Tips for the outbound exchange student

exchange flagsOne recent Saturday morning I woke early, my brain spinning. Jack had announced the day before his plan to take the bus to the ski hill. He hadn’t asked for help and I hadn’t offered. I hadn’t pulled his boots, gloves, hat, goggles and helmet out of the closet, checked to make sure his ski pass was securely attached to his coat, rifled through our medicine drawer to find the motion sickness medicine I’d have to insist he take. I didn’t make sure he had some cash on him for lunch, load his skis into the truck or roshambo with his father over who would give him a ride to the bus stop an hour before dawn.

I wasn’t going to do any of it, either. I looked at the clock, fluffed my pillow and lay my head back down. If the kid wanted to go skiing, now was about the time he needed to find out whether he could manage all by himself.

If you’ve been keeping up with us, you’ll know that we’re serial hosts of exchange students, and fairly involved in the Rotary International Youth Exchange program. It has long been our desire to send our own kids off on exchange eventually, if that’s what they wanted.

This past fall, Jack was accepted into the program.

I know precious little about Denmark, except as a backdrop for Hamlet, and something about breakfast pastries. Now, if all goes as planned, by this time next year my kid will be celebrating the holidays there.

He’ll be living with a family we know nothing about, becoming fluent in a language he’ll never use with us. Maybe he’ll get over his aversion to fish, get into the habit of hanging up his own coat, and do all kinds of growing up.

Crazier things have happened.

I’ve seen what it’s like for exchange students here, and had a tiniest taste of it myself. He’ll spend the better part of a year on display. He’ll be on all the time. He’ll have to paste a smile on his face when his head aches from trying to keep up with conversation in a foreign tongue. He’ll answer question after silly question about cowboys and potatoes and guns and the US presidential election.

His pending trip has me looking at him in a new light. He’s not a little kid anymore, and we shouldn’t be swooping in to fix things for him, or make his path easier. Pretty soon we won’t be able to. This moment came a lot faster than I thought, and it has me wondering if we’ve given him the tools he’ll need for next year.

In the meantime, I can always parse everything into a tidy list. That’s kind of my shtick, you know. So here you go …

Eight things I’d like my kid to remember while he’s on exchange:

  1. Attitude is everything. If you think you’re going to succeed, you will. If you think you’re eventually going to get along with everyone, make friends, and be able to ask directions to the restroom in Danish, it’ll happen. Approach every day as the day you’ll accomplish or experience something amazing, and you’ll be astonished how often you’re right.
  2. You are your own best advocate. You’ll be in the hands of very caring and well-trained adults throughout your exchange, but they are also volunteers who have families and jobs. You’re not top of mind for them. At some point you’re going to need something and it won’t be obvious to anyone but you. Maybe your counselor has never contacted you, or you haven’t received your stipend for the month. Speak up, and keep doing it until someone listens.
  3. You have the power to solve almost any problem. Say you’re in an airport and all the signs look like they’re in Dothraki or something. How do you know where to go? Look. Listen. Think. Ask. There is always a solution.
  4. Panic is your enemy. While you’re looking for that solution, breathe. Think. You can have a quiet, little melt down later when you’ve figured this moment out.
  5. Adventure doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” But it does mean growth. Embrace every opportunity to experience something new, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Even if you have to eat fish.
  6. You’ll be a better person for having been vulnerable. There will be people along the way who think you’re dim witted for not knowing the language, or the culture, or what fork to use, or that you’re not supposed to drink coffee with milk after noon. They will judge you based on all kinds of things not in your control and find you lacking. Remember how that feels and resolve to treat people with respect no matter the impression they give.
  7. The lows won’t last forever. Your exchange isn’t going to be one, long, ticker-tape parade. There will be moments when you’re depressed, homesick, lonely. These feelings pass. Probably faster than you expect. Take care of what you can – get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, be active. And then wait it out.
  8. Document everything. Some memories last a lifetime, others you’ll be happy to remind yourself of later. Take pictures, write words, collect mementos. They’re your gift to your future self.

This is what I’m doing as we bide our time waiting for that moment when we put our kid on an airplane by himself: thinking of things I need to tell him, and biting my tongue when he hasn’t asked for advice. We have every reason to believe things will go just fine.

After all, he did make it up the hill for his little, solo ski excursion. He did remember lunch money, his helmet and all his gear. He got a ride to the bus from his dad, and everything went just fine while I pretended to sleep in.

I’m going to take that as a good sign.


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  1. Wow, what a neat experience for your son! Denmark!??! That is so cool. I love all of your advice too. It\’s actually good stuff for all us muddling our way through life. 🙂 I hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

  2. This is so well written, Beth and I applaud your advice. I think it also applies in several ways to kids heading off to college. My two are home for the holidays and once again I am astounded by how they have matured and grown. Both are talking about spending time outside of Canada in the very near future and I am beyond excited for them. And a little bit sad for me, of course. I\’ll share this post with them.
    Kudos to you for staying in bed and pretending to sleep, too. I SO get that.

    1. Thank you, Kelly. It\’s amazing to me how one minute they need reminding to do the smallest things, and the next they\’re ready to take on the world. I\’m beyond excited for all of them, myself.

  3. Awww, I\’m a little late getting to this post of yours but I\’m so glad I did…well I\’m always glad I do. I find your writing witty and smart, and I\’m basically a groupie…so yeah. But you are a better woman than I for having put these rational thoughts in point form. You see, as I type this my 18 year old son (2nd oldest) is in Denver visiting a kid he met online gaming a few years ago. As opposed being wise and positive and pointing out what he will gain from this, I\’m all, \”I bet he\’s doing ecstacy. I bet he\’ll never come back. I bet he stays there because he likes the other kid\’s parents better because there is no bedtime…\” Well it\’s not like his bedtime is 7pm but I do expect lights out before daylight.
    And Danish pastries! ~fist bump~

    1. Thank you, Sandra! Actually, I have all those fears as well. Denmark has incredibly liberal views about teenage drinking and sexuality, so I\’m more than a little freaked out. But when he comes back, and made it through a successful year, he\’ll be in such a remarkable place.

      Every so often, I wake up at 4 am and can\’t stop thinking about actually putting him on a plane and expecting him to come home safe. He\’s not going until August, so I can be strong for now, and lose my shit later.

      And yes, pastries.