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.

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