Starting a U.S.-China Exchange Program

This section is for educators seeking guidance on how to launch a K-12 US-China exchange program.  If you have any questions, submit a question via our portal.

  1. Finding a Program Chair

Once the decision is made to establish a new U.S.-China exchange program, the first step should be to select a program chair. The chairperson should not run the exchange program alone, but s/he enlists the support of others committed to its success, including school administrators, teachers, staff, and members of the community at large. It is beneficial if the chairperson speaks Mandarin, but it is not essential. The chairperson, however, should have a passion for China and be committed to the growth and stability of the program.

The chairperson will wear many hats during the course of the program and is, at times, a teacher, a finance manager, administrator, diplomat and salesperson, but always an educator. Whoever is selected must be competent in all of these aspects of the job.

As a finance manager, the chairperson should have the pulse of the program, monitoring its fiscal health and ensuring that fees from participants cover the basic costs of the program. As an administrator, the chairperson works with the steering committee and enlists volunteers to help the chairperson run the program. At times, the chairperson may need to cooperate with and negotiate with the partner school. As a diplomat, it will be necessary to navigate the layers of authority and cultural nuances in negotiating requests. Diplomacy may also be necessary at times in encounters with parents and participants. Participation in a program half-way around the world in a very different culture can be a daunting prospect, and some parents and students alike, may be apprehensive or overly zealous. When such situations develop or when recruiting future participants, the chairperson may feel like a salesperson as well as a diplomat. As a marketer and educator of the program, the chairperson conveys the importance of the program on the lives of individual participants and for the community at large; highlights what is involved in a mutual (and equal) exchange; and extols benefits of such an exchange.


  1. Setting Up a Steering Committee

At the core of the program chair’s supporters is the program steering committee. A steering committee helps the chairperson execute the steps and tasks necessary in establishing and running an exchange program. The initial committee may consist of just a few individuals, but should be guided by the chairperson who plans the agenda and conducts meetings. The committee members can then discuss the advantages and disadvantages of establishing an exchange, the time commitment necessary to promote and sustain the exchange, and the financial realities of maintaining such an exchange.

Once an exchange program is established, new steering committee members should include past participants of the exchange. This ensures an ongoing supply of committee members with first hand, up-to-date knowledge of the situation in the other country. Once a steering committee has become established and is large enough, an advisory committee consisting of a core group of three to five people may be formed to help counsel the chairperson when issues arise that require some discussion, and especially when situations or problems occur between steering committee meetings. The steering committee should also create subcommittees to handle tasks such as fundraising, establishing/managing budgets, recruiting teachers, students, and host families, and planning events and outings for the visitors.



  1. Deciding on the Program Structure

During these early stages, the chairperson, in consultation with the steering committee and other program supporters, must decide on a program structure. There are many options for the specific model of an exchange program. Programs can span just two weeks in which one week is spent in the Chinese sister school and the other week in travel in China. At the other end of the spectrum, a program can encompass a full semester, which is perhaps the most meaningful model, because it ensures students’ full immersion in the language.

Programs may consist of as few as three students and as many as ten students, the number depending upon the size of the pool of interested participants, and its capacity to host students from abroad, and either one or two chaperone teachers. All participants live with host families and attend classes with their host siblings. Generally, the Chinese visitors attend the American school sometime in the fall semester. This ensures that the visitors can sample one or more of the fall and winter holidays. This scenario also serves to enlist their help in preparing the American exchange group with oral language and cultural differences they may encounter. Visiting in the fall also ensures that the Chinese will return to China in time for their much venerated Lunar New Year festivities. The American exchange teachers and students visit China at the beginning of spring semester where they may experience the Lunar New Year, one of the other spring holidays such as Tomb Sweeping, or the May holiday of Labor Day.

Obviously in any exchange program, there are two partners. All of the major decisions for the new program must be made in consultation with counterparts from the Chinese sister school. It is helpful, but not absolutely necessary, for the administrator of the U.S. and China schools visit each other to become familiar with each of the partner school’s physical layout and each other’s perspective. The administration of the American school will negotiate an MOU1 with the sister school. Some of the necessary components included in the MOU are: length and type of exchange, dates and timing, number of teacher and student participants, expectations and responsibilities of participants, and expenses.



  1. Providing Orientations

It is helpful to recruit teachers and students at least a semester or two before departure. This provides time for the committee to prepare the U.S. exchange participants, and the students’ parents, for cultural differences and expectations. It also gives the group time to bond as a team.

For teachers: Interest is best generated through presentations at staff meetings, highlighting the benefits for teachers, students and school community. There should be an application process that includes essay questions, references and an interview by a subcommittee of the steering committee. Successful applicants should convey a sense of adventure and curiosity, flexibility, and patience. They should have the ability to cooperate and work well with others, possess an open mind, and demonstrate the ability to use common sense, as reflected in their work, references and interview.

For students: Once the decision is made about what qualifications and prerequisites are required, informational sessions in language classes, notices sent to all teachers and students, and articles in the school newsletter or paper are all effective ways to begin recruitment. Teachers, guidance counselors and committee members may also approach students who may be good candidates for the experience. The student application process should include references from a teacher, counselor and a third person who knows the student well, but is not a family member. In addition to a good academic record and potential language proficiency, successful applicants should be able to articulate the reason for their interest, possess strong interpersonal skills, display flexibility, common sense and maturity, be open-minded and patient, and have a good sense of personal responsibility. Because students will serve as ambassadors for their school and country, these qualities are essential. Prior Mandarin knowledge is beneficial, but not essential (except for exchanges with lengthy stays abroad).

For host families: Every exchange participant should host, if possible, as this augments the exchange experience and strengthens the person-to-person relationships. However, when a mutual hosting arrangement is genuinely not possible, potential host families may be recruited through the school community and PTO, as well as through church and civic organizations in the community. Host families with teenagers enrolled in the school system are ideal but not essential. Families with young children also make very successful host families, because the visiting students are not as self-conscious when first adjusting to the speed and complexities of the American language. It may also be a novel experience for the exchange participant to act as a big sister or brother, especially if the exchange participant is an only child from China.

Selected host families receive no stipend or compensation for hosting, but should have a genuine interest in cultural exchange, and in learning about the customs, culture and life of the exchange participant. In return, the host families should share their life, cultural heritage, American customs, significant events, and family traditions with the exchange participant. Host families should provide a separate bedroom (same gender, shared bedroom with separate bed is permissible) and meals other than lunch during school days, and treat the exchange participant as a member of their family. All host families must file host family information forms including references, a CORI3 for all adults in the household, and undergo a home inspection by the chairperson or committee member.


  1. Coordinating Community Involvement

Community involvement begins with the steering committee. It includes involving members of the school community, as well as the broader community (e.g., politicians, businesses, community groups, etc.). Everyone can benefit, everyone can help. Involving the community-at-large insulates the exchange program from the criticism of demanding many resources for the benefit of a handful of students and teachers.


  1. Managing Program Costs

A U.S.-China school exchange program is not expensive, because most of the costs are assumed by families of student participants. With regard to the U.S. school district, the committee should be knowledgeable about the available resources of the district they represent. Initial expenses for the school district may be the costs of administrator travel to establish the relationship. Major financial obligations of the exchange program are generally: the salary for the substitute teacher while the teacher exchange participant is abroad, airfare and visa for the exchange teacher, the lunches for the Chinese visitors while attending school, and perhaps some local outings for the visitors. Scholarships for students unable to participate should be factored into the planning and costs.

Host families cover room and board for participants, and American exchange students cover their own costs for airfare, visas, and summer language institute. There are limited expenses for the exchange program: costs of a reception, and perhaps some local sightseeing when the visitors are here, but with community support, fundraisers can cover these costs.

The U.S. Government would like to see an increase in the number of U.S. students sent abroad, and, to that end, has articulated a goal of sending 100,000 students to China.  Yet this effort is not funded. School systems must secure funding on their own. Possible sources of funding are PTOs (PTAs), fundraisers, non-profit foundations, businesses, and international business organizations such as Rotary Club. Parent Teacher Organizations can be very supportive and could supply the funds necessary for partner participant lunches or local excursions. Fundraising theme dinners, which include highlights and value of an exchange program, can be very successful. After the first exchange, including alumni student participants as speakers (or having participants create a PowerPoint or video of their experience) can provide tangible evidence of the efficacy of the exchange program. Non-profits that focus on intercultural understanding may be another source, as well as local businesses or corporations that may wish to help sponsor a formal group gift, or sponsor a teacher by providing airfare.


  1. Collaborating with Chinese Counterparts

The chairperson should be in regular communication with his/her counterpart at the partner school. As the program develops, the chairperson may need to review mutual goals and expectations. To this end, an understanding of cultural norms and etiquette is essential for building trust.


  1. Overseeing the Visa Process

For U.S. participants, obtaining a visa to visit China is a fairly straightforward process. For exchanges of less than eight weeks, only a tourist visa is necessary, and the process usually takes two weeks. Visa applications for China may be downloaded from the Chinese Embassy website or obtained from a travel agent. The four-page application, passport-ready photo, original passport and the visa fee may be taken to the Chinese Embassy in New York City in person, or the exchange program may utilize a travel agent. Any travel agent experienced in travel to Asia can help the chairperson navigate the application process.

An exchange longer than eight weeks requires a special J-1 visa instead of a standard tourist visa. The State Department’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) operating under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, acts as the clearinghouse and overseer for all exchanges from abroad and acts as a bridge for government organizations such as Homeland Security. The State Department manages the J-1 visitor program and utilizes the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to record, track and monitor all exchange programs and information while exchange participants are in the United States. For the Chinese exchange participants, obtaining a visa from the U.S. Embassy is a two-step process involving a first request for a visa and a subsequent personal interview. This visa application process can take up to two months or longer.


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