Hosting a foreign exchange student
When we share a home, daily life experiences and meals, the hope is that we get to understand each other better. Chances are that if those in a household are of different cultures, they will embrace and welcome differences. That is the concept behind an exchange student program, and many of your neighbors are discovering the joys of hosting a student from a foreign land.
There are several programs available that offer help with hosting a student, or in sending your own child to live with a family overseas. Both of these ideas may seem strange or fearsome to you. Hopefully, as you read on, those misgivings will fade.
One of the most well-known international programs is the American Field Service (AFS). This organization started after WWI, but began to really grow after WWII, when American schools hosted Japanese and German students. One of the ideas behind AFS is peace through understanding. Our world can always benefit from this concept—Now more than ever.
So what is it like to have a stranger join your family for a year? Is it an intrusion on your privacy? Not so, according to many residents.
Braeswood Place’s Lois Coyle’s affiliation with AFS began long before she herself became a host mom. Some thirty years ago, her parents hosted AFS students. Her husband, David, was an AFS student, as well as his three sisters. So it was without hesitation that the Coyles have taken in six AFS students over the years. Lois’ twin daughters, now age 21, went abroad with AFS—Kristen to the Czech Republic, and Donna to Austria. Donna’s experience was contagious enough to bring her back to study abroad, this time in Italy.
When Lois and David took a trip to Europe a few summers ago, “We never stayed in a hotel,” says Lois, who enjoyed meeting up again with the exchange students they’d hosted from Switzerland, Germany and Italy.
Even an extremely busy household can host an exchange student. Roz Pactor, vice president/fashion director for Foley’s Department Store, admits she had reservations about hosting Pietro from Italy at first. She works full time and travels to New York once a month, and her husband, Alan, also travels as a sales manager for Bassett Furniture. They have made a commitment to no travel overlap time, and “Fortunately,” says Roz, “Pietro comes from a family of dual career parents, so he is used to this type of arrangement.”
Roz says her daughter, Crystin, a senior at Lamar, really wanted to have a student live with them. The Pactors told her if she still had an interest, they would consider it for her senior year. As Roz is a second-generation Italian-American, it has been fun to exchange stories and traditions with Pietro. Crystin and Pietro share a love of soccer, and she is enjoying the role of Big Host Sister.
Pietro attended school six days a week in Italy, and now as a Lamar student, is enjoying Saturdays off. He loves Oreos and has discovered chocolate milk, which Roz says is a breakfast staple.
“It’s been wonderful watching him experience things for the first time and having the cultural exchange,” says Roz. The family plans to take Pietro to New York and Hollywood. Then there’s plans for in-state trips – one to Dallas to celebrate Alan’s dad’s big 90th birthday celebration, and others to Galveston, San Antonio and Austin. So what does Pietro think of it for now? “Everything is bigger here…Hey, it’s Texas, right?”
Sara Kavanaugh and husband Paul Steets welcomed an exchange student into their home on Plumb for the second year. Their first student was a girl from Italy. The experience was wonderful, and they decided to go for it a second time. Their daughter, Kaitlin, who attends Duschene Academy, thought it would be cool to have a brother. “That is how we got to host Philippe, a student from Switzerland, this year,” says Sara. “He brings so much to our home. He is very centered. He fits right in.” Philippe is an avid tennis player, and so is Paul, so they are enjoying a match whenever they can.
“I don’t have a favorite food yet,” says Philippe when asked. “I really like everything I’ve tasted so far.” Philippe hopes that his AFS experience will help him to become more independent. He also hopes to make new friends here. Philippe’s dad was an exchange student thirty years before. “It was my dad who made me interested in becoming an AFS student. He motivated me and I don’t think I would be here without him.”
Sara’s involvement with AFS goes beyond hosting Philippe. She is also involved in finding appropriate host families. AFS screens candidates extensively, and host families are also screened. This may lessen your doubts about how host families have a slim chance of taking in an irresponsible or out-of-control teen into their fold, as well as the idea that if your own child will be living abroad, he or she will not be matched with unsavory families. (see sidebar)
Lois is not hosting an AFS student this year, but is a liaison. There are anticipated bumps along the way when hosting another child in your home. As these are teenagers, there could be issues like laying down the law on curfews, laundry and loud music. When issues surface that need resolution, each host family has an AFS liaison.
Families hosting students should know that agreeing to take in a child is agreeing to care and love this child as unconditionally as you do your own. AFS provides funding for certain services, but room and board are at the expense of the host family. If you are paying for your own kids to see the movies, your exchange student should be included, too.
Students may not necessarily attend the same schools as your children, but as a host family, you are responsible for their transportation arrangements. If your children attend a private school, that school may be open to the idea of making space for a foreign exchange student. Sometimes the inquiries and arrangements for the student’s schooling can be made by the prospective host family. Sometimes a school already has an exchange student, and may contact a parent whose children attend that school, in hopes those parents will consider taking this child in.
A private school may be willing to offer a full or partial scholarship for an exchange student. Each situation is unique and can be negotiated by the AFS liaison, and/or by the host parents. “From our perspective, this is truly a win-win, an arrangement that is mutually beneficial. The visiting student is exposed to an entirely new culture, but in the safe confines of a supportive learning community. And the school and its regular students profit through the addition of a different perspective; we learn from her unique vantage point, and through her example of taking such a risk to grow,” says Stuart Dow, Head of School at the Emery/Weiner School. Emory High is currently hosting a student from Thailand.
For those families not wanting to commit to hosting a foreign student for a long time or sending their own child on a year-long program, there are month-long exchange options as well as those available during the summer. West U resident and Lamar Junior, Leah Robbins, took advantage of these options, with one month spent through the PATA program in Spain and another through the LPI in Costa Rica.
“These one-month travel abroad programs are perfect for a person with a busy summer schedule. I would recommend programs like these to anyone who is curious about his or her world. No culture is exactly the same and nowhere will be exactly like home so you must have an open mind. Plus, the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. You will be surprised at how well you are able to communicate when forced to do so,” says Leah.
Leah plans on living abroad for all of next summer through AFS, either in Chile or Argentina. “These trips are not just limited to Spanish either. The best way to find out about the programs available is online and I strongly encourage everyone to do so. I have had the best times of my life traveling abroad, It is truly an amazing experience,” shares Leah. Another way to get information on program options is to ask teachers in the foreign language departments at your school.
One of the added benefits of children going abroad is how much they appreciate home when they return. Leah’s time in Costa Rica was filled with awe—she got to zip-line across the Costa Rican rainforest, ride a four-wheeler on a volcano and crawl through a cave at Arenal Volcano. However, next time your teenager complains about something he or she takes for granted, you may share Leah’s advice: “It takes not having something to realize how much you miss it, and sometimes how unimportant it is. For example we all take having hot water for granted, but in Costa Rica there is no store of hot water at the house. Water is heated electrically as it comes out of the showerhead.” Leah says that the trick to assuring a hot shower was to have a very short one. “It was a real experience to see electrical wires coming down from the faucet. It takes things like that to learn that hot water and water pressure are really very unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”
Through exchange student programs, there is hope that when our youth is exposed to other cultures, there will be less stereotypes and fears of foreigners. No matter what language we speak or customs we follow, the basic desire for peace and happiness is universal. Leah Robbins best sums it up when she says: “The more places I go, the more I become convinced that all people are good, kind and loving.”