Introduction: Going As a Foreign Exchange Student
The kid is away for the summer in Hamburg, Germany. She was accepted into a special summer program run by AFS (American Field Service) which does long and short foreign exchange student programs. A couple of her other classmates were selected to go on different summer programs (Students Shoulder to Shoulder) for travel domestic and abroad. There are even US Government sponsored programs where they send you abroad as a foreign exchange student to learn a needed language. This is my adventure in helping them get out the door.
I will just lump my observations but all programs will be different. There might be a few more instructables on other aspects of the programs but I can't write them until she gets back at the end of the summer.
What I will cover is stuff that any concerned parent should be concerned about. I only say that because I know of many kids that are from immigrant families where the parents do not speak English well. The onus seems to be on the kids to translate and interpret what needs to be done. A lot is lost in translation.
To be a foreign exchange student, for any length, is a great opportunity to learn about other cultures and a real boost for personal growth and development. Because these kids were involved with after school community service organizations, they received scholarships to attend these special programs abroad. Normally, these programs can be expensive so it was indeed a gift that we couldn't refuse. It's pretty competitive in the fundraising world so we were spared the uncertainty of crowdfunding appeals.
Note that these programs are designed in mind to have in addition to the language and cultural exchange component, one of community service. Besides learning the local culture, you are also contributing in some way to the local health or welfare. You may be involved with projects to help improve the local ecology. When you come home you practice what you learn hoping to improve the global environment as a whole.
Step 1: A Simple Yes or No...
First, there is the commitment. It's the scary should she go or should she stay now. Let go and use the force.
Some members of her "brat pack" could not go. I do not question the other parents decisions but here is my point of view. I see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to really experience a different culture. Being Chinese, she was already exposed to Asian culture and will most likely in the future be drawn to visit Asian countries first to experience more. I think having Germany as the host country is so completely on the other end of the spectrum and out of the comfort zone that is will be a worthwhile experience. We have never been to Europe so it would be so cool to be on the other side of the pond and then some. New York City is a culturally diverse place but unless you are really fighting with your neighbors, you really don't go in depth in learning about their culture, it's just detente.
Step 2: Where in the World?
Now that the general location of where you are going to is selected or offered to you...
Yaaaaaaay! Where? A bunch of people to Germany. Someone to Thailand. One to Bolivia. One to Costa Rica. One to Detroit. :) :o :O Ah, Europe. Asia. Hmm, the jungle. Lastly, Oh cr...crime is way worse over there, ain't that a third world country?...'Merica!
So this is where the misconceptions start and having preconceived notions. All part of learning about different cultures on a global scale. What do you say now about sending your kid away?
Many things come to mind. 1. Is it safe? 2. Is it safe yet? 3. Have your kids ever had an extended stay away from home? 4. Are you a parent that cannot bear to be separated from their kid? 4. Do you trust your kid to be out on their own? 5. Do you trust the people that your kid will be spending time with?
Note that these organizations have been established for many years and have developed these programs to ensure a meaningful and safe experience for your child. If you do not have first hand accounts from those that have been through the programs before or solid recommendations from others, you can look up prior experiences on the internet. Sure, some may be sales pitchy but I think you can tell which are from the heart. Ready to go?
Step 3: Flagbearer...
The general expectation when you go on these programs, especially abroad, is that you are an ambassador of you, your own culture, the organization and your home country. You are a spokesperson for all so don't do anything to embarrass yourself.
No Drugs. No Drinking. No Driving. No Hitchhiking.
You are sent as a representative of your home culture to learn about another and foster a greater understanding between both through participation.
For many, this will be the first time out of the city, the first time on a plane, the first time away from home. If the living accommodations are a dorm type or with a host family, this may be the first time living with strangers. If for an extended length of time, they might experience homesickness.
For a totally immersive experience during the program, contact with the home family and friends is actually discouraged. It seems to distract from really getting into the mode of using a different language and being as one with the new culture. Cell phone coverage is pretty spotty in the jungle. Do not expect easily accessible wi-fi or internet in other parts of the world. One program actually impounds your cellphone for the duration of the trip.
I guess I will expect a postcard delivered by hand when she gets back. See ya when I see ya.
Step 4: Paperwork and More Paperwork...
Similar to applying for college, there are a lot of forms to fill out. It helps to have previously worked on a resume, written a lot of essays, and thought about goals in life. The application is a snapshot of you and your character. It is used to match up with a suitable host family.
Since the organization is "taking care" of the minor child for the trip, they need legal authority to act on the parent's behalf. You need to provide necessary supporting official documentation(death certificate, custody agreements, notarized statements) in cases where the two parents cannot sign off together. Those travel regulations were put in place to prevent child abductions so it's all good.
Here are some things to get started on immediately in preparation for the trip:
Have passports ready. There may be a local application center where you can apply for a passport and get passport photos taken there. There are fees and you get it back in the mail within a few weeks. I don't know if the expedited fee really speeds things up. The US passport cards are not for international air travel so it may not be worth the extra fee if you have no need for it.
Depending on where you are going and for what length of time, application for an additional visa may be necessary. A passport is required to apply for the visa.
Step 5: What's Up, Doc?
Like applications for any activity camp, you will need a medical statement to certify you are in good physical and mental health. It is also to disclose any conditions that accommodations must be made for or to be aware of if any treatment is necessary when away.
You need to provide your health insurance coverage information. Some programs do provide secondary health insurance for emergency situations.
To get the health statement filled out usually requires a full checkup by the doctor. That way the doctor can apply a battery of tests ...and bill for them. Some routine tests are done at outside labs so there is a wait for the results to get back to the doctor causing more delay.
One important thing is getting all the necessary immunizations up to date. The record of all your shots has to be transcribed onto the application by the doctor's office. Depending on the country to visit, there are some required shots. Look at the Health Department or CDC lists of recommended and required shots for travel to your destination. Your doctor might need time to order the vaccines and may not be aware of what shots are needed.
If you are going anywhere near the Amazon rain forest, you need to get special shots and pills which you have to take for several days for malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, rabies. Even in New York City there are only a few clinics that do yellow fever vaccinations and you are issued a card to show to the customs officials when you try to enter those countries which require it. These vaccinations and medicines are usually not covered by your regular health plan so expect to pay about $300 US out of pocket.
Have copies of your eyeglass prescription and any prescriptions of medications you may need to take along. Speaking of which, you can purchase prescription swim goggles online cheaply nowadays, nowhere near the cost of your regular prescription glasses. Like those reading glasses you see in the stores, you buy the goggles with lenses that closely match your prescription and customize to fit.
Step 6: Okay, on to the Regular Travel Stuff...
Teens will only think about being fashionable where they go. For kids that have never been out of the city, they think that sneakers will go anywhere. Yeah, they will do but if there are any long walks in the woods or working around the shore or riverbanks, you should be properly outfitted with hiking shoes at the least and trail sandals. For hilly, muddy or rocky terrain, high boots provide ankle support so you don't injure your foot stepping on uneven ground. If in the winter, get waterproof boots to repel the snow.
For those that have never experienced outside work in a hot damp humid environment, skinny jeans are not good. Cotton is not a quick drying material so pants should be of a thinner and synthetic mix of fibers. Rashes can develop from the chafing. Changing your socks often and keeping your feet dry or aired out is the best way to keep them happy. Having a hat and loose long sleeved clothing will keep you cool and hold the hot sun and bugs away. Apply sunscreen and bug repellant regularly.
The start of summer is when most retailers pull the boots off the shelves. You have to go to sports or camping stores to find something you like. And very few will stock the full 1-liter size water bottles you need to survive in the jungle. Only drink water from safe sources or has been treated.
Be open to any new foods to try. One program recommended to bring energy snack bars since food provided by the local diet would not be what we are used to.
Treat any bug bites and cuts/scratches promptly. Spider bites take a very long time to heal.
One interesting thing I learned is that clothing worn to Bolivia should be conservative. Sweatpants seem to be offensive. I guess play it safe with nothing flashy or items with no bold graphics or logos.
Keep the short shorts home.
Expect several trips to the outlet malls. Just because.
Step 7: It's All Fun and Games...
You will probably bring your smartphone if you have one. For that one time you may get to call home, it is probably better to just use a calling card on a local phone or set up Skype when you have internet access. Switching your phone for international service is expensive and purchasing a local SIM card to work may be a hassle.
Remember to put the phone in wifi or airplane mode once you get on the plane. You don't want ridiculous roaming charges to show up on your phone bill. Be prepared to go cold turkey on the internet.
Look closely at your power adapters and see if 110-240v is printed on it. That means the power adapter is good for the 110 volts that come out of the wall in the US and the 240 volts used in other countries. You may have to purchase a plug adapter to change the 2 flat blade prongs into what the host country uses. Otherwise, you will need to get a power converter which gets 240 volts from the wall and drops it down to 110 volts safe to use for your device.
Make a list of all your electronic equipment like your iphone and digital camera with model and serial numbers. I think you may need to declare that on a high value items form that you are bringing it along so you don't have to pay any duties on it when you go through customs.
Step 8: The Whole Kit and Kaboodle...
Know how much luggage you will be able to bring along. The limit was 44 lbs for one checked in luggage and 22 lbs for a carry on, stricter than the airlines but pack as much as you can comfortably carry. Airlines sometimes have a surprise fee for checked bags or if it exceeds allotted weight limits. In one program, the frame backpack is all your luggage. You will need to be able to hike with it to get to your camp. We affectionately call it an INCH bag (I'm Never Coming Home bag, bigger version of a Bug Out Bag). Other places you may need to haul your luggage onto crowded public transportation.
Rolling luggage with good wheels and an extendable handle is best for your piece of checked in luggage. It should be big enough to have room for anything you get abroad to bring back home. Hint: Dad wants to see if you can fit a Steinway in there.
You can download the TSA checklist for items that can be packed in the different pieces of luggage. Small bottles of insect repellent liquid or aerosol spray are considered toiletries so they can be packed in your checked bag. Usually, the carry on backpack should have your valuables, basic essentials and a change of clothes in case the checked luggage gets misdirected somewhere.
Get a small TSA approved combination lock for your luggage. The TSA has a master key to open it if they need to check the contents of the luggage. The combination lock is better so you don't have to keep track of a tiny key.
You can use your bathroom scale to weigh your packed bags. Stand on it to weigh yourself first. Then weigh it with you holding the piece of luggage. Subtract out your weight to get the weight of the luggage. This is known as taring out the weight of the scale and its components. We got an electronic luggage scale which is more convenient and you can pack it with you. They are a small handle with a hook or strap to hang on to the luggage handle. Pull up to get an instant reading. The old manual spring one we had was a little bit bigger with the dial indicator but that worked too.
In addition to putting on luggage tags, copy some contact information on a card to place inside the luggage. Decorate the outside with a piece of colored duct tape or a ribbon on the handle to easily find your bag among all the similar luggage at baggage claim.
This may be more common sense as a New Yorker but always be aware of your surroundings. Beware of pickpockets and theft. In these days, still have a heightened sense of awareness that you are an American tourist.
Get one of those small pouches that have a strap that can hang around your neck or can be used as a belt pack to keep your passport and identification secure. For the passport, get a holder that is also radio wave protective sleeve. Passports now have an RFID chip in there which identity theft can occur from someone nearby scanning that chip.
Step 9: Nickel and Dime...
Airlines charge for wifi service on board and most likely for any movies, headphones and use of the entertainment console. Don't expect more than a bag of peanuts and a small cup of soda. Ask for the full bottle of water or can of soda.
Bring your iphone fully charged up with any favorite apps, music, movies installed. Have a powerbank battery attachment or bring the power adapter with you to see if a seat outlet is available to plug into.
You may need to have some money in cash to use.
See if your local bank can exchange US currency into the host country's money. It might take a few days for them to special order it. There is a bank fee and they will charge less to exchange greater sums of money. If you have an account at the bank, you will have less fees than going to a money-exchange place at the airport or in tourist areas. Look up what the current exchange rate is on the open market and shop around who charges the smallest service fee.
You can get pre-paid credit cards for international use. If you are planning to use your regular credit or debit card, notify the bank that you will be traveling or else it may be locked out when it is used abroad. I think you can still get traveler's cheques but the cards may be a more convenient form.
Step 10: Boot Camp...
Each of the programs have several orientation sessions. It provides a forum to ask questions of past and current participants of the programs. This is also to get an idea of the travel coordination that needs to be done and see or meet who does what. As a parent, get on the email lists for all the notifications. You know how kids don't bring home the notices and flyers from school... Stay involved and read all the fine print on the forms and documents. Keep on top of deadlines.
These programs draw students from all around the country. They have to get to a designated hub or gateway city first to group together and embark on their adventure abroad. If you are not near or in the major gateway cities, usually Miami for South America destinations or New York City for Europe and Asia, you will need to coordinate the travel from the home town. That may require unaccompanied air travel without a chaperone for the minor to get to the gateway city. Alert the airlines to this when purchasing the tickets or checking in so they ensure a safe handoff or arrival at the destination. Use only the approved taxi stands or arranged car service to get to and from the airport.
It is important to get contact information, who to look for and instructions on where to go to join up with the group. Know what the the support channels are in case of emergencies or questions.
Step 11: I'm Leaving on a Jet Plane...
For the student, get a head start on learning about your host country's culture and reading up on current events. Check out the weather forecasts so you know what to expect and figure out what kind of clothes to pack. Start your travel blog or journal. Start using 24 hr military time. Read all dates backwards. Know the metric system...wait
Get an app to start learning the new language or watch some videos in a foreign language to get acclimated to the sounds. There may be different dialects that you will need to get accustomed to when you learn the language.
Get a foreign language dictionary and any books of interest on the host country. AAA member guidebooks, tour brochures and maps are good to discover the highlights of the the locale you are visiting. If you know where you will be living, get more localized maps to familiarize yourself with the adjoining areas. Explore a bit with online maps and hopefully there are some images or street view.
It is customary to bring a small gift to the host family. Usually it represents or depicts something from home country. Bring a taste of local flavor which could be a bottle of maple syrup or preserves. It could be anything from a T-shirt to a small trinket. We got a Monopoly game, the New York City Edition. Also, you can ask at any subway token booth for a free New York City subway map. It makes for a great icebreaker when you talk about it and point out where you live and its neighborhoods.
Depending on where you are going, there may be a big time difference. Know what jet lag is and minimize its effects as you get adjusted to the local time zone.
And the only thing to do now is watch the little bird fly the coop.
Step 12: UPDATE: Back Home
Went to pick her up at the airport. Apparently the group had all bonded well so expect long hugs and goodbyes.
I use this site to track incoming flights Gate information can change at the last minute. Set up phone text alerts to get notified when the plane departs and arrives or if there are any changes. Much better than the carrier airline's website itself.
Once back in the local area and having deplaned, the regular cell phone service should activate so that you get in contact.
Prior to the return day, you can also look online to reference terminal maps and directions to the parking available at the airport. Time your arrival at the airport so you can minimize the expensive short-term parking fees when you park the car in the lot.
Know exactly which airport the plane is going to. One person's relative that was picking up went to the wrong airport and the kid had to find their own way back. Newark is in New Jersey. LaGuardia in Queens, NY and JFK in Brooklyn, NY. We also have other smaller airports nearby.
Many airports now have a cellphone waiting parking lot where you can stop, park and wait for free. When the person is ready to be picked up, arrange for the person to be waiting outside the terminal and you just drive by from a few minutes away. Best spot is to have them wait outside at the end of the Departing Flights entrances outside the terminal building. It is the least crowded there and they don't shoo you away too quickly if the car is stopped outside.
It will take about a half hour to an hour after the plane lands for them to collect their luggage and go through customs. Declare anything even if you are not sure. Chocolate is a foodstuff that probably needs to passed by the agricultural import inspectors.
The walk through scanners are quite sensitive so remove small jewelry like necklaces or invite a pat-down by the TSA.
Those with other than full US passports will go through additional scrutiny and questioning. Expect those with US resident alien cards (green cards) to be questioned further. Just answer politely and no joking around.
At the airport, you will probably be waiting at the security entrance for international arrivals. It gets crowded. Make sure they know to stay put so you don't both wander around searching for each other.
There are official taxi stands or counters where you line up to get a real cab. They are expensive with fixed rates around $50. I don't think those licensed shuttle service vans are any cheaper and only go to one or two spots in town. Do not go with a random person offering a car ride.
If you had to go with public transportation from the airport to get home, it usually involves the airport train system, one or more buses and possibly several changes on subway trains. Try schlepping your heavy luggage on all that. Better choice is to go by car. Good thing I have a batmobile.
Anyway, once home the signs of jet lag will start to take effect. 6 hour time difference and the kids have been all hyper in preparation to come home. Confused, hungry and tired. Ears haven't popped yet from the plane ride. Eat. Go to sleep for the rest of day. Midnight snacks become breakfast.
Chat with friends or respond to their texts the next day. Slowly ease back into your former life. Start unplugging all the electricity vampire devices and notice that even the lo-flo water conserving toilets in the house are not as efficient as the ones in Germany.
Go grocery shopping to stock the fridge with stuff you now like to eat. Realize there is no quark or curry ketchup at the supermarket.
Unpack your bags. Size up all the summer homework assignments due the first day of school. Sigh...