Hosting an exchange student: “We need to wait until our kids are older” — or do you?

I’ve been thinking about this recently, since we’ve been looking for host families for students arriving in January and are beginning to look for families for the 2013-2014 academic year.  I get the question a lot when I talk to people about hosting a student.  “My kids are too young,” or “I need to wait until my son/daughter is in high school.”

I’d like to challenge that assumption, at least for some families.  In some cases, sure — waiting might be the right thing to do for your family situation.  But don’t wait just because you don’t have a teen. Don’t assume, without thinking it through, that the “right time” is when your 10-year-old turns 16.

We’ve hosted about a dozen teens in the past 10 years, not including the ones who we’ve had for a few days or a few weeks as a result of our work as local coordinators/supervisors. Our children were 9 and 11 when we first hosted a boy from Germany.  If we had decided that “our boys will learn more when they’re teens,” we would have missed so much.  We would have missed the opportunity for our older son to learn what it means NOT to be the older son (it means a lot, and very much to the benefit of the younger son!).  We would have missed the change in family dynamic when you have three instead of two, and the opportunity for there always to be someone with whom to kick a soccer ball, watch an action movie, or play video games.  We would have missed the fun of playing Age of Empires (which our exchange student introduced us to) on several computers simultaneously with three boys and Dad all trying to take over the world.

By hosting when our kids were younger, we learned things about teens that came in incredibly handy later on when our own children reached that age.  We learned about managing computer use and cell phones.  We learned how to handle a teen slinking in late with no good excuse.  We learned how to say “no, you can’t go” and not feel awful, and we learned how to say “no” even when you do feel awful.  We learned that intelligent teens can make dumb decisions.  We learned, even as adults who have been abroad, that living with someone from another culture teaches you things that books and popular media cannot.

Yes, it’s a different family makeup when the exchange student is older (or for that matter, younger) than other children in the family.  Our sons’ relationship with Niklas, who was their 17-year-old Age of Empires companion when they were 9 and 11, was different from their relationship with Sven and Jorge, who joined our family when our children were 12 and 14, or with Alex, who became our German son when he and my younger son were both 16.

Marshall, Stefano (Italy), Marcus, and Marc (Germany), Christmas 2004
Marshall, Stefano (Italy), Marcus, and Marc (Germany), Christmas 2004

Let’s face it, American families come in all sizes and shapes.  A host family is just that – a family.  A family can have one or two parents.  A family can have children living in the home or no children living in the home – or no children at all.  A family can have children away at college, teenagers, middle-schoolers, or toddlers. The U.S. government and the 75 or so authorized exchange programs in this country encourage — with good reason — all kinds of families to host.

Foreign cultural exchange is intended to show the variety of culture within a country, and part of that is showing the variety of families.  Families share one important characteristic, though: they are families.  To be a host family for an exchange student, you just need to want to share that experience and expand your own family’s horizons.

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student – when it works, it works!

11-02-2012 — I thought this interview on Wisconsin’s TV show, The Morning Blend, was worth passing along.  This is what cultural exchange is all about — a good “match” between host family and exchange student, a student interested in doing things differently while here in the U.S., and a host family interested in learning about their new “exchange daughter’s” life.  (OK — also a good coordinator keeping an eye on how things are going and communicating with the family and student!)

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student – interview on The Morning Blend

 

 

Why do people host a teen from another country?

I’ve been thinking about this lately, as all the foreign student exchange programs struggled to find host families by the U.S. government deadline for all the students who had applied to come to the U.S. for an exchange year.  It seemed harder this year to find families.  That perception seems to be borne out by the numbers – maybe it’s anecdotal or maybe it’s just regional, but many local schools have reported fewer exchange students being enrolled than usual.

Maybe it’s the economy making people nervous about the financial burden of feeding another person.  But in some regions of the country, numbers were up.  So I’ll leave the mystery of “why not” to the number crunchers to figure out; I’m going to focus on the other side of the coin: why we *do* host.

Yes, the teen years can be a challenge, and yes, it’s a challenge to make someone part of your family who comes in with no connection to you.  But there are many reasons why Americans (and others) have been enthusiastically choosing to host teens from other countries for many years.  The desire to learn from others while passing along your personal view of life in this country is strong.  People everywhere are proud of their culture and their country, and want to share their experience.  Hosting a student provides an opportunity to learn about another culture from the perspective of what that culture is like on a daily basis, as students share with their host families the differences in their own families.  For host families with children, exposing one’s children to other cultures can help them understand other people better and communicate across cultures, and develop tolerances for differences.

What it really comes down to, I think, is this:

* Students tasting a freshly baked Voodoo Donut for the very first time (if you don’t know what that is – come to Portland and find out for yourself!) – and reminding us how good they taste.

* A boy from Italy playing volleyball in a school tournament (a game that in America is usually considered a “girl’s” sport) and becoming known throughout the school for the rest of the school year as the Volleyball King – and reminding us that it takes courage to stand up and be different.

* Coming around the curve on Highway 101 on the Oregon coast and seeing Haystack Rock loom up out of the surf and hearing the “oh wow” from the back seat – and reminding us that yes, it really is a pretty cool sight.

* Just the other day, a student from Spain told me about how much fun she was having learning how to be a cheerleader.  “We don’t have this at home,” she reminded me excitedly.  “This is America.  I am living my own American dream.”

Yes, it’s hard work hosting and advising the kids all year.  Yes, it’s only September and we coordinators, counselors, and host families will have teen issues and angst to deal with in October and December and February.  But we live for the grins and the smiles, the looks of awe and amazement, the courage of 16 and 17 year olds — and for the airport pickups of former students when they come back to visit a year (or two or four or ten years) later and having them shout “shotgun” to get the front seat and arguing with their “brothers” before you even leave the airport.  Family is family, after all, no matter where they started.

Why Aren’t Americans Hosting Exchange Students — Or Are They?

I’m struck this year by the difficulties foreign exchange student programs in the United States seem to be having in finding host families; at least, that’s the sense here in Oregon.  There are many more openings today in mid-August at many more schools than one would expect so late in the foreign exchange student placement process.

Is it the economy? Is it a regional issue?  Is it lack of information that’s available for potential families? Is it misunderstanding about what’s required and what support you will get if something goes wrong?  Is it something else entirely?  Or is it just that people are not making their decisions on this until the very last minute?

Having a foreign-born teenager in your home for 5 or 10 months is certainly a more involved process than deciding what to have for dinner.  And it’s definitely not the right thing to do for every family; even families who are enthusiastic about hosting exchange students don’t necessarily do it every year.  But it’s also a fact that thousands of families in the U.S. have participated successfully in exchange programs for years, have established lasting relationships around the world, and have gained a son or daughter in the process as well as a better understanding of other cultures.

What’s the difference this year? I would be interested in hearing from people on this topic.  Send me your comments.

 

 

Why Do We Host Exchange Students? Reading Recommendations

For today, I was originally going to write wise words from my experience as a host parent to explain why we do it — why some of us spend all this time and effort to bring an unknown teenager into our lives for up to 10 months (and some of us do this more than once).  But recently I’ve seen several articles in different places that say it just perfectly.

So for today, I’m going with some reading recommendations:

5 Lessons I Learned Hosting an Exchange Student

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/homa-sabet-tavangar/5-lessons-i-learned-hosti_b_916347.html

My Third Son

http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/The-Home-Forum/2011/0804/My-third-son?cmpid=tweet_count

And these two, from May 2011, as students were getting ready to return to their home countries:

Hosting an Exchange Student

http://www.ednewsparent.org/blog/5438-editors-blog-hosting-an-exchange-student

Host a Foreign Exchange Student. You Will Not Regret It, If You Live

http://www.adventureparents.com/blog/adventure-dads-blog/433-if-you-really-want-to-rock-your-world-host-a-foreign-exchange-student.html

 Read their stories – I can’t say it any better.