By Guest Blogger Steve Giles
Have you ever dreamed of taking your family abroad to experience a new culture? For many families this is a dream that never moves beyond those “one day . . .” conversations. If experiencing a slice of what life is like outside of the U.S. is something that excites you, however, there may be an alternative from which you may derive many of the same benefits. Over the past four years my family and I have experienced the joy of hosting high school exchange students—9 of them to be exact– on both short- and long-term exchanges. There are many reasons and ways you should consider getting involved in hosting:
Reasons to consider hosting an exchange student
1. Hosting students can give them a perspective on “life as an American” that can help defy stereotypes and build cross cultural understanding. In February, 2015, my daughter and I did a homestay with a family in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Through family meals and living with a 23-year old brother and 21-year old sister we quickly learned that Buenos Aires is a place where people eat late, sleep little, and drink mate (tea) as if their lives depended on it! More importantly, we experienced joy, sadness, and abundant humor as we lived our day-to-day existence with a real family. Imagine what a high school exchange student could learn from living with you!
2. Your world view, and that of your family, can be expanded and changed. Inevitably, the entry points into conversations with international students are centered around cultural differences. We talk about public transportation, the drinking age, cultural “norms,” and language differences. We once hosted a student from the Netherlands who was Egyptian. She educated us about the political issues going in Egypt at that time. We visited a local Coptic church with her where we saw firsthand how these events were affecting people in our own community. Over time, however, hosting a student can also elucidate similarities and help to nuance stereotypes. Cultural stereotypes, like, “Germans are pragmatic” start to break down the first time your host daughter does something impractical. It gives you pause to say, “wait, she is a teenager!”
3. It gives you a new perspective on your own country. It can be refreshing to observe your own country and local culture through the eyes of an exchange student. Our German host daughter laughs hysterically at our pharmaceutical advertisements, which she had never seen in her own country. “Why would anyone take that drug with all those side effects!?” she shouts. A student we hosted from Poland was surprised to find a box mix for pie crust at our local grocery store. “Why do people need to buy a pie crust? It is only 3 ingredients” she pontificated. “Wait,” my wife said, “There’s more. You can also opt for a frozen or refrigerated pie crust. And here are the pre-cut apples that you can put into the pie.” The student was left with the following conclusion: “Americans are ridiculous!” To be fair, though, she didn’t seem to mind having 25 flavors of Pop Tarts or 55 options for Cheerios!
4. Host students can inspire your own children and give them lifelong friends. One summer we hosted a girl from California who was learning Arabic on top of already being fluent in English, French, and Mandarin. She inspired my daughter to pursue opportunities to learn languages, which resulted in her attending a language-immersion camp and becoming fluent in Spanish. Currently, our daughter and German exchange daughter have charted out a plan for traveling the world together and being involved in each other’s future lives. Our daughter already has an invitation to visit Germany to stay with our host daughter’s family. With social networking sites like Facebook, and apps like What’s App, it is easier now more than ever to stay connected with exchange students long after they have left your home.
5. Host students can connect you to other exchange families in your local community. Through hosting we have become friends with a number of terrific families in the Triad area who we otherwise would not have met.
Below are just a few of the ways you can get involved in hosting an exchange student.
Ben Franklin Transatlantic Fellows program. BFTF is a summer program supported by a grant from the State Department to Wake Forest University. It brings in high school students from all over Europe and various places in the U.S. As part of this program students are placed into homestays that last 10 days. This is a good opportunity to “dip your toe” into the exchange process without a long-term commitment and it allows you to meet some truly exceptional kids. Dates are July 8-18, 2016. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Experience. Our German daughter came to us through this program. There are one-semester and full year options. Contact email@example.com.
Youth for Understanding USA. We have not hosted a student through this organization but have friends who have had positive experiences with them. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact your local high school, as many of them support exchange programs.
Sometimes it can be hard to let people enter into your family, but we have found that whenever we have opened the doors to our hearts and our home to host an exchange student we have received far more than anything we have given.