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Stop feeding the beast

Recent shooting reveals a flawed exchange system

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A few weeks ago, I received an email from a German cousin I hadn’t heard from in years. Did I know someone interested in hosting her teenage daughter as an exchange student? I’ve fielded numerous such inquiries since moving to Missoula. Until the day a German kid was shot in a garage near his host family’s home.

Diren Dede’s death has hurt Missoulians in more ways than he could have imagined. It traumatized his classmates. It provoked spats about gun laws. It also scratched our mirror, where we like to see a hospitable, global-minded community.

In the future, will Germans shun Missoula when they are sending their sons and daughters to high school in the U.S.?

Missoula Independent news

As matters stand, it would only make sense if they did.

The truth is, Missoula isn’t all that great a destination for foreign high school students in the first place. I can tell, because I hosted one myself last fall.

Up until a year ago, when German parents asked me about Missoula, I’d describe a vibrant city with little traffic and intimate schools. Teenagers could be safely independent here, I argued, instead of having to rely on a mom shuttling them around the suburbs. Thus the typical delusion of an adult without kids.

Simone, my 16-year-old host daughter from Berlin, rode her bike to school, quickly improved her English and never got into trouble.

She was also bored out of her mind.

She loved music—she joined the Hellgate High wind ensemble—but outside of school, she wasn’t allowed to enjoy the city’s music scene. In Berlin, she’d go clubbing with her friends on weekends. In Missoula, she could choose between hanging out at someone’s house or a shopping trip to the mall.

Lucky for her and me, she met a lovely boy. But that only meant she was starting to trespass. Exchange organizations impose strict rules. No driving. No alcohol. No sex. No tattoos. Apart from sports, most aspects of American youth culture are off-limits to exchange students. In some respects, this didn’t bother Simone; she simply isn’t the type who likes to get drunk.

Through her boyfriend, she met a lovely American family. They liked Simone and became interested in hosting an exchange student themselves. With this, they joined a tiny group of Missoulans, among them Diren Dede’s gracious host parents. They are the exception, not the rule.

Across the U.S., and that includes Missoula, host families are ever more difficult to come by—in part because we increasingly value our comfort zones, but also because of the mad inequity of a system mandated by the State Department.

Germany sends more kids to the U.S. under the J-1 visa program than any other country. It’s a coming-of-age ritual for the middle class as well as a way to become fluent in English, a prerequisite for a successful European career. Look at the stats, however, and you’ll see the number of German participants curve down.

Simone’s parents forked over a fee of $8,300 for her semester in Missoula, not counting travel, insurance or spending allowance. In case you’ve wondered, the host family doesn’t see a penny. Oddly, the local schools don’t, either.

With their fees, Germans subsidize an industry of nonprofit organizations on both sides of the Atlantic that use the bulk of the money for remote supervision, administration and glossy brochures distributed at study-abroad fairs.

The exchange program industry is a beast that feeds itself.

Locally, dedicated mentors and scantly paid coordinators make sure students enjoy the experience they came—and paid—for.

To the public high schools, the foreign students sometimes prove to be assets, not least when they’re gifted athletes. Other times, they irritate teachers who resent that they neglect their homework. The kids don’t get credit for it back home.

It’s a haphazard, half-hearted and antiquated approach. School districts around the country are pioneering an alternative system, using the F-1 visa administered through the Department of Homeland Security.

“They embrace international students in ways to supplement and increase the diversity in their communities,” says Chris Page, executive director of CSIET, an organization that evaluates exchange programs.

The F-1 visa not only allows schools to tailor their own program—think foreign students in Montana learning about gun laws, rather than being informed by a leaflet that “appearance, in general, is important to the individual American.” More importantly, under the F-1 system, public schools get to charge tuition—anything between what they ask of out-of-district students (in Missoula: $1,311 per school year) and an amount calculated by dividing public expenditure by the number of K-12 students (Montana: $10,536 per year). To participate, a school district needs to get certified with Homeland Security. Missoula Public Schools, however, has let its certification lapse.

At last count, Montana hosted 257 foreign high school students, a nine-year low. A pitiful 20 Montana high school students spent a year abroad.

My cousin has yet to follow up on her inquiry.

If Missoulians want to prove themselves open to international exchanges, donning ribbons with German colors might not be good enough.

Henriette Löwisch is a professor at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. She hails from Berlin and has been covering the Dede case for German media organizations.

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