As someone who has worked with foreign students and as part of a foreign exchange program, I have a good appreciation of how incredibly difficult it is for a sponsor to find good host families for international students coming to the United States. In fact, housing matters are generally the most challenging problems that students and sponsors encounter.
On July 15 CNN online news published an article entitled “Exchange students live American nightmare,” describing grievances of a number of foreign high school exchange students in Pennsylvania. These students had come to the United States through the sponsorship of ASPECT Foundation, which is based in San Francisco. Some of these students were on State Department grants. The grievances centered on the conditions of their homestays and housing situations.
ASPECT Foundation is not alone in having difficulties finding acceptable host families for their students. (See this story for details of similar problems involving USA, Inc.) Still, I am not making excuses for ASPECT Foundation. A foreign teenager's high school experience in the United States consists of two principal parts, the experience in the school and the experience the student has with his/her host family. Anybody with children would agree that the source of emotional and moral support for teenagers is the family. A host family in an exchange program such as that sponsored by ASPECT Foundation and many other organizations, by agreeing to take in a foreign student, is also agreeing to offer the support that the teenager needs in the new environment.
Put another way, the host family is agreeing to become the student's surrogate family for the duration of the student's stay. But as we know, some people do not hold to agreements they make, or they take their responsibilities very lightly. There is no excuse for a family not feeding their exchange student properly, or for not providing adequate warmth or other comfort. In the same way, there is no excuse for a sponsoring organization bringing a student to this country and not having a family ready to take the student in upon the student's arrival. Exchange programs are a business, and in business you do all you possibly can to make things work, and make your client happy, even if means having to do quite a bit of extra hard work.

By and large, of the tens of thousands of foreign students who come to the United States every year, most have good experiences that they will cherish for the rest of their lives. But it is, or should be, the responsibility of the sponsoring organization to monitor its students throughout the school year and make sure that ALL of its students are having good experiences. There may be a tendency for some of these organizations, once their students are settled in the fall, to give them less attention as they begin to focus on recruiting next year’s bunch of exchange students.

The keys to seeing that such bad experiences do not occur again are: 1) More State Department oversight of students’ ongoing experiences, and not just the process of placing students; 2) Sponsoring organizations need to put more resources into recruiting, training, and tracking host families; and 3) If a sponsoring organization cannot guarantee a student the best experience, which includes placement from the student’s day of arrival in the United States, then the sponsoring organization needs to be open about this and warn the student and her family before the student leaves her home country.

Again, there is no excuse for young students having to endure such poor conditions. Generally, if they had higher expectations, those expectations were heightened to some degree by the sponsoring organization and/or an agent representing the student in her country.

Finally, I have to add that I heard such a story about twenty years ago. In this case, it was a young French woman spending a year in Britain. Her host family fed her poorly and did not keep the home warm during the winter. But this comment is not meant to say anything about the British as hosts of young foreign students. It is meant to show that this is not just an American problem. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of British host families, like the vast majority of American host families, are very caring toward the exchange students they take in. But when there is a problem with a student’s experience in a host family, the matter needs to be dealt with resolutely so as to assure that the student will finish the year with good memories. Being put up in in a hotel for a month before finally being placed in a host family does not seem to be good management of a problem, and does not produce good memories for a fifteen-year-old in a foreign country.