This article is intended for people who are running a “DIY” two-way exchange in which a school’s language teacher/coordinator is handling all of the arrangements and logistics, rather than those who have partnered with an educational tour company to manage the process. If you are running a DIY one-way program, there may still be information here that you will find useful.
While every program has its own specific structure, my hope is that sharing a road map of the planning process for our exchange program (between the Gig Harbor and Peninsula High Schools in the Peninsula School District of Washington State and the Mudanjiang No. 1 High School in Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang Province) may help other programs get off the ground smoothly.
The planning and timeline below is for a one-month long two-way exchange program. Chinese students (usually between four and seven) arrive and stay in the U.S. for a two-week homestay with their American partners. Immediately following this, the entire group travels back to China, and American students stay for two weeks in their Chinese partners’ homes. Finally, the American students and I end the trip with four to five days on our own in Beijing.
Our program has a very simple financial arrangement. Each side is responsible for their own airfare and visas. On our side, the families equally share the cost of my plane ticket and visa, as well as the hotel in Beijing. All of the hosting expenses are born by the host school and/or families. If either side wants to extend their trip by visiting other cities (for example, our time in Beijing), the traveling side is responsible for the additional expense.
September to October
Outreach and Student Selection
Soon after the school year begins, our partner school and I begin publicizing the program and selecting the students who will participate. You may want to hold informational meetings for interested families, invite former participants to present in your classes, and/or provide links to videos or other online information about your program. As you move toward selecting your students, there are several factors to consider. On the American side, we allow students who have just completed their sophomore, junior, or senior years to apply. Because we focus on language as well as cultural immersion, however, we limit the program to students who have completed at least their second year of language study. (The Chinese students speak primarily in English while they are here, and we speak primarily in Chinese while we are in China.) Depending on the size of your program, this may mean that you draw from a relatively small pool of students. In our case, this means the pool of possible participants is only about 60 students.
In contrast, all of the students at your partner school in China will be studying English, so language study does not limit eligibility in your program. However, the students’ year in school is a limiting factor. Our partner school only accepts students who are between their first and second years of high school because during the summer after their second year, most Chinese students are already focused on preparing for the college entrance exam and can’t afford the time required for an exchange program. Nonetheless, the pool of potential candidates is still enormous. With a total school population of over 5,000 students, almost 1,700 students are between their sophomore and junior years. We match each American student with a Chinese partner, so the dramatically smaller pool size on the U.S. side means that I need to select my students first. The Chinese side then limits their selection to match the students I have accepted. For example, if I select three girls and four boys, the Chinese side will limit their group to three girls and four boys as well (girls matched with girls, boys with boys).
I look for students who are serious about studying Chinese, very curious about Chinese culture, academically strong overall, and extremely responsible. Furthermore, they need to be polite, have a positive attitude, and work well with others. Because we have a homestay-based program, we also need students who have stable and healthy family situations. This does not mean that they have to have “traditional” families, but their families do need to be enthusiastic about hosting and able to provide excellent temporary homes for the Chinese students. Limiting the program to Chinese 2 students and beyond means that I typically have a good understanding of the students and their family situations, and I can make judgment calls about the individual applicants accordingly.
November to December
Once we have finalized the student groups, my colleague at our partner school and I exchange information about each family. We share the occupations of the parents, the number and gender of any siblings, whether the family has pets (and any pet allergies), what the student’s primary hobbies are, whether the home is on the quieter side or more boisterous, a little about each student’s personality and proficiency in their non-native language, and whether there are any special circumstances (a single-parent home or special food needs, for example). Once we’ve shared this information via email, we hold a Skype session in which we hash out who we think should be matched with whom. Here, we hope that serendipity will step in and help us make good choices!
Initial Contact with Travel Agency
Around this same time, I contact our travel agency to let them know that we plan to run the exchange program in the summer and to give them a rough estimate of dates.
Learn about how this planning process continues in the second semester of the school year in Part II of this article.