The following is a guest author contribution by Sharra Hancock.
Foreign exchange is rooted in post World War II history as a means to ‘Americanize’ foreign students and spread American democracy (Walton, 2015). In the years following the end of World War II, foreign exchange has become a way of promoting international relations and fostering world citizens. International Student Exchange (ISE) is a 501c3 non-profit organization that began in 1982 with a mission of educating tomorrow’s leaders and breaking down the barriers to friendship (ISE, 2020). High school students on a J-1 Visa arrive in the United States and stay with volunteer host families for either 5, 10, or 12-month programs (ISE, 2020). Once the student has arrived, supervision and guidance are provided as well as monthly progress reports sent to the natural families (ISE, 2020). To date, over 30,000 exchange programs have taken place through ISE (ISE, 2020).
Each one of these 30,000 students has their own unique experience and story to tell. I have been lucky to be an active participant as well as an observer to several of these student’s stories and have permission to share them. Storytelling is a captivating tool used to share information while engaging the listener (Hull, 2020). True stories about people are a way for the listener to put themselves into the main character’s shoes and imagine the experience. For the students who spent the 2019-2020 school year as an exchange student, they had an experience like no other group before. When the world went on lockdown in March of 2020, they were thousands of miles away from their natural home and families and had to rely heavily on the family they made while in America but let me back up to how they would up in rural Indiana during a Pandemic and how our lives crossed paths.
The year was 2003 and I was a Sophomore at San Diego State University. Two years prior I had done a three-week cultural exchange in the United Kingdom which sparked a love of travel and learning about other cultures. I chose to major in International Business with grand thoughts of living abroad and flitting about Europe on the weekends. At that same time in Spain and Germany, two baby girls were being born who would also be inflicted with a love of learning about other cultures. In Spain, the dark-haired, dark-eyed Paloma and in Germany, the tall blonde Lara fantasized about visiting America and living out a high school experience they saw portrayed on television. Both girls had friends that had completed exchange years and they too wanted the chance to explore new cultures and improve their English. Paloma’s family was hesitant at first but soon supported her dream just as much as Lara’s family did from the start. After doing some research on sponsors and getting recommendations from friends, both girls applied to ISE hoping to be chosen by a caring family.
Not long after Paloma and Lara had applied to ISE to become exchange students, I had applied to become an area representative. 12 years after receiving my B.A. in International Business from San Diego State University, lost in a sea of tax returns watching my dreams sink, I made a drastic decision to give up the life I had in California. I found myself in the middle of rural Indiana wanting to explore international education as a career choice and discovered ISE. If I was currently unable to travel to foreign lands, I would bring the foreign lands to me.
December 2018 I was hired by the friendly and knowledgeable Regional Manager, Jennifer Miller, and began learning about the process of placing the students with local host families. Like all new jobs I struggled at first with the details and making connections in Indiana, I was new to the community after all. I liked to visit the pool of students who had been accepted into the program and imagine what type of family they would fit into. Every time I would wander back to the profile of a girl with brown hair and brown eyes who wore glasses and resided in Spain.
In May 2019, Jennifer Miller asked our Indiana region to choose one student and commit to finding a family for them. I instantly knew I had to choose Paloma. I felt drawn to her. I reached out to a local performing arts center and asked if they might see if any of their families would be interested in hosting a girl from Spain for the school year. Very soon I received a reply that there was not one but two families who wanted to host her! There is only one Paloma to go around so fortunately the second family was still excited about the opportunity to host and I picked out the lovely Lara for them. They were thrilled at the idea of welcoming her to their home.
Across the pond in mid-June, both girls received their acceptance emails within days of each other as both families had been approved to host and their local high schools signed off on the additions to the student body. Normally, students get placed with a family earlier in the year so, by June, both girls had doubts that a family would be willing to host them. The day it became finalized there was collective cheers felt around the world. Leading up to the arrival date, the girls were getting nervous but so excited for the new experiences. I too was nervous, hoping I could provide an exchange year that they would be happy with.
The girls arrived in early August with only a few days to get settled before starting school. The cultural differences became apparent right away as they drove through farmland to get from the airport to the small city they would be living in. Paloma learned that Americans prefer more personal space than they do in Spain and Lara was surprised at how patriotic most Americans are compared to in Germany. School spirit was another difference noticed right away. Lara got into the school spirit right along with her classmates, participating in dress-up days for Homecoming week and Halloween.
The girls got to experience a variety of activities, some planned by their host families or new friends, others planned by myself with some other local exchange students, and even trips arranged by our ISE region. For Paloma, the annual regional trip to Chicago is one of her favorite memories. ISE exchange students from all over Indiana gathered to spend a few guided days in Chicago, allowing her to meet even more exchange students and make new friends. Lara’s favorite memory was being able to spend a few days at Disneyworld on an organized trip with the performing arts center around her 16th birthday. These experiences would have never been possible if they had not taken a chance and been open to new possibilities.
In fact, both Paloma and Lara felt that being themselves but as open to the experience as possible is the best advice they could give to a student thinking about becoming an exchange student. They have made life long friends, learned so much about themselves, and matured greatly. As a former exchange student myself, I had the same take-away from my experience. So much so, that I have taken on wanting to help others experience it as well.
The three of us were finding our groove as exchange student and area rep and chugging along through the dreary winter preparing for exciting spring break plans. Paloma had been invited by a friend and her family to visit Florida over the break. Lara was planning to go to the Gulf Shores in Alabama with a group of exchange students as well as Washington DC with her host family. I was headed back to California for two weeks so we had a lunch date visit on Leap Day to gush about our upcoming plans, not knowing that would be the last time we would see each other in person.
We had discussed at lunch our thoughts on the developing ‘Coronavirus’ situation thinking that it would be contained before reaching our little area of the world or that it wouldn’t be as bad as people predicted. Only two weeks later, just days after I arrived in California, everything closed down and anxiety went through the roof. Like a flip switched I was now trying to go between our region, the host families, the students, their high schools, and their natural families while suddenly operating on a three-hour time difference. We wanted what was best for the students and while their host families wanted them to stay, the decisions to go home early were made. It hit us all that their exchange year was over and nobody was fully prepared for it. Spring break plans were forgotten, prom and graduation plans were thrown out, and saying goodbye in person taken away.
Lara left first to return to Germany. She was sad to be leaving so suddenly but was welcomed back by her family and friends with open arms. She learned to appreciate things she had previously taken for granted in Germany that weren’t available to her in America. A week or so later, Paloma went home to Spain. As much as she enjoyed her exchange year, she was glad to be home again. Whether in Spain or Indiana, the meaning of family is the same and now she has two families, they both do.
In other parts of the world, it is very common and even expected that high school students will complete an exchange year. Yet, in America, it is more the exception than the rule. I wanted to know what an outsider thought the reasoning behind this was and asked Paloma and Lara to share their opinions. They were asked separately but both responded the same way; Americans don’t learn as much about other cultures and countries in high school as Europeans do, nor do they care about it. Americans feel that the United States is the world and nothing else matters. As an American who is obsessed with other cultures, got her first passport at age 16, keeps a world map documenting her trips on the wall, and has a goal of “seeing the world” I can’t help but feel their opinion of Americans is not spot on. However; maybe I am an exception?
I completed my three-week cultural exchange only two months before tragedy struck on 9/11. The landscape of international travel was forever changed with more security and restrictions. Despite an increasing fear of “foreigners”, the number of passport holders increased steadily from 2003 and beyond (U.S. Department of State, n.d.) as more countries began requiring a passport to enter from another. In 2008, 42% of Americans held a valid passport while 76% of United Kingdom citizens held one (McCarthy, 2018). Not taking into account the population size, the percentage of passport holders is nearly double in the United Kingdom. When thinking about all of the other European countries whose citizens hold passports also, the number is exponentially higher than Americans. Perhaps this is the reason Europeans feel that generally, Americans are not interested in other countries or cultures. However; it is to America’s detriment because it creates Anti-American sentiments when the rest of the world looks upon our foreign policy (Ungar, 2016).
I do not speak for all Americans but if we expect the rest of the world to send their high school students to America to foster good relations and show that we are a welcoming country, then we should be doing the same. American high school students should be highly encouraged and given the opportunity to go abroad for a school year where they have the chance to fully immerse themselves in a different culture and not have to worry about it “not counting” towards graduation. The majority of what we hear about other countries relates to government affairs and the military presence (Ungar, 2016) yet we rarely look at the cultural side of other countries. Multicultural classrooms should be the way of the future as a way to promote understanding in the classroom while coupled with an exchange year in high school. This change to the curriculum will need government support and federal funding as an investment in national security (Ungar, 2016). In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the National Defense Education Act that was later amended in 1964 which stated, “It is no exaggeration to say that America’s progress in many fields of endeavor in the years ahead—in fact, the very survival of our free country—may depend in large part upon the education we provide for our young people now” (United States, 1964, para. 1). If a three-week cultural exchange program, coincidentally launched by President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself in 1956 (People to People, n.d.), could inspire and lead me down this path of international education, furthered by my Master’s program in Higher Education at the American College of Education, imagine what a whole year abroad would have done for me.
For more information about International Student Exchange’s Study Abroad Program visit their site at https://iseusa.org/travel-study-abroad/
Hull, D. (2020). Storytelling in history teaching.
Agora, 55(2), 3–5. International Student Exchange. (2020).
Home page. https://iseusa.org/
McCarthy, N. (2018). The share of Americans holding a passport has increased dramatically in recent years [infographic].
Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2018/01/11/the-share-of-americans-holding-a -passport-has-increased-dramatically-in-recent-years-infographic/?sh=181c4f7c3c16 People to People. (n.d.). A proud history. https://www.peopletopeople.com/our-history/
Ungar, S. J. (2016). The study-abroad solution: How to open the American mind.
Foreign Affairs, 2. United States. (1964).
National defense education act of 1958, as amended by the 88th Congress. https://history.house.gov/HouseRecord/Detail/15032436195 U.S. Department of State. (n.d.).
Reports and statistics. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/about-us/reports-and-statistics.html
Walton, W. (2015). National interests and cultural exchange in French and American educational travel, 1914–1970.
Journal of Transatlantic Studies (Springer Nature), 13(4), 344.