''You should not leave your country thinking 'Oh, wow, cool, a year of holiday,'
because it's also hard. But at the same time it's so cool,'' says an Italian teen
studying in the U.S.
Transcript of radio broadcast:
VOICE ONE: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Bob
VOICE TWO: And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week on our program, we talk about
foreign exchange students in the United States.
VOICE ONE: More than twenty-nine thousand foreign exchange students attended
American high schools last year. The State Department says the teenagers came
from one hundred nine countries.
Foreign exchange students get the chance to learn more about a culture and its
people. They make new friends and experience new places. But they can also
experience problems being far from home, among people they do not know and may
The way many describe it, the experience is exciting and frightening at the same
VOICE TWO: In the past, exchange students usually had limited contact with their
host families before meeting them.
But times have changed. Today, exchange students may know a lot about their host
family before they ever leave home. E-mails go back and forth; pictures of families,
homes and pets are shared.
E-mail and cell phones also make it easier for the students to keep in contact with
their own families back home.
VOICE ONE: Exchange groups are supposed to provide a contact person, or liaison,
to help students in case they have any problems.
This is what happened with a boy from Argentina we'll call Juan Carlos.
Juan Carlos liked sports; his American host family did not. He liked to go out with
friends; his host parents did not approve. And they did not think he was doing well
enough in school: he was getting average grades. The host parents discussed these
issues with his liaison.
And the solution? A new family was found for Juan Carlos. The new family included
two boys who played soccer on local teams. Juan Carlos joined those teams and was
much happier with his new family. Not only that, his grades improved.
VOICE TWO: Exchange students have to speak English well enough to attend an
American high school. But some students find it takes weeks or months for them to
understand everything they read or hear.
One girl from Switzerland told her exchange group that some students at her
American high school made fun of her accent. An exchange volunteer asked how
many languages she spoke. The girl said her native language was Swiss-German and
she also spoke Italian, French, English and Spanish.
The volunteer had this advice: Tell those students that you have an accent in four of
the five languages you speak. And then ask them how many languages they speak.
The majority of Americans speak only English.
VOICE ONE: Seventeen-year-old Nadia Gerstgrasser is from Italy. Nadia says being
a foreign exchange student is not always easy.
NADIA GERSTGRASSER: "Like the language, you think it's going to be hard, but you
don't know how it is in real life when people don't understand you and how hard it
can be even to order a hamburger. When a waiter asked me the first time how I
wanted it done, I said 'cooked' and he was like 'yeah, I know, but how,' and I said
'on my plate,' and everybody started laughing. Stuff like that. It can embarrass you,
but that's just the way you learn English. Now I laugh about it, but back then I was
VOICE TWO: Nadia is living with a family in Alexandria, Virginia, through the end of
June. She is attending a Fairfax County high school with more than one thousand
seven hundred students. Nineteen percent of them are limited English speakers. She
says that surprised her -- finding so many different ethnic groups.
NADIA GERSTGRASSER: " You know, I was expecting all Americans ... like, I knew
there was black people, white people, but I didn't know there was a lot of Hispanics,
Asian kids at my school. And, yeah, it was surprising but positive."
VOICE ONE: American high schools come in small, medium, large and extra large.
They can have three, four, even five thousand students. It is easy to feel lost at first
in a huge building and moving from class to class.
Changing classrooms might also be a new experience for exchange students. Some
students come from countries where the teachers move from room to room, not the
VOICE TWO: More than one hundred organizations are involved in the State
Department's Exchange Visitor Program for secondary school students. These groups
are responsible for choosing, placing and supervising exchange students.
In many cases, families pay an organization to place their child with an American
family and supervise their time in the United States.
In the case of Rotary International, local Rotary clubs pay some of the expenses of
The clubs place students with three different families during the school year.
VOICE ONE: As of last year there were twelve schools and school districts involved
in the State Department program. Schools often want foreign exchange students as
a way to increase the diversity of their student population. These programs may be
true exchanges. A student from the school goes to a foreign country for a school
year while a foreign student comes to the United States.
VOICE TWO: Secondary-school exchange students normally come to the United
States with J-One visas provided by the State Department. Some, however, come
with an F-One study visa from the Department of Homeland Security. But an F-One
visa does not provide the same protections as a J-One visa.
These protections include making sure all adults in host families have been checked
for criminal records.
Another protection is making sure exchange students have placements waiting for
them in American schools.
VOICE ONE: The Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students is a nonprofit
organization in California. It works to strengthen protections for exchange students
in the United States and around the world.
Sally Smith is a family law attorney who works with the committee. She says
exchange students should know how to report any cases of sexual abuse or other
crimes. In the United States, the number to call for police or other emergency
services is nine-one-one.
Sally Smith advises parents of teens who are considering an exchange program to
discuss the possible dangers with the sponsoring group. Exchange students should
never leave home without knowing who their host family will be, and that the family
has been investigated.
Sally Smith notes that the rules in the United States do not say how a criminal
background check must be carried out. The Committee for Safety of Foreign
Exchange Students wants the government to require criminal checks based on
A State Department representative tells us that officials are now studying the
possibility of strengthening the requirements for background checks. But she says
the details are not known at this time.
VOICE TWO: The State Department has programs to bring exchange students to the
United States from different areas of the world. One program, for example, is for
German teenagers. Another is for students from countries of the former Soviet
Union. Other programs offer exchanges for students in Serbia and Montenegro and
countries with large Muslim populations.
VOICE ONE: Gauri Noolkar from India is in Virginia as part of the State
Department's Youth Exchange and Study, or YES, program. We'll let her explain it:
GAURI NOOLKAR: "The students in the YES program, their expenses are basically
covered by the State Department of this country, and it is for fostering friendship
between America and Middle East and Asian counties. It is based on merit and talent,
and they cover all our expenses and in return we are expected to teach people over
here about our cultures and then go back and teach our people about American
Seventeen-year-old Gauri is also attending a public high school in Fairfax County.
And like Nadia from Italy, Gauri says she, too, was surprised by the ethnic diversity
she has seen in the United States.
GAURI NOOLKAR: "Another surprising thing was even though it is a very
individualistic society, there is a notion that Americans just live for themselves. But I
realize that over here they are very helpful and nobody turns you down. If you ask
for help, you do get it."
VOICE TWO: To become an exchange student at an American high school, students
must have completed no more than eleven years of school, and done well. They
must be between the ages of fifteen and eighteen and a half. They must also speak
English well. And they must agree to accept the rules of the exchange program and
their host families.
Host families are supposed to receive training in hosting an exchange student. Host
families do not get paid, but they get a fifty dollar tax deduction for each month the
student lives in their home.
VOICE ONE: Nadia Gerstgrasser has this advice for students considering a foreign
NADIA GERSTGRASSER: "You should not leave your country thinking 'Oh, wow, cool,
a year of holiday, I'm not going to do anything, it's going to be fun, everything is
just going to be exciting,' because it's also hard.
But at the same time it's so cool. You're gonna start liking it. It's worth it. You should
Going to a foreign country to live with complete strangers is not for everyone. But
many who have done it say the experience taught them a lot about the world and
VOICE TWO: Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Dana
Demange. I'm Faith Lapidus.
VOICE ONE: And I'm Bob Doughty. For transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our
programs, go to voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS
AMERICA in VOA Special English.