Tips for Foreign Exchange Parents

I'm coming up on the halfway mark for this year of sponsoring a student from Norway. For those who stumble across this wondering "was the experience worth it" let me reassure you right away. It's an amazing experience that I wouldn't trade for the world. I was nervous with us being a childless couple in our 30s but it turned out to be a delightful learning experience for both parties. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and make you see your community and routine through new eyes.

One of my frustrations before my student came was how little information was out there. I hope people considering sponsoring a student will find some use in these tips.  I'll continue to edit these as we discover more.

Registering for School Will Take Way Longer Than You Think

I was as surprised by this one as anyone. When we first accepted our I went to local high school and met with a counselor months before I needed to. I filled out a lot of his forms and was told "he's ready to go, just have him come back before school starts and we'll finish it up". Sounds good right?

What followed was a week of us being on the phone or at the school. We learned about the catch-22 of not being able to play in sports until you had a minimum number of course hours. There are questions about what grade he should be in. Every school official you meet is both eager to help and also telling you that you are missing some critical document or item. I provided many of the same documents several times.

All this means expect to spend some time in the school when your student arrives. Make a binder with copies of their important documents.

Have them cook once a week

One of the things I struggled with when our student first came was "what do I have him do". Some of the chores were pretty obvious. We asked him to keep his room clean and when he got home from school to walk the dog. I wanted something that would be more of a learning experience for both of us though. My wife told me about something she did when she was a foreign exchange student that I loved.

Put $100 in a drawer. Tell the student that once a week they need to cook dinner. They can pick the day but they need to go to the store themselves, pick out the items they need, get them home and cook them. It sounds simple but has actually proven to be one of the more useful exercises we've engaged in.

For the student it's a good immersion exercise. They need to plan ahead with a recipe, then go to the store with the limited funds and get the items they need. Finally they need to come home and have dinner ready by roughly the time the family eats.

Homesickness can sneak up on both of you

Homesickness is a constant challenge for foreign exchange students. We were ready for it around the 2-3 month mark. It didn't come though and it seemed like maybe our student just wasn't going to experience it. I chalked it up to social media ensuring he was still in regular contact with friends and family along with a deep passion for watching soccer and talking about it with his dad, a tradition he kept up.

Then the holidays hit. The photos of his family all together at the vacation cabin definitely caused him to experience some of the homesickness we had been ready for months earlier. It caught me off guard. It took me longer then maybe it should have to recognize what was going on and to help him deal with those issues. The point of this is a lot of the literature pounds into you that around 2-3 months they'll experience homesickness. That is by no means a hard and fast rule. Everybody is different.

You need more food

When you live with a partner in your 30s over time you start to mentally adjust sizes. You know how much laundry detergent to buy because you know in the back of your mind roughly how quickly you burn through it. Same with staples like bread and milk. These numbers start to become patterns on buying that you replicate every time you go to the store for grocery shopping. But with a kid you'll likely need a lot more food and it'll need to be easier to prep. I forgot how teenagers do not have things like basic knife skills and so prepping more complex foods is an time consuming process.

So for your first couple weeks keep an eye on what you are buying and what you are running out of. You'll start to develop the new list of things you buy along with the amounts you'll need.