Last year about this time, our family decided to host Daniel of Lebanon. Daniel, awarded the prestigious Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange Study (KLYES) scholarship, wrote in his letter to his future host family that he had dreams of becoming a civil engineer, loved soccer, scouting, swimming and video games. We had never spent a great deal of time with anyone from Lebanon, but knew we loved Lebanese food and wanted to learn more about this beautiful little country. Daniel could serve as our ambassador!
And then….. COVID-19.
I can’t even begin to describe the chaos and stress that a global pandemic launched on international exchange students, host families, and organizations. Cancelled flights, closed borders, anxious families and students, school closures, J-1 Visa restrictions requiring students to be engaged with in-person instruction when there wasn’t any, fear, confusing directives from State leaders, a lack of testing, isolation, and a continued stream of bad news followed by worse news filled each and every day. This was the experience of the 2019-2020 exchange students as their academic year came to a close. It was heartbreaking, uncertain, and filled with anxiety.
As stressful and dire as all of that sounds, March-June also brought a time of tremendous support, encouragement, love, compassion, and collaboration between people from all over the world. Collectively, this global village of exchange leaders, hosts, and government officials worked to get kids home, encourage them while they waited for travel, and reassured the safety and well-being of everyone. It brings tears to my eyes every time I think of how the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” was brought to life day after day after day. If there was ever an argument presented regarding why we need to bring the world together, this experience provided all the evidence ever needed.
Despite the realities of a pandemic summer, Daniel remained hopeful he would travel in August to begin his exchange year. There is nothing like the optimism of youth to drive you out of doom and gloom, so our family and Daniel set up a Zoom meeting in July. We showed him around our house. We introduced him to our dog. We talked about the high school, and the classes and activities that would await him once he arrived. We carefully discussed the chance that travel might be delayed or cancelled, but he remained optimistic; the wonder, magic, and resilience of youth. Throughout the summer, we stayed in touch via social media and email, virtually introduced ourselves to his parents, and shared regular updates regarding the pandemic and other global news as it transpired.
Too soon, the exchange travel for August was shifted to January. Our high school principal confirmed a late arrival was fine, and I began texting Daniel photos of our neighborhood trees changing color, described our obsession with pumpkins, and even made a short “movie trailer” thanks to I-Movie, highlighting USA Halloween decorations and traditions. He was determined to keep moving forward with the exchange experience and I didn’t want him to miss any of the special moments of Fall.
By early October, we were asked to virtually host a girl from Bahrain, and another from Indonesia, in addition to Daniel. The exchange program wanted the students, still scheduled for a January arrival in their host communities, to be connected virtually with seasoned host families to get them ready for their trip. Even though we hadn’t met in person, this provided our family the opportunity to share our experiences with Halloween, voting, the controversy over the Presidential election, our ever-changing COVID life in the USA, my journey to pick up my daughter from college in NC, and the details of a socially-distanced Thanksgiving with future young leaders across the world.
The FLEX and KLYES program administrators asked that we find an American teen volunteer to serve as a cultural ambassador to each exchange student. The girls in our little circle and their new American girlfriends embraced their virtual friendship full throttle by creating group chats on Instagram, video and voice chatting through WhatsApp, and making short videos to tour their respective COVID high school experiences. Their creativity and commitment to forging meaningful friendships were, and continue to be, truly inspiring.
Near the end of October, the final word came from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that the virtual exchange would continue through the remainder of the school year. It was very disappointing for the students who worked hard to earn their scholarships, but student safety was more important than travel, and like many experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to pivot. This meant that the student scholarship would include virtual enhancement activities, essay contests, and building relationships with host families and friends, but doing so as they attended school and lived in their home countries. Creativity, patience and imagination were needed to make this all work, but these young leaders were up for the challenge and continue to be.
Virtual exchanges bring with them unique challenges like time zone differences, bad or unreliable WIFI access, and chronically having to switch from one language to another, but these amazing young leaders are making the most of a difficult situation. They are coming together across continents and global pandemics, sharing, learning, and building friendships. As host families and Coordinators of the exchange experience, we are hopeful to meet in real life, some way, in the future. We are optimistic and encouraged because we have met the challenges of managing the uncertainty of life in a global pandemic and are wiser and kinder because of it.
If you would like to learn more about hosting an exchange student with Academic Year in America, please visit our website. Thanks to vaccines and restored global health, students will be arriving in August for a more traditional exchange year for the 2021-2022 school year.