Blessed with sunny weather and crammed with many of America's big tourist attractions, Southern California is one of the favored locales for foreign exchange students coming to the United States.
But this region, including Orange County, is one of the toughest in which to recruit American families to house and feed them.
The result, they say, is a relatively sparse number of "home-stay" families in Orange County--disappointing for such a populous, affluent suburban area. Even so, exchange organizers say, more than 40 groups are out recruiting families here.
In 1987-88, only about 200 volunteer families hosted foreign high school students who were attending local public or private institutions for the full academic year, organizers estimate.
Locally, the school-year sponsors included such nationally known organizations as AFS International/Intercultural Programs (41 students), American Intercultural Student Exchange (40), ASSE International Student Exchange Programs (30), Youth for Understanding International Exchange (18), and Educational Foundation for Foreign Study (15).
Hundreds more have arrived or are arriving in Orange County for summer-only programs that focus on English-language training. Forty-two students from Sweden are being brought over by ASSE. The largest summer contingent--200--will come from Japan under auspices of the West Coast-based Cultural Homestay Institute.
Why the Orange County lag?
One reason is family economics. "We may be affluent, but families here are stressed-out, too busy climbing or trying to stay afloat," said ASSE president William Gustafson, whose headquarters are in Laguna Beach. "There's too many households now where both parents are working."
"It isn't just in Orange County," added Gustafson. "We're talking about similar affluent areas throughout California."
If not California, where are the best recruiting grounds for "home-stay" families?
"These are areas where there is still space, a less severe cost-of-living, and a small-town atmosphere where foreign students can still be fussed over," said Robert Persiko, acting director of the federal Office of Youth Exchange in Washington.
A recent study for the U.S. Information Agency, which monitors these school-affiliated home-stays, confirms this. In the 1987 survey of 24 agencies, the "Youth Exchange Homestay Study" found that California--Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area--and New York were the preferred areas of incoming students. But most recruiters praised Midwest areas as their top choices.
Actually, the question of area choice is academic when it comes to the students. Program officials say that area is not the chief criterion for placements. Attempts are made to "spread out" students throughout the 50 states.
The key, they say, is "family compatibility." While the majority of hosts are two-parent households with children, some of the most successful placements have also been with single parents, couples with no children and elderly persons, organizers say.
The American agencies serve countries in East and Southeast Asia and in Africa, as well as Western Europe and South America. Although the Soviet Union and China have participated in teacher and other adult exchanges, they are among the countries that have not yet sent students under these high-school residence programs.
Yet the USIA study has noted a disturbing counter-trend in the United States. Many agencies reported that a "growing resentment of foreign cultures" has hampered recruitment of host families, particularly over the growing number of Japanese exchange students. This is the result of mounting antagonism over economic competition from Japan, the study said.
Meanwhile, the American agencies say there has been a sizable increase in American-hosted stays for both academic-year and summer-only programs: from 20,000 to 35,000 in the past decade.
The number of major agencies in 1979 was only five, including the two nonprofit pioneers in the field--AFS (American Field Service) and Experiment in International Living. Today there are 25 major groups, many of them commercial ventures.
Altogether, the home-stay field nationally totals 150 to 200 organizations, including many that operate only locally.
This dramatic growth has raised concerns over whether the increased competition will dilute the quality of home-stay programs and confuse high-school officials who have to pick from a far larger number of agencies.
"We have had school officials who complained of (placement) organizations that they had never heard of," said Linda Reed, executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, a nonprofit body headquartered in Reston, Va.
This dilemma led to the issuing in 1985 of the first "advisory list" by the Council on Standards, which was formed by high-school teacher and administrator associations and by agencies in the field to set standards for home-stay and related programs.
Most schools now pick only those programs in the council's annual roster, which listed 36 agencies in 1987-88 and is naming 49 in the new school year. Agencies apply to be on the list, which lists those agencies that have met recruitment, fiscal and other operational criteria. Nearly all major agencies are on the current roster.
Still, the growth in the field is not fast enough to meet the demand from overseas applicants.
WHERE STUDENTS ARE COMING FROM
Here's a list of countries that sent high school students to Orange County during the 1987-88 school year:
From Europe: Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, West Germany, Yugoslavia.
From Africa: Kenya, South Africa.
From Latin America: Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay.
From Asia/Pacific: Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Japan.
From the Near East: Israel, Turkey.