Lots of American families have the good fortune of being able to travel abroad—hopping flights here and there to myriad exotic, international destinations during summer vacations, spring breaks, etc.
The benefits these globe-trotting moms and dads bestow upon their children are immeasurable. They're exposing their their family to a world much bigger than their own, which shapes who their children will become in the future. Travel prepares kids to enter a global work place, to break the cultural divides that baffle others, and ultimately to become more compassionate human beings.
But what does this mean for all those other parents (the majority), the ones whose lifestyles don’t include jet-setting around the globe, with kids in tow? Does this mean they cannot raise their children in an environment that offers the same opportunity for cultural enlightenment? Absolutely not.
You can bring cultural awareness into your home and help your children see their own culture in a new light by hosting a foreign exchange student.
Naturally, parents who may be interested in hosting an exchange student have a lot of questions, perhaps the first and most logical being, "Why do students want to come here to study?" The fact is, the individual motivations of these students are as varied as the cultures they represent. They want to improve their English. They want to establish a little independence from their parents. (They are teenagers, after all.) Maybe they don’t have siblings at home, and they’d like to know what it means to have one. They’d like to see the America they know from Hollywood, or experience the magic of New York City as it is portrayed on American television shows. Maybe they want to know what it’s like to sit in the stands and watch a game of American football, or try out for the cheerleading team. Maybe they want to share the art of French cuisine, or beauty and intricacy of Japanese origami. Maybe they just want to travel, see new places, or simply have a chance to explore all this country of ours has to offer.
The bottom line is that they would like to know what it’s like to live life as an American teenager for one year.
Who can host?
Host families represent the diversity that is America. They come from different economic, religious, and racial backgrounds, and families of all shapes and sizes are encouraged to host. It is a misconception to assume you have to have a teenager to host. You can have grown children, young children, or no children at all. Students are placed in urban, rural, and suburban communities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
What are the expectations of being a host?
Host families want to share the American way of life with their students. Hosting an exchange student means sharing your home, your country, and your culture. At a minimum, families provide room and board, three meals a day, and transportation to and from school. However, they are encouraged to treat their student as family members, as opposed to guests, and to share all of the same life experiences and events with their students as they would with their own children—birthday parties, holiday traditions, movies, sporting events, and even chores.
What are the benefits of hosting an international exchange student?
There are many benefits, and they will change the lives of everyone in your family. You will expose your family to a new language and culture, and increase cultural awareness in your community as well. You will have the joy and pleasure of watching your student experience America for the first time. Your children will begin to see their own culture in a new light as seen through the eyes of their new sibling. You’ll learn about the appreciation and pride you have in your own country.
When you host you are building lifelong friendships, and you'll find yourself with friends to visit in another corner of the world. You encourage your own children to want to see more of the world, and to practice hospitality and generosity. You experience the joy of having a new family member to love when you gain a new son or daughter, or grandchild. Your children will gain a sibling, and will now have a new brother or sister across the world.
You will be giving your children a chance to see firsthand the advantages and benefits of learning a foreign language. You’ll help your children become more effective communicators. Clearly, your children will speak English with your student. They’ll learn to consider the potential for miscommunication when talking to non-native speakers; perhaps they will have to reshape their thoughts and words, speak more clearly, or make sure what is heard is what they intended to say. This requires patience.
Lastly, as volunteers, host families not only experience the benefits of community service while working with a non-profit organization, they also play an important role in public service, serving as citizen ambassadors and cultivating positive impressions of America. Expanding communications between the citizens of the United States and people in other countries is a priority foreign policy goal, according to the US State Department.
When you host a foreign exchange student, you are bridging cultural divides, thus making the world a safer place for you, your children, and your grandchildren. The new energy and understanding that fills your home as a result of the experience will set in motion a ripple effect, one that has the potential and the capability to trickle down to your local school, community, and ultimately, the world.
Where to find more information
A good place to start is with the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (www.eca.state.gov/programs-initiatives/host-high-school-student/what-hosting-and-why-host).
This website contains a wealth of information on hosting and also lists the youth organizations placing students that are sponsored by the State Department— helpful information to have in advance, given that many school districts work only with those organizations that are approved by the State Department.
“Designation by the State Department indicates sponsors have complied with all applicable regulations for obtaining designation and are in good standing,” explains Susan Pittman, director of Media Relations at the ECA. She adds, “If you have additional questions, fill out the interest form on the website, and a local coordinator will guide you through the process and answer your questions.”
Consider your own motivations.
Host families often have varying motivations for welcoming students into their homes. A mom who hosted a student from Israel some years ago says she’d felt a deep, personal connection to the country and that she was also actively involved in her synagogue, and wanted to share the experience with her community as well as with her family. Since that time, her host student has come back to America to visit. “He feels he has a sofa to sleep on, so to speak,” she laughs. She also traveled to Israel where she met his family. They conveyed to her their sincerest gratitude for having cared for their son in America as though he were one of her own.
Imagine the sense of protection and love you might feel toward a student who left their home in a foreign country to come to the United States to live with you, to be part of your family. Now imagine that student is your child, living with another family in a faraway land where everything is foreign. It isn’t hard to see how even the parents of international exchange students form strong bonds, too, despite being oceans apart and perhaps never even speaking the same language.
Mom of three Julie Kemeklis is a freelance writer from Princeton Junction.
“Each year almost 2,000 high school students from over 100 countries are awarded highly competitive merit-based scholarships to participate in US Department of State-sponsored exchange programs. Selection is based on leadership potential, language ability, adaptability, maturity, academic achievement, and motivation,” says Susan Pittman, of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). Through public-private partnerships and tax-payer funding, the bureau manages a host of professional, academic, cultural, and athletic exchanges. Says former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Families who welcome exchange students into their homes and hearts not only enrich the life of an exceptional young person, they help build people-to-people connections that span the globe and last a lifetime.”