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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Category: The Parent Experience

An Exchange Experience

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For those families who have considered an exchange opportunity, do it! You will quickly realize the world is smaller than you think and that we are more similar than different from one another. Hosting a student is an opportunity you won’t regret with life-long memories made for everyone involved.

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YFU Support Structure and Communication

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In our last post, we shared information about allowing your student some space to adjust to their host family, new rules, and to develop a support structure in their new community.  But we also know there will be moments that you may be concerned about your child and want to know what to do. 

YFU has a very specific support structure which has been refined over the last 60 years, particularly in light of our current era of immediate and constant communication.   Your child’s participation at local and national pre-departure orientations will help them understand the value in tapping into the support system in the way that is designed to be used.  Of course sometimes it may feel difficult to ask for help or admit that things are not going as well as imagined. Encourage your child, and we encourage you, to rely on YFU’s dedicated support team during the exchange experience.

SCENERIOS - How would you respond?

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Your child arrives in the host country and after a few days you see posts on Facebook about how small the town is, that there’s nothing to do, the host family is too busy for them, or your child can’t imagine living there for whole a year. What do you do?

Call your SSM to request that someone check in with your child and help as needed. If your child contacts you directly, advise them talk to their YFU representative in the host country.

Late one night, your child calls crying about how they don’t have any friends, school is really hard, they never understand anything and this was so much tougher than they thought it would be. What do you do? 

When this happens, often the student gets off the phone feeling much better for having shared, but you are left worrying. While on the phone, suggest that your child talk with the host family or YFU representative, who is always available to help in exactly these types of situations.

A grandparent passes away unexpectedly and you know your child will be upset. What do you do?

Please call your SSM so that YFU in the host country can make sure your child has someone to talk to and to comfort them right after they receive the news from you.

After feeling as though your child has done pretty well for the first few months, you notice s/he is too active on social media sites and is often wanting to Skype with you and you hear from your other children about how often they are chatting online or texting. What do you do?

If this goes on for more than a couple of weeks, call your SSM to request that someone check in with your child and help as needed. S/he is most likely going through culture shock. If your child contacts you directly, suggest they talk to their YFU representative about starting some activities to get involved with school and the community. 

YFU SUPPORT NETWORK

Once your child gets on the plane, your first point of contact for concerns is your Support Services Manager (SSM): Alisha Whitelock at awhitelock@yfu.org ; 303-270-0068 x7246.

Your child will be provided with an in-country area representative (who will be in contact with your child throughout the semester or year) and the host country YFU office contact information. It is important to encourage your child to reach out to someone in the host country for support.

Teens tend to ask for a change of host family before attempting to work through the challenging situations, or when things aren’t as perfect as they had hoped. A change of host family is, although not impossible, not an easy fix to common exchange problems.   YFU staff and volunteers in each country are available to help you and your child with all challenges – big or small.  It is important to trust them and their assessment of situations while helping your child recognize cultural misunderstanding, host sibling rivalries, or what have you.  Generally, there are many conversations between the student, host family and Area Representatives in an effort to problem-solve before deciding that a change of host family is in fact the best outcome.

After many years of experience, we have found that our support is effective when used.  Our advise to you and your child is -- Don’t try to solve problems on your own or wait until a problem has seemingly spun out of control. YFU staff and volunteers are trained to support you and THEY WANT TO HELP! 

Doing Nothing is doing Something

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Even during their time away, you will have a great influence on your child’s exchange experience (positive and negative).  A big part of this influence is how you react to your child’s experience with their host family and their reactions to adjusting to another culture.

It is important to remember that your child is living with a family who has their own customs.  It is very likely that their rules and ways of doing things are different than in your household.  As discussed earlier in the “I never thought of it that way” blog post, there will be many things that your child will be getting used to. Your actions and reactions will influence their adjustment.  Let’s look at the three areas of which students say they felt the most pressure from home: communication, the wishing to visit, and the emotional support structure.

For more information on these topics and others, take time to read the Study Abroad Parent Handbook including the sections on “Preparing Your Child and Yourself” and “Appendix V” on Policies and Procedures.

COMMUNICATION WITH YOUR CHILD

Allow your child to set the amount of communication—which may require patience on your part.  This can be difficult when you want to know what is going on in their life.  Yet, the less you hear, the better things are most likely going.  Think about it - the more involved s/he is in making friends and participating in host family life, the less time your child will have communicating about it.  Let them be in the present.

In your communications with your child, be upbeat and ask questions about their activities and host family (even though you might not get answers quickly).  They may be feeling conflicted about  the choice  of going away from home for a year or semester,  so don’t use phrases that will increase that conflict like—how everyone wishes they were at a certain event.  Your child can’t be in two places at the same time, so encourage them to enjoy the choice they made and the opportunities that present themselves because of that choice.

VISITING YOUR CHILD

While your child is living in another country, it may seem like the perfect time to plan an overseas vacation.  It may be hard to imagine not seeing your child for a year or semester, and you want to see where you child is living.  While this may seem like a convenient opportunity for a trip, you are not doing your child a favor with such plans.

Dividing their attention between the host environment and the home environment is a challenging situation for any student; being confronted with both at the same time is a struggle that a number of students can’t deal with. It may cause homesickness and adjustment issues, sometimes to such a degree that students decide to follow their parents home rather than continue their exchange.

Please don’t put your child in a situation where they need to tell you that they would prefer for you not to visit but grant them this time on exchange as their own chance to grow up. The hosting community could be an excellent destination for the next family vacation after your child’s return as a lot of our students love to return for a visit and are then in a much better place to show of their second home.

If you decide you still absolutely want to visit your child on program, please be aware that YFU requires you to consult with your Support Service Manager before making any bookings. Travel plans will only be accepted at the end of the exchange program and when they don’t interfere with school attendance or host family plans.

BREAKING AWAY - Support System

A large part of your child’s success as an exchange student depends upon his/her willingness and ability to develop a support group in the host country. In order to do this, your child must be ready to break away from the support group that s/he has known and relied on his/her entire life. Likewise, the support group from home must allow your child some space. This will allow the host family and local Area Representative to develop a relationship with your child and be ready to take over the support role that you fill at home. If your child can build meaningful relationships with their support in country (i.e. host parents and Area Rep), s/he will have the necessary resources to succeed.

Attitude can make a difference when going into a new home; learning a new language; and developing a new support network with new friends and new coping skills.  Four things that YFU encourages in its students are sharing, respecting, learning and patience.  By promoting an attitude that encompasses these, you are promoting a successful experience for your child.

 

Logistical Preparation

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Among all the emotional adjustments happening, while preparing to leave, there are the practical tasks that need to be accomplished. As everyone in the family is preparing mentally, it is sometimes good to have actual tasks and research to do before the departure date.

Language and Communication.

In almost all cases, your child will be learning a new language or perfecting a language they have learned in the classroom. Encourage them to take advantage of language learning opportunities like

  • Rosetta Stone, watching/listening to movies in their host language,

  • little extra tutoring on the practical things in life, and

  • of course following any instructions from the host country.

When your child gets their host family information, they should contact the host family right away and prepare at least one sentence in the host language. But for those student who know the language, they should communicate with them entirely in the host language!

Packing.

It is important to check with your international airline to learn about the restrictions for luggage. Not only size but weight also. In many cases, they will be allow one checked suitcase no heavier than 50 pounds.  Any additional bags or if they go overweight will be at your cost.  Unless you fly regularly, you and your child will be surprised how quickly their possessions adds up in size and weight so packing strategically is very important. 

Your child will want to purchase clothes and other popular items in the host country, so save the money and let them spent it in the host country.  When preparing the suitcase, the luggage tag should have their host family’s address on it and another piece of paper in the suitcase with that address too.

Carry On Bag. 

Students must keep their passport, visa, their host family's address and phone number, traveler’s checks, debit or credit cards, medications, cash, and other important papers with them and not in their luggage. A safe way to carry these items is in a fabric pouch that can be tied around the neck or waist and worn under all clothing. These pouches are more difficult to lose or steal.

Your child should bring a few basic toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, etc.) and “freshen up” clothing items (clean underwear and a shirt) in their carry-on in case checked luggage is delayed or lost en route.  Check with the airline’s website for any liquids/toiletries restrictions for carry-on bags.

Budgeting.

Have you talked to your son or daughter about the kind of monthly budget they will have while in their host country? Now’s the time to do it! Since your child will be responsible for many things that are usually “free” to them at your house (personal toiletries, postage, etc.), it is important to think through all of the items your student will be responsible for and provide them with a budget to match. Generally speaking, depending on a country’s cost of living, it is recommended to provide them with $250-$300 per month.

Cell Phones.

If your child wants to bring his/her U.S. cell phone, be sure to contact the service provider to find out if the phone will work in the host country and what the rates and terms of usage will be. Your child can also opt to rent or buy a cell phone in the host country and purchase a pay-as-you-go service (this is usually the more affordable option).

Gifts.

It is customary for exchange students to present their host families with small giftsof gratitude when they arrive in their new homes. When considering what makes a good gift you should consider the size, weight, durability during travel, etc. You should not worry about the price of the gift; host families will generally appreciate something thoughtful, personal and/or creative or representative of your State. Something they can show off to relatives or visitors! Due to custom’s checks, your child should not wrap the gift(s) before departure, but rather take wrapping paper or gift bags with them.

You can read in depth about all of these topics and more in the SA Parent Handbook that was sent you when your child was accepted. We encourage you to read this section for more indepth details and more.

What gift ideas do you have?

Learning through Challenges

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As your child begins to quickly realize that “culture” is more than just the food, buildings and art of a country, but it is something that will directly impact their day to day life, they start going through the stages of culture adjustment. Extensive research has been done on cross-cultural adjustment, resulting in a recognized cycle of adjustment which YFU students will experience. Being aware of this cycle may help you understand what your child is experiencing, and thus ultimately support them in a helpful manner.

Not everyone experiences all of the stages nor do they occur in any set order.Also, you might be surprised to know that your own family will also go through an cycle of adjustment without your child living at home for an extended period of time.

The first two stages of cultural adjustment are (1) the Honeymoon Stage and (2) Settling In Stage.  Both are pretty self-explanatory, but it is important for you to know that around the corner is stage three. Your family is likely to feel the difference in your household a lot sooner, and jump to more of a shock adjustment process. Your family might feel as if your child or sibling has forgotten about home.

Stage 3: Culture Shock - 

The name “shock” is a misnomer, in reality cultural shock builds up over time.  This is a stage of fatigue and frustration related to cultural differences reflected as homesickness.  This is very normal.  Sometimes there is a rejection of the culture (“The way we do it in my country is better”), isolation from the host culture, more seeking out of friends of the same nationality, and the “I’m tired of trying” mentality.

As parents it is particularly hard to watch this stage so keep in mind:

  • Culture shock is a normal psychological reaction that nearly all international travelers go through - some in mild or others in extreme form.

  • Symptoms can include depression, difficulty sleeping, homesickness, trouble concentrating, an urge to isolate oneself, loss of appetite, and irritation with the host culture.

  • Moving beyond this stage is dependent on them (on their choices) no matter how much you, as parents, want to fix the problem.

  • At National Pre-Departure Orientation we will be discussing the many choices and efforts they can make to get over culture shock. Encourage them by asking what they think they can do.

During these three stages, it is important to remember that as parents you are also a product of your cultures. As your teenager is experiencing another culture, you are too, through your child’s lenses.  You may learn that they no longer have a curfew, they take public transportation all the time, they eat dinner at 8pm at night, or they spend all their money on coffee.  This may not sit well with you, but it’s important to allow them toadjust to those cultural expectations, listen to their host parents, follow host family rules and feel comfortable without being judged.  Remember that you have taught them values and what is important.

Your teenager will be experiencing a dramatic move and an adjustment process that is actually fairly predictable: The excitement of arriving will wear off and life in a different country will become more routine. Learning to speak the language more fluently and making friends will demand a lot of your teenager. Don't expect every moment to be happy or pleas­ant, but be confident that your son or daughter will manage to get along in the new and different environment.

A good way to work through your and your child's emotions is to understand one another's feelings and expectations before the exchange. Discussing in advance ways to handle moments of homesickness and how you might impact (reduce or reinforce) their experience.

What are your expectations for Communication with your teenager while they are overseas?  How will this help your child adjust?  How will this help you adjust?

“I never thought of it that way”

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When asked why they want to go on exchange, most students say that they want to experience another culture. Usually this is said in the broadest sense and it isn’t until later that they truly understand the challenges and rewards to come. While your child is experiencing another culture, you too will be experiencing that culture through your child’s eyes.  Therefore, to best understand and support the experience, you’ll enjoy learning about how culture really influences our lives and our perceptions.

So what is culture?

Technically speaking, culture is the values, beliefs, attitudes and ideas that a group of people hold in common.Think of it as a set of unwritten instructions that we each acquire over time and use daily without thinking about it.  The culture of any group of people is their total way of life.

But culture cannot be seen, except as it is reflected through behaviors.

Think about it…do you take your shoes off when entering a home? This may demonstrate valuing cleanliness.  Is “ma’am” and “sir” used to address people older than you? This likely shows a deep respect for elders.  Are men expected to open doors for women and never the other way around? This reflects beliefs surrounding gender roles.

Iceberg Model

Iceberg Model

YFU orientations introduce your child to culture through the Edward T. Hall's iceberg analogy.By understanding this model yourself, you will have a common language to talk with your child about their experience living in another culture.  Challenge yourself by learning the iceberg analogy.

How cultural lenses will influence your child’s experience

We are all influenced by many cultures – our family’s culture, our religious community, our ethnic background, the region of the USA in which we live, and of course the American culture. Each of these cultures influence our perceptions and expectations of behavior.  In other words, what seems like the most natural behavior to one group may be completely foreign to another.

The Sunglasses Analogy (adapted from Michael C. Mercil's analogy)

“Imagine that everyone in the USA is born with a pair of sunglasses, and those sunglasses have yellow lenses.  No one has ever thought it strange or weird because they have always been there. Everything that everyone has seen, learned or experienced has been seen through these yellow sunglasses.

Thousands of miles away, in another country, everyone there is born with a pair of sunglasses too but the lenses of those glasses are blue. No one has ever thought that it strange or weird because they have always been there. Everything that everyone has seen, learned or experienced has been seen through these blue sunglasses.

When an American decides to go to this foreign country thousands of miles away, they are smart enough to realize that if they want to experience this country the way the natives do, then they’ll need a pair of those blue sunglasses.  So they go purchase them and put them on and feel confident that they are seeing the country as the natives do. They return to the USA and declare that everything in that foreign country is green!”

While the American was smart enough to know he need a pair of blue sunglasses, he forgot that he was still wearing his yellow sunglasses. It is extremely difficult to remove our own cultural lenses to understand the world from another perspective.

There will be countless instances when your child will be challenged to assess a situation through the host country’s cultural lens rather than making judgments based on expectations.  Perhaps your child’s host family will have wine with every meal.  Your child may have a 7pm curfew or perhaps no curfew at all.  Maybe the host family will have a maid who cleans the house or a pet dog who isn’t allowed in the house. Trying to figure out the value or belief that is the basis of behavior is not easy, but it’s enlightening.

So if your child, or you yourself, labels something as “weird” or “wrong,” challenge yourselves to ask questions – uncover the underlying value or belief.  If you’re successful, a common phrase that you’ll use together throughout the exchange is “I never thought of it that way.”

Tell us an“I never thought of it that way” experience you have had. 

Please share by clicking the Leave a Reply button above this post.

Introductions & Learning for All

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Congratulations on your child's selection to participate in a student exchange! YFU programs are for a select group of students who are ready to embark on a journey not just of distance and geography, but of culture and self-transformation. We are excited for you all, as you prepare for this new adventure together. This blog is here as a resource for you, providing you with:

  • A sense of membership in the YFU community;

  • An awareness of how to support your child and your family at home (during periods of adjustment) throughout the course of the exchange;

  • Scenarios that parents have faced in the past, and how to handle potentially challenging situations;

  • An awareness of culture shock and its various stages;

  • An understanding of how your actions can influence your child’s experience, through communication, visits, reactions to their stress and challenges;

  • Support and resources during this period of preparation;

  • Tips on packing, budgeting, gift giving, and more.

For the next 10 weeks before the National Pre-Departure Orientation, we will be sharing information on a variety of topics related to the exchange experience from the parent perspective. If there are specific topics that you'd like us to cover, please let us know by leaving a comment below.

This coming semester or year will be an experiential learning journey for your teenager, their soon to be host family and your own family. And the learning begins right now!

All of your family members, including your teenager, will go through a range of emotions - excitement, concern, distress at being separated from family. You can help make your child's international exchange experience more successful, though.

The first step is to develop realistic expectations, especially when it comes to the host family and host community and your child’s ability to adjust. YFU host families range from couples without children to single parents with children, from families with teenagers or young children or a combination. Host communities also come in all sizes, from small towns to cities, to country living. Even though your teenager may have a preference on their type of host family/community, it is important to be open and accepting of whomever the host family turns out to be.

 “When my daughter received her host family information, there was both a sense of relief and many questions. As the youngest child in our family, she would now be the big sister to 7 and 8 year old girls. […] Instead of focusing on the fact that there were no teenagers in her host family, we focused on the positive: how she would get to be the cool older sister. And this turned out to be true!” – Jean Pierce, Cary, IL 

One of the common challenges, exchange students face is coping with the difference between the expectations they have developed and what the experience turns out to be. While it is natural, for teenagers, and even families, to develop expectations of the home that they will soon be living in, their new community, new friends, etc., it is important to resist idealizing the experience.

These communications are designed for your learning opportunity and we hope to hear from you! You can start right now by leaving a comment with your answer to the following question:

What resources have you and your teenager found helpful in preparing for their exchange experience?

Have specific questions regarding logistical information (travel, visas, tuition, health insurance, etc.) please contact your Admissions Counselor at admissions@yfu.org or 1.800.TEENAGE.