Before you leave home as an exchange student you may already have been in contact with your assigned host-family. Even if you have not, the exchange organization is supposed to have forwarded details on where the family lives, how many family members there are, their ages, contact information and host parent occupations. Included with that information are probably pictures of the family and their home. I do not know if all exchange organizations follow this guideline.
You might get told that you are going to a temporary family (see below). Other times the exchange student is told that a representative will function as host family until a permanent family is found (see below).
What is a host family?
A host family is a family that has promised to allow you to live with them for the duration of your exchange student stay. There isn’t really a template for what a host family should look like:
- Mom, dad (with or without children)
- Mom (with or without children)
- Dad (with or without children)
- Dad, dad (with or without children)
- Mom, mom (with or without children)
- Old, youngish, young
The host-parents should be at least 25 years old. Any younger than that and they might well end up being a friend and not a boundary maker. I do not think there is an upper age limit. However:
- The host family should be without mental or physical issues that would keep them from being able to fulfil their role as care-taker.
- The host family should be in a financial situation that enables them to take in another family member.
- The host family should be able to accept that the exchange student might have different theological, political and cultural views than themselves (goes both ways).
Temporary host family
A temporary host family is one that is supposed to last very few weeks until the exchange organization has found a permanent host family. If the exchange student is lucky, the temporary family willingly becomes a permanent host family (24%). But in most cases this is not so. If a temporary host family is pressured into becoming a permanent one, it is fairly easy to see how problems might arise. (USIA study)
Finding a host family that is willing to take a student in for ten months is not a simple task. Rotary has solved this by having the exchange student stay with several host families (approx. 3).
Representative as host family
At times the only option available to a new exchange student is being placed with their representative until a family is found. Sometimes the representative becomes the permanent host family. (CSFES finds this highly questionable) Some exchange organizations will then assign you a separate representative to avoid conflict of interest. Sadly, if a conflict occurs, the host country organization will usually side with the representative.
Host family as guardian
Your host family is your guardian. They are supposed to keep you safe during your stay, make sure you do your homework, give you chores (just like other family members), feed you, set boundaries and make you part of their family unit.
Does the host family get paid?
Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.
Some exchange organizations are volunteer organizations. In such firms the host family does not get paid no matter where you live. Other exchange organizations pay or do not pay their host family depending on what type of exchange program you choose.
Different countries have different rules. In the US there are both variations based on the type of visa the exchange student has (J-1 vs F-1). In Norway there isn’t a regulation about this, but many of the exchange organizations do not pay their host families.
Host family requirements
Most (probably all) exchange organizations have a set of rules they are supposed to follow regarding how they pick who gets to be a host family. The requirements I have seen, set by the firms whose brochures I have looked at, state that they do background checks of the host family. These include:
- References from extended family.
- References from acquaintances.
- Home visitations.
- Candidate interview.
- Financial status check.
Variations are huge when it comes to type of host house you will be living in. The country/city/town you travel to will be a deciding factor. Different climates give different needs and so does financial status. However, whether you live in an apartment, house, palace, trailer-home, duplex or on a farm you should expect the following:
- Your own bed.
- A quiet space to do homework (might be a challenge in a home with young children).
- A place to store your clothes.
- Three meals a day.
- A somewhat clean/tidy house.
Host-family no, nos
Just as the above are minimum standards for what an exchange student can expect of the host-house, there are also things that are supposed to be non-negotiable:
- The host family must be independent from government financial aid.
- The host family cannot live in government housing.
- Other exchange students (or possibly foster children) may live in the house. However, the number of people living in the house should be within the limits stated above.
Problems CSFES has seen regarding host families
Most exchange students have a good or even great exchange student experience. However, not all brochures state the truth and not all representatives follow organization guidelines. Common problems are:
- Standard of housing. Some homes are filthy. They might stink. Others are practically falling apart.
- Host parents are out of work and receiving financial aid.
- Exchange student is seen as maid or au-pair rather than as a student coming to study.
- One or both host parents is/are not mentally able to provide appropriate care.
- Accusations, yelling, severity and manipulation of the exchange student.
If you experience any of these (or similar) problems, always tell your parents. Document them (pictures, sms, recordings …) and forward the documentation to your parents. Please contact your representative or have your parents contact the home firm. If your representative does not take you seriously, try to contact your local consulate or an organization like CSFES. I have links to organizations on my home page.