Greetings from your AFS Participant Support Staff! Thank you so much for opening your home to an AFS Exchange Student. We hope that things are going well for you and your family during these initial weeks of your AFS hosting experience. This is the first of a quarterly series that will guide you and your student through the different stages of the exchange experience.
Monthly Contact with Your Liaison
Your liaison is the AFS Volunteer responsible for contacting you and your student on a monthly basis. The purpose of the monthly contact with your liaison is to provide an opportunity for you to ask questions or address any concerns you might have regarding the exchange experience. It is also to help you and your student work through any difficulties that you may be experiencing before they become bigger problems.
According to U.S. Department of State regulations, under which AFS-USA is regulated, a representative from the organization must contact the student and host family, separately, at least once per month during the course of the exchange experience.
By now, you should have received information about your liaison from our office or from your local AFS Volunteer. If you do not know who your liaison is, please contact your local AFS Volunteer or the Participant Support Staff at 1-800-AFS-INFO as soon as possible.
Getting to Know You
The beginning of the AFS experience is full of new and exciting adventures, and the newness of everything has probably kept your student busy and excited. Now that your AFSer has been in your home for a bit, the initial “honeymoon” period may be over. Your AFSer and your family may be going through your first pangs of true “culture shock” together. Common issues that can arise include:
- Your family and student may be having some difficulty communicating verbally and non-verbally with one another. Even though the student must accept most of the responsibility for learning the language, you may find that you and your family are feeling challenged by having to constantly help your student understand English. It is important to remember at this time of the year that your AFSer is being bombarded with both a new language and new cultural norms, and may be experiencing a high level of fatigue. As a result, you may notice that your student is spending more time in his/her room and sleeping longer hours.
- Frustration may grow as additional misunderstandings and problems arise, largely due to culturally based differences in attitudes, values, roles, expectations, and points of view. Furthermore, your student’s status in your home may begin to be questioned by you and your family. At this stage, the feeling of the student being an honored “guest” is probably gone. Instead, your AFSer is becoming a “regular” member of the family and you may find that your expectations of your host son or daughter may be changing as a result. It can take some time for both your student and family to fully understand the significance of this new relationship.
- Gradually, the most serious and obvious problems are usually overcome as your student develops a better understanding of the language and cultural expectations, and begins to feel more fully accepted as a member of your family.
Tips for dealing with problems
Now that you have read all of this, you may be worried that your AFSer is unhappy and homesick. In reality, important progress is being made in that your student is beginning to become aware of the cultural differences and is beginning to develop coping strategies. Some things you can do to help include:
- As stated previously, you should have contact with your local liaison at least once per month. It is natural for you and your student to want to speak with someone outside of your home who understands AFS and the challenges that host families and students face. We urge you to ask your volunteers for assistance at any time, before difficulties and misunderstandings become too serious to be resolved. Small but persistent problems that are not addressed at an early stage can easily escalate.
- AFS Volunteers must report certain situations to the AFS Participant Support Staff. Support staff advise the volunteers (when appropriate) and provide a report to the support staff in the sending country who, in turn, report the situation to the student’s natural family. It is likely that by the time the natural family receives this report, they have already heard from their child about the situation. The AFS report provides them with your family’s and the local volunteers’ perspectives, which can often be quite different. It is very enlightening for the student’s natural family to hear all sides of a given situation.
- Encourage your AFSer to continue building relationships with others in the host community. One of the keys to a successful experience is support from others in the community. This support does not only come from AFS Volunteers and the host family. It will come from your student’s friends at school, his/her teachers, and anyone else that your student has the opportunity to get to know.
- Encourage your AFSer to use his or her journal. Writing about the ups and downs of the experience can be a very positive way for the student to process the complex emotions that an AFS experience can bring about.
- Encourage your AFSer to follow AFS communication guidelines regarding contact with friends and family in their home country. AFS guidelines are one phone call per month and one group email per week. These guidelines are intended to help students to focus on building relationships with their host family and friends in the host community, instead of on trying to maintain their day-to-day lives in their home country which can lead to withdrawal and homesickness. If you are concerned that your student is in too frequent contact with friends or family at home, please let your liaison know.
Student travel without your family
If your student intends to travel without your family, without an AFS Volunteer (or another AFS Host Family), or outside of a school sport or choir/band trip, he/she will need to request a Travel Waiver. Travel Waivers will be signed by his/her natural parents and be processed through his/her sending country’s AFS office.
For AFS-USA to approve travel that requires a waiver, permission must first be sought from the host family, your local AFS Volunteer, AFS-USA and the student’s natural parents. Students should not purchase any plane tickets before a signed Travel Waiver is acquired (after permission is granted through the national AFS-USA office). Students who choose to engage in independent travel without a Travel Waiver risk being sent home early from the AFS program. Important travel guidelines to keep in mind:
- AFSers should not miss school for travel.
- Travel cannot interfere with AFS events, such as required orientations.
- Travel cannot interfere with host family plans, especially holidays.
- Travel should not exceed 10 days in length.
- AFS-USA does not allow travel if there are no adults who will be housing the student at the destination.
- AFS-USA does not allow travel if there are only teenage drivers, for a distance more than 1-2 hours.
- AFS students are not allowed to visit friends/relatives who live outside the U.S.
- AFSers will not be allowed to travel independently during the last week of the program.
- AFS-USA does not allow AFSers to travel by train or bus without an adult for more than 1-2 hours.
Natural Family Visits
As our world becomes a smaller place, AFS-USA realizes that many of our students have relatives or family friends who live in or who choose to visit the U.S.. Many years of experience have taught AFS that a visit by relatives and friends can negatively impact the student’s experience. For the student, the arrival of someone from home interrupts integration into American life, as relationships and cultural norms from home are resumed. Often for host families, it interrupts their role as parents, may confuse relationships, and imposes additional hospitality burdens.
In keeping with the AFS standards and the participant adjustment cycle, AFS-USA highly discourages any visits during the program. If a natural family does plan a visit, it must be in compliance with the following AFS-USA policies:
- Students hosted in the U.S. will not be permitted to request approval for any visits from relatives or friends until after they have been on the program for 5 months or are in the final month of their semester program.
- AFS students will not be allowed to travel independently to visit relatives or family friends in the USA until after they have been on the program for 5 months or are in the final month of their semester program. they have been on the program for 5 months or are in the final month of their semester program.
- All visits must be approved by AFS-USA, the student’s host family, and the local/area volunteers. AFS-USA recommends that approval from all three parties be confirmed prior to tickets being purchased. they have been on the program for 5 months or are in the final month of their semester program.
- AFS students will not be allowed to miss school to travel with their natural parents, other relatives or friends. they have been on the program for 5 months or are in the final month of their semester program.
- Since visits can be disruptive to a student’s adjustment and adaptation, they should last no longer than 3-4 days. they have been on the program for 5 months or are in the final month of their semester program.
- Natural family visits should not conflict with host family plans or required AFS events and orientations. they have been on the program for 5 months or are in the final month of their semester program.
- Non-adherence to AFS-USA policies in regards to natural family visits may result in an early return of your student from the AFS-USA program.
Risky Activities: Host Families Are Not the Legal Guardians
Please remember that as a host family you are not a legal guardian of your AFS student (nor is AFS); the student’s legal guardian is his/her natural parent or other guardian in his/her home country. It is vital that you make this clear if you are asked to sign any permission forms or other forms the school sends home. Before signing any document that calls you the “legal guardian,” please cross out “legal guardian” and write “AFS Host Family.”
If your student wants to participate in certain “risky” activities (i.e. skiing, waterskiing, snowmobiling, hunting, etc.), there is an AFS Activity Waiver that the staff can ask the student’s natural family to sign. In these instances, please ask your local volunteer to contact the Regional Service Center in order to request a waiver for a specific activity.
Concerns about your student’s grades
While most AFS students do well in their new U.S. schools and some students even excel in their classes, some AFS students struggle in their classes due to language barriers, new teaching styles or new school schedules. If your student is struggling with his/her classes, or should he/she be receiving poor grades, please contact your liaison or local Participant Support Volunteer to let them know of your concerns so that help can be arranged as appropriate.
Additionally, if you should have concerns about your student’s grades (AFS expects students to receive grades C and above; lower grades due to lack of effort are not acceptable) and/or attendance at school throughout the year, please contact your local volunteers to request assistance as needed.
Student Participation in AFS Orientations
Please be aware that your AFS student is required to attend and participate in orientations that are held throughout the year. There will be an orientation in the fall (usually September or October) and one in the spring (May or June). In addition, most areas plan a mid-year orientation, which is held in January or February. You should receive information about the specific dates and times for these orientations from the volunteers in your area.
It is very important that your student attend all of these orientations, as they can be a good opportunity for students to share their experience with fellow AFSers and to receive additional help and support from the volunteers. Often, host families are also invited to participate in certain orientation activities. If at all possible, I encourage you to attend those activities to which you are invited. If you find it difficult to transport your student to any of these orientations, please feel free to contact your local AFS Volunteers to request their help in arranging alternative transportation for your student.