The “It’s a Small World” ride in Disney World has always been one of my favorites. I know, I know….the song can make you crazy as it plays on repeat, the representations of different cultures are stereotypical and homogenous, the dolls, some would say, “creepy”. But, I LOVE IT! I loved it when I was 9 years old visiting Disney for the first time, and I love it still.
“It’s a Small World” reminds me of the connectedness people share with each other, the similarities in our lives, the love, laughter, and joy we all experience. This strange little ride that annoys everyone in my family but me, reminds me the world is a beautiful place despite all the hardship.
My real, non-Disney themed world filled with laughter and joy last week. It was a big moment for USA citizens as we inaugurated a new president. Regardless of who we voted for, we had the opportunity to watch democracy in action through a beautiful celebration of our country’s values, traditions and spirit as it was announced, sung, and spoken into existence. It was a moment to fill our American hearts with pride. The inauguration was American pomp and circumstance on full display with gentle, beautiful reminders of our cultural identity. It reminded us of what we can be proud of and what we hope to become. It was a day of light-filled hope, promise, and joy in the midst of our dark, cold, pandemic-directed life.
Last Wednesday, as I watched the tradition of a new President and Vice President taking on their new roles surrounded by past Presidents, Senators and celebrities from all walks of life, my first reaction was to cry. My second reaction was to send private messages to our exchange family all over the world. “New beginnings here in the USA today” I wrote. And within minutes, I was receiving messages back. “So happy for you!” “Hooray!” “Good news!”
Ours is a privileged life no doubt. We are blessed with communication tools that allow me to send photos and messages in real time across the world with virtually no effort. But beyond the privilege of technology, the very real blessing that sustains me are the relationships we share with our friends and family we met by chance. These are the relationships gathered from cultural exchange begun because we welcomed an international teen into our home and heart. These relationships endure constraints of time and distance. They endure hardships, like pandemics and travel bans. They endure and exist to fill our lives with laughter and joy. They remind me we are a small world after all.
Happy 18th birthday to my number one German son. I miss you kid!.
David came to stay with us August of 2018, for his 10 month exchange year. During the 2018-2019 school year, we were NOT going to host an exchange student. Our lives were scheduled for too many changes. One daughter was getting married, another was graduating college and most likely needing to move to her first apartment to start a new job. Our youngest son would graduate 8th grade (a big deal at his Catholic elementary school). Another daughter would need to engage in college visits. We had too many good things on our schedule and didn’t think we could embrace one more. It was then, as they say, “God laughed”.
During the 2018-2019 placement season, I connected with two potential Host Dads wanting to share their very cool mini-farm and lives with an exchange student. Because their family was “non-traditional”, Academic Year in America was required by Department of State regulations to present the family to the student for approval. One student after another turned down these amazing Dads, and in frustration, I began searching for a student for them.
One of the Dads was an administrator in higher ed and the other was a medical professional. David stated in his application that his career goals included medical school on his way to become an orthopedic surgeon, something he discovered after an internship at a veterinarian’s office in Germany. He loved sports, especially American football, and one of the Dads had been on his high school’s football team. Without telling the potential host family, I asked AYA to present this opportunity to David. He enthusiastically said, “Yes”!
I was so excited to tell the host family I had found the perfect student for them. When I shared David’s profile and encouraged them to consider hosting one more time, they messaged me back to say they had decided to wait a year or so before hosting. I felt terrible. What had I done? David knew about this family and I knew he was anxiously waiting for the final word that his placement was approved. What had started as good intentions on my part, was possibly ending in heartbreak for this kind-hearted kid. I called my Placement Specialist to tell him the bad news.
“So… what do you want to do ?”, he asked. “Do you have another family”?
It took me about 2 seconds to know the answer. How could we not invite this amazing, open-minded, future surgeon into our family?
“Yes, as a matter of fact…”
And so….. the year we weren’t supposed to host began. Life Lesson: Always embrace every good thing life brings you. The year we weren’t supposed to host became one of the best exchange experiences anyone could hope for!
We became friends with David’s Mom and Dad before, during and after his stay with us. David fit right into our family like he had always been there. He rolled with every change, embraced every crazy schedule, celebration, and the fact that his Host Mom traveled more that year than ever before in her life.
David embraced his exchange year with the boundless enthusiasm and sense of adventure expected of a 16 year old boy. Despite a tragic knee injury right before his exchange year that temporarily ended his football career, he decided he would take social risks while here and knew no stranger. He made friends with EVERYONE at school and in the community. He shared his passion for Dunkin’ Donuts, German pancakes, and Dr. Pepper. He helped me find my addiction to Iced Coffee. He left a trail of memories and had one of the largest, well attended “Going Away” parties my house has ever hosted. (I am still meeting kids in the area who say, “Oh! I was at your house for David’s party!”) His legacy remains a high standard for future exchange students attending WHS.
David’s parents came to visit at the end of his exchange year. They were amazed at his social life and the length of his hair! He spoke to them in English claiming he had forgotten German. He encouraged them to spend time with my husband and I so he could hang out with friends during the waning days of his exchange year. He had missed them for sure, but during his American adventure, he had found a new identity for himself that he wasn’t quite ready to let go. Collectively as parents, we seized a day from his busy social schedule to drive to Niagara Falls to visit one of North America’s natural wonders and wave to Canada.
David’s parents’ vacation passed too quickly. They purposely scheduled their flight to Germany a few days before David’s to allow him time to say his “goodbyes” on his own. We promised them our house was always open to future visits and waved as they drove off.
Most end of year trips to the airport are pretty rough, but David promised us as we said goodbye that he was definitely coming back to visit during his Fall break. To be honest, I didn’t really think he would be able to make it back so soon, but I took his optimistic lead, wiped my tears, and took one last photo with optimism.
Summer passed quickly. We welcomed a new exchange student, Leenah to our home in August. My daughter’s Senior year began, and when we flipped the calendar to October. On Homecoming weekend, the first weekend of October, guess who walked through our front door?!
I must admit despite hosting a total of 10 exchange students, we have never had the opportunity to welcome any of them back “home” before that weekend. David had one of his friends pick him up at the airport and when he came through our door, it was like no time had passed since we last saw him. We spent the entire weekend celebrating high school football games, dances, Leenah’s 16th birthday, and family. My older daughter came home from Dallas to visit and we gathered the other adult children, their significant others, and my mother for a festive fall day of corn mazes, hayrides and reunion. We decided to end our mini family reunion day with dinner at a Mexican restaurant. We explained the tradition of wearing a sombrero and being sung to on your birthday to Leenah and to save her some embarrassment, told David we needed to celebrate his birthday too, since we missed it in June.
In November, AYA had their national meeting in Barcelona, Spain. I was able to take my daughter Sierra with me as a guest. When Patricia, David’s Mom, discovered we were going to be on the continent of Europe, she told me that her husband and her would schedule a weekend getaway and meet us there! We were so excited to see them, and spend some time exploring Barcelona together.
We agreed to meet at the Arc de Triomf at the Passeig de Lluís Companys. We hugged and started to make a plan for the day of exploring Barcelona when Patricia said we first had to find the surprise they brought with them.
Not only was David with them, but also his little brother Aaron who we had heard so much about, but never met. His Aunt and Uncle had also tagged along and even though they said they were embarrassed they didn’t know English, I assured them I was just as embarrassed I didn’t know German!
Despite our language barriers, we spent a perfect day walking aimlessly like tourists, trying to speak German, English and Spanish, getting lost, laughing, and eating amazing food. We learned we were extremely grateful to have Sierra with us, an avid Spanish speaker. As we struggled to order lunch, she saved us all from an embarrassing ordering experience in a local café. (The power of bilingualism!)
As we parted ways before dark to avoid bumping into Catalonian protestors, I hugged David and said, “See you next month”?
Sadly, it has been more than a few months since our Barcelona reunion. A global pandemic showed up and eliminated any plans we had to travel this summer as well. For now, our family is spread around the world, but stays connected with messages and photos. But, like most exchange families, we are reminded that our relationship doesn’t end at the close of an exchange year, it is only beginning.
Birthdays away from family however, always make me wish we were geographically closer.
So for now…. from the USA to Germany, we send David, our “number 1 German son”, the happiest of birthday wishes. Our heart overflows.
Learn more about finding your own “Number 1 Son” or daughter through exchange by visiting Academic Year in America at: www.academicyear.org
Each Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Academic Year in America sends their KLYES and FLEX scholarship students to a MidYear Orientation. This past January, I had the good fortune of traveling with 5 students to Camp Campbell in Boulder Creek, California, to serve as a chaperone for MidYear. You can catch a glimpse of our trip on Youtube.
The goals of MidYear include providing students a chance to process and reflect on the challenges and experiences of the first half of their exchange year, help them remember what it means to be a young ambassador of their country, and get them ready to embrace all that awaits them in the second half of their academic year in America. It’s an important time of reflection and empowerment when the honeymoon of exchange is over, but the end is not clearly in sight.
As a chaperone, I had the unique opportunity to build relationships with students I don’t normally supervise. I listened to their stories of life in Oregon, Virginia, New York, South Carolina… and watched them bond with new friends who share similar stories of struggle and triumph.
But the goals of MidYear meet more than that of a teenage exchange student support group. Each game and activity played, each thoughtful question and challenge discussed is designed to help these kids develop the critical thinking and action of a global leader. These students are not average. They have sustained a rigorous screening process, built fluency in the English language so that they can excel academically in typical American high school classes, and promise to complete a minimum of 50 hours of community service during the 10 months they stay in their host communities. Their energy and enthusiasm is boundless, typical of a 15-18 year old kid, but their leadership qualities must demonstrate maturity beyond their years.
MidYear is an intense weekend of retreat, but at the end of it all the tears shed and the conversations I overhear are filled with promise and hope. These global change makers are refueled. They are ready to spring into action once again in the midst of a long year of personal growth, service, and cultural challenge.
As I made the video to highlight MidYearOrientation of this past January, I couldn’t help but think of how innocent we were as we flew home with exhausted enthusiasm. We had no idea the largest global challenge was waiting around the corner for us. Two months later, we would be forced into a “new normal”, face “unprecedented times”, learn to grocery shop wearing a face mask, go to school online, and find ways to connect socially in the midst of physical distancing.
When COIV-19 met me head on in the middle of March, I was overwhelmed with grief and shock. I found encouragement first from the young people in my life. My local group of AYA students easily cheered each other on through Instagram memes and WhatsApp calls. They jumped on my scheduled WebEx meetings to say, “See you later” to exchange friends forced to leave sooner than expected. They kept me laughing and remembering the best is yet to come.
My family and I began our student exchange journey in 2006 when I randomly responded to a postcard I got in the mail from an exchange organization looking for host families. We hosted a wonderful young man, Guillaume, for 3 weeks that summer and our lives were never the same.
In May of 2012, I received an opportunity to begin working with Academic Year in America as a Local Coordinator and that’s when this blog was born. Since August of 2012, our family has hosted 10 different high school aged exchange students. We have “family” now in China, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain, Morocco, France and Libya. In addition, I have come to know dozens of students from Germany, Italy, Brazil, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Thailand, Armenia and Ukraine through my work as an LC.
To learn more about AYA and serve as a host family to an international student visit: AcademicYear.org
Last Monday I was counting the days until Spring Break.
By Tuesday evening, I was emailing my University students confirmation that our class would be moving online after a 2 week hiatus in response to COVID-19 identified in our State.
On Wednesday, I read news updates, sent emails to AYA student support staff, and tried to reassure nervous exchange students and host families what I was struggling to also understand. News broke that a specific German scholarship program decided to conclude their exchange year early and students were to be sent back home.
“Will we be sent home too?”
“I don’t know, but AYA will tell us if anything will end your program year earlier than expected”.
The announcement was made that COVID-19 patient numbers were rising in Ohio and everyone was scrambling for answers to the question, “What do we do next”?
Thursday brought the announcement that K-12 schools in our area would close until April, per our Governor’s mandate. Host families and students were confused, a bit scared, and still wondering, “what do we do next”?
Our small group of students and families were scheduled to volunteer Thursday evening for a local non-profit, so we went, volunteered, and served as each other’s support group. We shared news we had heard, and tried to wrap our heads around what our lives were going to look like for the next few weeks. Or would it be a few months?
The empty store shelves, grim statistics revealing the worst was yet to come, news of dire circumstances in Italy…. it generated anxiety, more questions, and lots of stress.
By Thursday night, I needed reassurance too. I used Instagram to message former exchange students, now family, in Italy and Spain. They were ok they said and so were their families. Their lives were sequestered at home, waiting out the storm…but they were all healthy. We promised each other we would stay in touch, pray for each other, and sent heart emojis to express a virtual “kiss” and “hug”.
On Friday morning I woke up and scanned the news. The reality of living with COVID-19 in my community was settling in and the level of anxiety was rising. I felt a bit hopeless, overwhelmed and needed to re-focus. How could we find joy in the midst of so much stress and anxiety? And then, I realized the lesson that tragedy always teaches: Life is precious.
We can not guarantee tomorrow, but we can celebrate today. Celebrating life is one of the reasons my family got involved with student exchange. Serving as a host family allows us to savor each day of family life, because in reality we only have 10 months of moments to share with each student. A trip to the grocery store, a visit to Chipotle, introducing the joy a Target run can bring…. all of these mundane errands become fresh new experiences when shared with your exchange student. There is joy to be found in each day.
I searched online for “Daily Celebrations for March”and was directed to the award-winning website/ blog “The Spruce”. I found a list of ways to celebrate March 14-21st, opened up an email to my host families and students and created our first “Corona Currier” newsletter (title under development). I reminded them of the life lesson I remembered, that we can celebrate and bring joy to each day, and gave them a list of ideas.
Today, is March 14th (3.14) and that equals pie! So, today, as the COVID-19 storm rages on around us, and we live with the uncertainty of what will happen next, we are choosing to take a moment and choose joy. Happy Pi Day everyone!
The Fall semester of school was a whirlwind at our house. With two biological high school teens (A Senior cheerleader and a Freshman marching band drummer) plus a foreign exchange student teen, our calendar was full! It wasn’t until planning out this post and creating our latest video for Youtube that I realized my feeling the need to slow down time was perfectly legit.
We started the semester out strong with “First Day of School” pics for everyone. September flew by with community service volunteering, a minor league baseball game outing, football games, marching band competitions, our oldest daughter’s 30th birthday (what?!) and our youngest daughter’s 18th!
Before we realized it, October was upon us and so were Homecoming Dances and a visit from our German “son”, David. He completed his exchange year in June, but was able to convince his parents to let him come back over Fall break to visit his former high
school friends and exchange family. It was truly a Homecoming week celebration in many ways for us this year!!
My Senior daughter, Sierra, began her college applications this fall too. So, in the spirit of supporting her choices, Leenah, Sierra and I visited Xavier University in Cincinnati. We really enjoyed their Open House event and of course, the outlet shopping we found along the way there. There is nothing like an all girls educational road trip to finish out a month.
In November, Academic Year in America sent Sierra and I to Barcelona, Spain for their National Meeting. We managed to meet up with David and his family (once again) and also extend our trip to tour Carcassone, Arles and Nice, France. It was an amazing trip to begin the month.
Nice is nice!
*Note: I was able to bring a companion with me on this business trip for the first time. My husband was super excited, until we decided that Sierra should get to be my companion She studies French and Spanish and hopes to major in International Studies in college next year. Happy 18th Birthday, Happy Graduation….and better luck next time, John ❤ #Momanddaughtertrip
November continued with International Education Week presentations (a requirement of FLEX and KLYES scholarship students) and an enhancement activity through Hale Farm’s educational programming. The exchange students got their first taste of traditional American Thanksgiving dinner and a history lesson on the holiday from Honest Abe— such fun!
We wrapped up November with Thanksgiving dinner at our house and our annual kick-off to the Christmas season… tree lighting festivals in Akron and Cleveland. Since our student, Leenah, is Muslim, this was her first time celebrating and experiencing Christmas. She told us she wanted to “see it all!” so we made time for outdoor light displays, baking cookies, shopping, shopping, and shopping.
December is always a mad dash to Christmas break and this year was no exception. We started the month with an enhancement activity in Cleveland, Ohio with 13 exchange students, several host siblings, and host parents. We were quite a group!
December also the traditional end of semester band concerts, parties and gift exchanges but we topped off our exchange cluster’s first semester by seeing the touring Broadway shoe, “Mean Girls” at Playhouse Square .
Some students had dreaded Midterm exams before break and some spent their holiday from school preparing for them, but just like that… the first half of the exchange year is complete.
If you would like to get involved in hosting an exchange student for the 2020-2021 academic year, visit AYA’s website at: www.academicyear.org
For the past several years AYA has asked me to help chaperone one of their student orientations during the month of August. Held in NYC, this is always an exciting, fun-filled four days as we greet students from all over the world, help them adapt to the fast-paced American lifestyle, site see in NYC, and then send them on their way to their host families scattered all over the US.
This year, my daughter Sierra was able to volunteer as well as a teen chaperone. She was on hand as a “expert” of American teen culture and to provide a short presentation of her own exchange experience in Ecuador this past summer with the US Department of State’s Youth Ambassadors program.
Along with two other American teens, Sierra and the others acted as wonderful liaisons to bridge cultural gaps and fears for the upcoming school year.
I decided to make a video this year for my new Youtube Channel, An International Family, to highlight the excitement and energy of Orientation. Not only does this kick off another year of AYA adventures for me as an Local Coordinator, but it also gives you some added insight to what exchange students experience before they even meet their families and friends for the next school year.
Strap on your seatbelts and get ready. This post marks the beginning of another year of adventure and cultural exchange!
Proms, final exams, and graduations have come and gone. Lockers have been closed for the last time and the once slightly unsure new international student has transformed into a confident bilingual “American” teenager. It’s June and that means another Academic Year in America has come to an end.
As a Local Coordinator, I am always on the look out for families who wish to serve as hosts to international students for a semester or whole academic year. I often hear, “I just don’t know if we can commit to hosting for all that time”. I completely understand the hesitancy and nerves, but I usually tell people, “As hard as this decision is now, I promise you time will fly and before you know it, you will be at the airport saying See you Later!”
I learned not to say “goodbye” a long time ago. Goodbye is way too final, and painful.I advise families and students to re-phrase their last moments as “See you later”.
The truly difficult part of letting your international son or daughter return home isn’t the tear wrenching last hugs at the airport, but a deeper sadness that gnaws at your heart because you aren’t quite sure when the next hug will come. It is a dropping-your-first-child-off-at-college-level of grief that eases just a bit each time you host again.
It is no small thing to welcome a teenaged stranger into your home and family. Host families make meals, help with homework, attend sporting events, concerts, plays, and parent/teacher conferences. Host siblings learn to share their parents attention, but also their secrets with a new brother or sister. The rhythm of family life expands and conforms to its newest member and before you realize it, no one can imagine life without the other. The love and bond between students and families are real, meaningful, and long-lasting.
These past few weeks have been filled with parties: celebrations of host families and exchange students. Favorite foods have been served, gifts exchanged and lots of photos taken. Discussions of “how will we fit all of this stuff into your suitcase” and the mysterious magic of vacuum bags have filled our conversations. We have spent the final days of our exchange experiences in celebration, not sadness.
Holding on to this spirit, we go to the airport, that same airport we stood in nervously 5 or 10 months prior, ready to meet each other face-to-face for the first time. This time, our nerves are focused on whether the bag will weigh less than 50 pounds and the fear of losing our battle of holding back the flood of tears that threatens to burst forth at any moment.
We take one last photo, exchange one last hug, watch our son or daughter walk to the TSA agent and say, “See you Later”!
Part of my work as a Local Coordinator for Academic Year in America includes planning “enhancement activities” or educational field trips for the exchange student and their host families if they choose to tag along. Most of these enhancement activities are completed locally and involve learning about local government, history and culture.
This past May, however, upon the request of one of the students I supervise, we took a whirlwind weekend trip to NYC. The “we” involved one of my favorite super Host Moms, myself, my 17 year old daughter, and five international students. We drove 2 cars in and out of the city over two days and stayed overnight in New Jersey to save a bit of money.
We toured the UN, NBC Studios, Grand Central Station, Central Park and even managed to meet up with some other “local” AYA students and their coordinator for dinner one night.