International Exchange Students Threatened by Higher Living Costs

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Increases in gas and food prices, combined with a sluggish U.S. economy, have decreased the number of American families volunteering to host an international high school exchange student. Youth For Understanding USA, a leading exchange organization for high school students, is concerned about less American families willing to host international students this summer. This decrease will result in fewer Americans engaging directly in citizen diplomacy through international exchange and will decrease opportunities for international students to attend U.S. high schools and learn about the United States.

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At first, I thought the hardest thing we did was decide to host an exchange student

As American families have been impacted by recent increases in gas and food prices, household budgets have become tighter. Financial concerns, combined with a sluggish U.S. economy, have decreased the number of American families volunteering to host an international high school exchange student.

Stanley Colvin, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U. S. Department of State, in a recent notice, acknowledged, "Recruiting host families in a changing American social environment is a major challenge." Yet he underscored the importance of American involvement in homestay programs. "Secondary school student exchange programs have been a part of U.S. diplomacy efforts since 1949. These programs promote mutual understanding by providing foreign students the opportunity to study in American high schools while living with an American family. Not only are the students transformed by these experiences, so, too, are their friends, families and teachers back home."

Because of the increased expense associated with welcoming a foreign teenager, some families have had to rethink their ability to host. International exchange organizations, such as Youth For Understanding USA (YFU), are feeling the consequences. "We are seeing the need to approach and ask more families to host in order to place all of our inbound students," explains Michael Finnell, President of Youth For Understanding USA. YFU has been administering international homestay exchange programs for high school students since 1951. YFU continues to seek host families for students arriving in the United States in August.

The decline in willing host families numbers could jeopardize U.S. relations with the world, which are facilitated by cultural exchange programs. Each year, more than 30,000 of students from foreign countries visit the United States on a high school J-1 visa. The vast majority of these students rely on American families volunteering to offer a place to live and meals during the exchange year. Exchange programs have long been a popular option for many Americans to engage directly in citizen diplomacy

Michael Finnell of YFU is aware of the commitment made by host families. "It is an exceptional and generous act for a family to take in and welcome a son or daughter from another country. They are building bridges of understanding and making a person-to-person connection with a different country and a different culture."

Despite the increased costs to host, Pam and John Nashtock in Cynthiana, Kentucky felt the rewards far outweighed the expenses welcoming Yilin from China for the 2007-08 academic year. "At first, I thought the hardest thing we did was decide to host an exchange student," said Pam. "But in reality, the hardest thing was saying goodbye to Yilin when she returned to China after her year. Her presence in our home was a much greater asset than the costs to us to host her."

Non-profit exchange organizations such as YFU depend on the American characteristics of generosity and hospitality to welcome international students, and hope that the current state of the economy won't force the United States to roll up its welcome mat.

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