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How Do I Choose the Right Exchange Student Program?

You’ve decided to look into taking an exchange student. Congratulations. Cultural exchange can be a very rewarding experience for both you and your family.  It can build relationships that will last a lifetime and help bridge the gap between different cultures. 

Where do you start? There are many international student exchange programs. When choosing who you will work with, you’ll want to talk with your local school and former host parents. More importantly, you should check to make sure they have approval from CSIET (a non-profit entity that sets standards for international educational travel programs) before committing to work with them. 

The CSIET Advisory List

The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET) is the first place you should consult when considering taking a student. Here you will find a list of programs that meet the standards of this respected non-profit organization. These standards include an evaluation process similar to that of school accreditation. Programs are reevaluated or audited annually for compliance.  This advisory list includes high-school programs that take part in both F-1 and J-1 Visa education programs. 

Note that there are different levels of listings awarded to programs. Simply put, full and provisional listings are best. One under conditional listing should be studied more closely but not necessarily rejected. A conditional listing means CSIET has made recommedations for improvements. If a program is not on the list, unless they are affiliated with your school, church or athletic association, you should be leery. 

How Long Do You Want to Have an Exchange Student?

Some exchange student programs are more short-term while others last for a year or even more. For example, students studying abroad on a J-1 Visa will usually stay in the country for either one or two semesters. Students on the F-1 Visa, however, can stay longer. You’ll want to choose an exchange student program that offers the length of stay you are most interested in. 

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Compensation or No Compensation

Likewise, students on a J-1 Visa need volunteer host parents. This just means the program does not compensate the host parent for boarding the student. Instead, they voluntarily provide the exchange student with food and shelter. As part of the program, the natural parents are expected to send the exchange student an allowance for clothing and other incidentals. This is the traditional and most common exchange student visa. 

Host parents taking students under the F-1 Visa can receive compensation for expenses associated with providing housing and food for the exchange student. Only certain programs service students under the F-1 Visa. 

Get Recommendations From Your Local School When Choosing an Exchange Student Program

Schools can accept or reject exchange students. For this reason, many host parents have gotten their hopes up just to be disappointed when they find out their school will not accept the student because of their program. Before contacting an exchange student program, speak with someone in the guidance office for your local high school to get recommendations. This way you know you are working with a reputable program that has a good relationship with your high school and school district. 

Talk With Former Host Parents

What better way to help you find the right exchange student program than by talking with a former host family? You probably became interested in taking an exchange student because you met one or heard about one at your kid’s school. Take the time to talk with former host parents to find out what their experience was like with their exchange student program.

Ask them questions about:

  • Program requirements.
  • Counseling and other resources for students/host families.
  • How often do they check in on students?
  • How quick were they to respond to problems/concerns?

You might also talk with pastors and youth group leaders who may have also had experiences with exchange student programs. 

Research the Organization Online

When you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of programs, do your homework online. As with anything else, you might have to sift through the good and bad comments. Still, it might be worth it to hear what others have to say about the program. Of course, you can read the literature provided by the exchange student program but that will probably be biased and will always show them in the best light. 

Where is the Closest Local Representative?

The exchange student program may tell you they have a local representative but what do they mean by “local”? Some programs consider local to be within 100 miles of the student’s host parents. Others require that they live within 20-30 miles. Why is it important that they be nearby?  Having your local coordinator within driving distance is a significant help. What if an emergency arises? What if you’re going out of town and have no place else for your student to stay? There have been several instances in which the exchange student stays with the local representative for a few days or even a couple of weeks if needed. The local representative can also contact the overseas agent and work out problems for the student such as a change in travel or filing medical claims. These may sound like minor things but can be big when you consider the student will be with you for one semester, a year or longer. 

Is the Exchange Student Program Large or Small?

The size of the program shouldn’t matter but it does because larger exchange student programs have more resources for both the students and host families. For example, some larger programs host regional gatherings for host families and their students. This will give you and your family the opportunity to meet students from many countries. They also offer trips for the exchange students which lets them see more of the country. Larger programs also have full-time employees that are available to your local representative should she/he be unable to help you. 

What is the Screening Process for Exchange Students?

You’ll also want to work with exchange student programs that do their due diligence. What kind of screening process do they require for exchange students? Here are some key things that you’ll expect a quality exchange student program to look for.

  • Decent English skills. Although a student shouldn’t have to speak fluent English, it can be a frustrating experience to have a student in an American classroom who speaks very little English. 
  • Financial ability. The natural family of an exchange student should have the means to assist them with added expenses during their stay with you. 
  • An exemplary school record. The exchange student program should have minimum academic requirements for students. They should also require that exchange students provide references from teachers and school administrators before being accepted into the program.
  • Behavior Policy. Students should sign a document that says they agree to follow the rules of the school and host parents. 

What is the screening process for host parents? The care and attention the exchange student program put into finding host families will give you a good idea of how students are also screened. If the program accepts you as a host family without doing much of a background check, beware. They have probably not done a good job screening the exchange students either. 

All of this might seem like a lot of work, but being connected with the right exchange student program can make the difference in your having a positive or negative experience. 

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