heard from teens asking for advice on how to talk to a host parent on sensitive issues as well as asking where they should go on exchange before they’ve made any decisions. There is a large community out there!

Dinner in Berlin in October 2014 with Sven, one of our German "sons," who lived with us in 2006-2007.

The emails and comments have added to the personal connections we have made with former students who have returned to their home countries and who are now young adults, and sometimes their parents as well. We received a personal tour of Berlin from the parents of one of our German "sons." Parents of students we supervised – students who didn’t even live with us, who we just talked to or met with every month – have offered us seven-course dinners at their restaurant, invited us to their home for family dinner, and sent us heartfelt thank-yous for helping their child develop into young adults.

It reminds us what it's all about. The U.S. Department of State encourages international cultural exchanges as a means to improve relations between our country and others. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the goodwill and exposure to other cultures that exchange programs foster are “critical to meeting the challenges of today’s world,” and Secretary of State John Kerry has said that “international education creates life-long friendships between students and strengthens the bonds between nations."

In a way, it’s even simpler. It’s making friends across borders, one person at a time. In a world where in 2015 we see destruction of cultural treasures, mass mistreatment of individuals for varied reasons, and a worldwide refugee disaster of massive proportions – perhaps continuing to take one step at a time, and helping to create change one person at a time, still has value.

Welcome to 2015-2016, another year in the world of high school exchange. We are starting another year with issues related to teen communications, cultural misunderstandings, and the fun in sharing even small experiences. We hope to have our American families develop relationships that will last far longer than the 5 or 10 months that the students live with them. Our adventure starts again!

This post was originally published on my blog in September 2015.

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