You must meet my “son” Mirko!

It was a cold, wintry January day when I opened my email to see that my Regional Director at AYA had sent me  an application to view for “an Italian kid ” he thought my family would like to host. Before I wondered too long how Pieter had read my mind, I opened the attachment to read the application. His name was Mirko and he was 17.

I scanned his application to search for his “letter to my future host family”. I am a writer and believe this part of an application really reveals a student’s voice and personality. I wanted to officially meet Mirko through the words he chose as his introduction to his new American family.

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Mirko visiting”Little Italy” Cleveland, Ohio

As I read the letter, one comment in particular really resonated. Mirko said, “In my whole life, the thing that I really enjoy doing is communicating with other people in another language, different from mine”. It was as if Mirko had peeked into into my heart and read it.

I am often asked by potential host families, “How do I choose a student?” I tell them it is the same question as “How do I choose a new best friend?” You really don’t choose as much as know this student was meant to come and live with your family. You recognize something, a quality, in their application that reminds you of yourself  or someone in your family and that quality calls out to you, “we are friends”.

We accepted the opportunity to host Mirko, finished all the paperwork, exchanged a few emails with each other and set up a Skype meeting.  He was so nervous, and so were we. However, we talked, and talked, and talked like we had been waiting our whole lives to do so. We sent messages to each other through WhatsApp daily with a countdown of days until his arrival. We were so excited to finally meet in person, but ironically when that day arrived, I wasn’t home because of a work commitment. We joked later that Mirko had the honor of being the first exchange student to “Welcome” his host Mom to the family.

Our year together was marked with all sorts of wonderful memories including his girlfriend dramas at school, LOTS of discussion about politics and pasta, and endless moments of me telling my adopted stere0typically, passionate and strong-willed Italian son to “calm down and relax”. I adore Mirko’s passion and tremendous sense of humor. We drove each other crazy, but laughed at the absurdities of how stubborn we both were at the same time. Best friends for sure.

My favorite memory as I look back on last year was near the end of Mirko’s year abroad. On May 29th, we celebrated his 18th birthday, my (cough) birthday and my daughter, Micah’s 19th. Mirko and I shared the same birthday date (twins!) and Micah’s special day had only been 2 weeks earlier. It was a perfect family celebration and everyone was there. As family sang for us and we blew out the candles I knew this would be one of those moments to treasure for a lifetime.

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Happy Birthday to Us!

As sad as it was to say our goodbyes at the airport in June, we simply gave each other a quick hug and wave. Mirko and I knew that words were not possible at that moment. As much as we shared a love of languages…the words in either Italian or English were not possible. We promised to stay in touch and travel soon to reunite.

This cold, snowy day in March, just over two years after I opened that fateful email from my Regional Director, my husband and I are counting the days until we fly to Italy. Mirko has promised to introduce us to “real” pizza and help us try all the best local gelato. We will get to meet all of Mirko’s Italian family and friends and be guests at his house. He will once again serve us as a cultural ambassador to a country that is part of our heritage and identity, but also a place we have never had the chance to explore. We can’t wait!

If you want to learn about a new culture and make a new best friend, why not choose to host an exchange student through Academic Year in America? It’s an experience that you will treasure for a lifetime.

My “daughter” Leoni is pretty awesome too!

The fall of 2014 was the beginning of our daughter Micah’s Senior year in high school. We thought about hosting an exchange student, hesitated because we knew it would be a busy year of “Senior” events, and then finally decided to commit only to find out our local high school had enrolled all the exchange students they could for the year.

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First Selfie with Leoni at the airport

We were disappointed until we learned from AYA that there was a German girl coming for only the Fall semester who was still in need of a host family. We read Leoni’s bio on the website and instantly knew we needed to say “yes” to hosting her.

Because Leoni had signed up to be an exchange student just a few months before, her mother in Germany was willing to pay for private school. I contacted my daughter’s private, all-girls school and they were thrilled to enroll her. Within a few weeks, we were able to Skype with Leoni and her family and welcome her to her new American family.

Leoni only stayed with us for a few weeks (20 to be exact), but she did more in those few weeks than most high school students do in four years! She joined the soccer team, basketball team, made countless new American friends, traveled with a new best friend and her family to Florida for the holidays, and still managed to squeeze in time for building memories with our family.

Meanwhile, the other kids in our family were doing big things too. Our oldest daughter had graduated from college with a degree in engineering the previous Spring and was in the process of securing her first “real” job and moving into her first apartment. Our high school Senior daughter was fielding college offers and choosing which school to attend. We had three kids, including Leoni, playing different levels of soccer, and one playing middle school tennis. I was teaching part-time at a local University and taking two graduate classes. My husband worked full-time. It was organized chaos at our house, but we loved every minute!

As the fall semester rolled past, we snapped photos to capture carving pumpkins, Trick-or-Treat in the neighborhood, Leoni’s first traditional American Thanksgiving, parties with fellow exchange students and their families, Senior day at the soccer field and team rallies right before the start of basketball games, and of course preparations and family outings to celebrate the holidays. One moment we were greeting Leoni at the airport, the next cheering her on at her final basketball game. Five months?! It felt more like 5 weeks and before we knew it, the dreaded day in January came and it was time for us to say goodbye.

On the way to the airport, we stopped at the high school for Leoni to have one last opportunity to hug her American friends. The tears flowed along with promises to stay in touch and reunite as soon as possible. I had been through these goodbyes before but seeing Leoni and her friends still brought me to tears. Everyone thinks the hard part of student exchange is welcoming a new student to your home, but I can speak from experience that “goodbye” is so much harder.

Much to Leoni’s despair, the early winter of 2015 was particularly dry in Ohio. The previous winter in Germany had been warmer than normal and when I asked Leoni what she hoped she could see while in the US, she told me, “snow”. All of her Ohio dreams had come true during her exchange semester except the promise of snow. As we drove to the airport to catch her plane, fat snowflakes began to fall from the sky. We looked at each other and smiled. Somehow, despite the craziness of life, school, sports schedules, and holidays, Leoni and our family had managed to squeeze it all in. The snow was the perfect commemoration of  a semester of friendship, fun and memories designed to last a lifetime.

If you have always thought you would like to host an exchange student but haven’t done so yet, what are you waiting for? Your family will always be too busy. You will always have too much going on. But, I can speak from personal experience that saying “yes” to hosting is possible even in the midst of organized chaos. If you don’t believe me, just ask my German “daughter”, Leoni.

Visit www.academicyear.org to fill out a host family application today. Students are arriving in August for a semester or whole academic year of study.

Meet my Brazilian”son”, Gabriel

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Gabriel with his American “Mom”

Gabriel came from Recife, Brazil to live with our family in early August, 2013. His English was still developing, but his giant smile and immediate embrace of each one of us at the airport won over our hearts in an instant. Everything was easy from the first moment with Gabriel. There was never any doubt in our minds that he belonged in our family.

We have so many, many wonderful memories of time spent together despite the fact that we never left home beyond a restaurant visit in a neighboring city. Whether it was laughing together over his first meeting with the school athletic director who thought if he just yelled louder Gabriel’s understanding of English would suddenly improve, spending way too much time waiting on him while he flew around Hollister in search of the perfect clothes for school, or giggling together in the car as we asked Siri answers to stupid questions, Gabriel routinely filled every moment of our mundane life with joy and laughter.

His enthusiasm for life was infectious and his gratitude and love for us expressed every day. I joked with his local coordinator that Gabriel had no idea what “personal space” was, but we both agreed that he represented everything good, fun and lovable about Brazilian culture. He was always cool under pressure, loved and accepted everyone, and never, never found a problem worthy enough to ruin the beauty of being alive one more day.

Gabriel played on the high school soccer team, made best friends with the neighbor down the street, found about 1,000 new friends in and around his high school classes, and fell in love with his first American girlfriend during the short ten months he stayed with us. He managed to encourage his host Dad to commit to intense workouts at the gym and entertained us with his passion for ketchup on pizza and resistance to wearing a winter coat, even during the coldest months because it made him, “look like a dork”.  Gabriel introduced us to more people in our community than we had ever known before because of his infectious ability to engage everyone he met.

Gabriel very quickly took over a large part of my ever growing mother’s heart. His grandparents, who only spoke Portuguese, came to visit and travel about the USA with him at the end of his exchange year. Gabriel, interpreting for his grandfather during dinner at our house one of the last nights we were together said, “My grandpa says…..he knows I have always wanted a family with a Mom and a Dad and brothers and sisters, a big family and…he can see, being here with you, that I have found my family. He says he is very thankful for you being my American family”.

One of the hardest goodbyes I have ever experienced was dropping Gabriel off at the hotel room of his grandparents before they left for the rest of their tour of the US.  We both cried buckets of tears and promised over and over again we would see each other soon. That was nearly three years ago, and even though we still haven’t had the opportunity to reunite officially, our love and friendship remain strong.

I can’t imagine our family without Gabriel. I am grateful for AYA, for the opportunity to participate in hosting an exchange student, and of course for Gabriel’s family in Brazil who sent him to the USA to live out a dream and meet his American family.

Academic Year in America is currently searching for qualified host families for the 2017-2018 school year. Whether you choose to act as a Welcome family, host a semester student, or dive right in for a full academic year, I promise you, it will be an experience you will never forget.

This is my “daughter” Yizheng, I mean Sherry

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Yizheng loves pandas so…. Christmas morning

Five years ago, our family decided to host an exchange student who would attend the small, private Catholic high school our daughter attended. We knew very little about China or Chinese culture and were super nervous this only child would hate living in our crazy house of eight. We weren’t sure if we should call her Yizheng or her “American” name, Sherry.

Hosting Yizheng during her first year of US study abroad was much more than East meeting West. Yizheng taught us to appreciate what isn’t said in conversations as much as what is. She showed me a great snack, lunch or dinner only requires water, a few spices and noodles. She helped us understand the realities of growing up in an overpopulated country with limited resources and serious pollution concerns. She explained the difference between education in China and  the US giving us a new appreciation for our freedom to choose public, private or homeschool.

We spent many hours discussing politics, differing cultural ideals, values and traditions with open minds and hearts. We laughed at our common global experience of relationship struggles between teen daughters and mothers. We learned we could love and care for someone very different from ourselves.

After a particularly challenging day of school one day, Yizheng got into our car sad and depressed. I tried to rally some optimism for her, but fell short. From the backseat of the car, my 7 year old son, Aidan, spoke up. He said,

 

“You just need to realize Yizheng that a lot of people care about you very much and you are not alone”. Be still my heart.

Whether teaching us to play Chinese poker or sharing stories of things she missed in China like her grandparents, friends from middle school, and authentic Chinese food, Yizheng slowly shifted from “exchange student living in our house” to “daughter, sister, friend”. We learned from her and she learned from us.  We introduced her to American baseball, the incredible gift of Chipotle burrito bowls on a Friday night, and how much we love our complicated, fast-paced life in the US. We had a crazy year of activities, a daughter’s college graduation that included an invitation to sit in the President’s box because she was chosen to speak on behalf of the student body, and regular mundane trips to the grocery store and Target. There were highs, lows and everything in between. We shared our home, our lives and all of our family with Yizheng, and then before we both knew it, the academic year was over.

Once home in China our relationship with Yizheng shifted slightly as the business of life and time zone differences made regular contact difficult. Yizheng took SAT Subject tests, AP Exams and filled out admissions essays for her applications to US colleges. We moved forward with our busy family life filled with work, school, hosting a new exchange student from Brazil, and helping a daughter buy her first home. At the end of the year, Yizheng told us she would be back to the US in the Fall to attend George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her dream of attending college in the US becoming a reality.

Today, we continue to keep track of each other through social media, occasional messages and Skype. Life continues to move quickly and teenaged girls grow into young, professionals seemingly overnight. What I am so grateful for today, what I will never regret, is our family’s choice to enter into the act of citizen diplomacy and volunteer to host an exchange student. It has helped us grow as people, increased our world view and greatly improved our understanding and appreciation of diversity.

Academic Year in America  is looking for American families to act as hosts to international high school aged kids for the 2017-2018 school year. There are three ways you can get involved:

1) Serve as a Welcome Family (6-8 week commitment)
2) Serve as a host family for a semester (5 month commitment)
3) Serve as a host family for a full academic year (10 month commitment).

Become a positive influencer in global relationships. Host with AYA and help bring the world together, foster understanding, and act as a bridge toward world peace. You will provide your family with an incredible learning experience and discover that “There are a lot of people who care about you…”.

 

 

So Why Should I Host an Exchange Student?

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It’s that time of year again. Time to start recruiting AYA host families and matching them up with the perfect student. I know what you are thinking….WHY would I want to host an exchange student in my home? Isn’t that a bit……crazy? Well, crazy maybe, but here’s my top 10 list as to WHY you should let go and be a little crazy.

10. It helps your family to behave (be nicer)

Seriously, your natural kids will behave better (for about a week or so) and you and your partner will be kinder, gentler, and more understanding with each other. After all, you want your family to be a model family/ home. You are representing the USA to someone from another country. Too much pressure? Read on.

9. You will meet more people in your community

I cannot believe how many more people my family has met because we happen to host exchange students. Sure, we meet students from around the world, but since we are the hosts of the local “celebrity” in town, so many people know, or know of, the exchange student. Recently we visited the local Chipotle, paused in reading an order from a text message because it read the ambiguous “meat” as an ingredient. Interrupting our discussion regarding what “meat” could mean, the burrito craftsperson said,”Oh if this for Mirko (Italian exchange student) he will want chicken”. What is this life?

8. You will learn more about USA culture

Truth! Culture is one of those often innate, generally subtle influences in our lives that we interpret as “reality”. We don’t really have to think about why we do the things we do past the age of 3 or 4. Just like having a preschooler in your midst questions your every action, word and thought, hosting an exchange student will bring up questions to things you never really considered. Why do you eat pizza with your hands? Why are the eggs white? What do the pink ribbons on cars mean? What’s the difference between “pop” and “soda”? It’s fascinating stuff!

7. You will rediscover local attractions

How many times have you said, “Yeah, we need to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame/ Art Museum, National Park…..” but failed to make time for it in your schedule? Having a deadline (like the end of an academic year with an exchange student) will provide you the necessary motivation to schedule in some fun with your family. No more putting things off for another week, you only have a few weeks to share with your exchange son or daughter and you need to make the most of it.

6. You will learn new games to play with your family

One Christmas while at a boring family reunion, our kids entertained themselves by playing “Chinese poker” thanks to Yizheng, our Chinese exchange student who just happened to bring along two packs of playing cards and the knowledge of the game. This past Christmas break we played Tombola (An Italian game similar to Bingo). Our family has learned lots of traditional family games from other cultures because the exchange kids introduce them. Great fun!

5. You can play World Cup Soccer in your backyard

Not a fan of soccer, you will be. Most of the world LOVES soccer like nobody’s business. Your exchange student’s enthusiasm will be catching and before you know it, you will be in your backyard engaged in your own version of the World Cup (USA vs. ?) It’s your choice!

4. You and your kids will learn A LOT about geography, world politics and culture

Not sure where Kazakhstan is? Wonder what life is like in the Ukraine? Concerned about life in the middle East or the number of Syrian refugees in Europe? Living with a student from another country will provide the opportunity to learn about the world in a new and exciting way. Car rides and family dinners will have the potential to help your world view evolve and your understanding of diversity expand. That’s a good thing.

3. Family meals will become an epicurean adventure

Exchange students love to share their culture and for most of us culture easily equates to food! We’ve enjoyed Nutella in large quantities before it graced the shelves of Target and learned that most every culture has some form of food in “pockets”. Seriously. Chinese dumplings, Pierogis, Ravioli, even Quesadillas, crepes or burritos are all excuses to hide deliciousness in a doughy substance and serve it to your family. Fast food from home will take on a whole new attitude as your epicurean palate expands with the help of your exchange student.

2. Your little kids will have the BEST show and tell ever and your older kids will have a live-in foreign language tutor.

Having a real live person from Spain to share with your class on World Cultures day at Elementary school is pretty awesome. The same goes for cramming for the French test with the help of your live-in native speaker tutor. Exchange students always want to improve their English, but in exchange (pardon the pun) they are always willing to share their culture, language and history with others. It’s a win-win.

1. The world will shrink, but your family will grow

China, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Morocco…..these locations are no longer abstract blobs on a map, but the homes of Yizheng, Gabriel, Guillaume, Leoni, Javier,  Mirko, Meriem, Alice and Letizia. My husband, kids and I can’t wait to visit these places and have our own personalized tour guides, but for now, we know our family is literally all over the world and we love it!

To start your hosting adventure visit Academic Year in America and fill out a host family application.

 

Liebster Award!

How cool is this?!

liebsterA Special Thank You! to DMNicholson at Baguettes and Boarding Passes for nominating my blog for this “newbie” award. Although, I’ve been around the blogosphere for a few years, I still get excited every time someone likes a post or encourages me in my writing. If you like travel, food and culture, you will want to check out Baguettes and Boarding Passes. It’s a pretty awesome blog too.

In the spirit of this award, I would like to nominate Just Add Culture: Stories From Academic Year in America. Their blog launched yesterday, May 27th! They deserve this award because they are the awesome non-profit organization that brings together host families and exchange students from around the world year after year. A part of the American Institute of Foreign Study, AIFS, AYA is committed to “promoting worldwide understanding through cultural exchange”. Cultural Exchange = World Peace.

So Kudos AYA! You have just received your first blogging award!!! Grab the Liebster from my page, post it on yours, then nominate one of your favorite new blogging friends.

To learn more about Academic Year in America and becoming a host family to start your own wonderful cultural exchange experience visit the AYA website by clicking here: www.academicyear.org

Ciao Mirko!

Announcing……….

Mirko
Mirko

Mirko, from Italy!

Mirko is coming soon to stay with our family for 10 months thanks to Academic Year in America. We are making great plans for learning about Italian culture (especially the food) and introducing American culture to him. For now, we text through WhatsApp and like each other’s Instagram and Facebook posts. We even managed to Skype once too. We are all getting excited and counting the days until Mirko arrives in the USA.

During the next two months we will finish the school year, celebrate a high school and a college graduation within our American family of kids, prepare to send a daughter to college in North Carolina, and continue to make big plans. It won’t be long until we start the next chapter in our International Family adventure: Italia

Ciao Mirko!

Graduation and Goodbyes

Gabriel was given the opportunity to participate in the Baccalaureate and Graduation ceremonies of our local high school to complete his Academic Year in America. It was a special time for our family to witness Gabriel’s accomplishments, and to recognize all the work we accomplished learning and growing as a host family.

Since the last time I attended WHS graduation was in 1982 when I graduated, I didn’t know about a new special tradition that was part of Baccalaureate. Near the end of the service, the Seniors stood up from their seats, walked to a bucket of red carnations, and then carried as many carnations as they wanted, to present to the people in attendance who helped them the most in completing their education. Teachers, parents, grandparents, and friends all received special recognition with these flowers. Gabriel gave his flower to me.

Baccalaureate Flowers

Graduation day was picture perfect. The sky was blue, the air warm, and inside the WHS gym there was a sea of red caps and gowns. After the ceremony, it felt like the entire city was present in the hallways and cafeteria/ commons areas as we all searched to reunite with our honored graduates.

Gabriel met up with our neighbor, one of his new best friends, to take one last photo as a high school student. We even made him pose with the school mascot, the Wadsworth Grizzly!

The Graduates
The Graduates
Gabriel, forever a Grizzly
Gabriel, forever a Grizzly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s been two months since that wonderful weekend of honoring accomplishment.

 

Taking a tour of WHS
Taking a tour of WHS

 

Gabriel was able to stay with our family for one week after graduation. His grandparents came from Brazil to meet our family, and to see where their Grandson had spent his school year.

It was an incredibly meaningful, and deeply moving experience to meet them. His grandfather told us we would always have a place to stay if we visited Brazil. He thanked us for all we did to help his grandson meet his dreams. He said he saw that Gabriel now had a true American family.

 

 

 

 

 

Gabriel and his American Mom
Gabriel and his American Mom

 

There have been many tears shed since we said our goodbyes. Gabriel is back home in Brazil, and we are texting nearly every day through the help of WhatsApp and our I-phones. We don’t know when we will reunite in person just yet, but whether its through Skype or travel, we know distance is not enough to separate our International Family.

 

 

Prom!

Gabriel & Jessy
Gabriel & Jessy

Gabriel’s American high school experience would be incomplete without Prom. Ask any high school alum about their Senior Prom, and generally speaking, they begin to wax poetic. The tuxedos, the gowns, the dinner, the photographs, the dancing; everything surrounding this culminating high school experience is designed to create a Cinderella meets Prince Charming type of night.

Since my older children homeschooled, this was my first experience with high school prom from a parental perspective. I was very impressed by the sense of unity the local high school and community shared to create a magical evening for the high school Seniors and their dates. It was heart warming and nostalgic, a classic example of small-town America.

Someone organized a pre-Prom photo shoot at a local church. It was here that Gabriel nervously waited for his Prom date to arrive, so they could begin their evening. The turn out for photos was surprising, considering the questionable weather that kept a dainty mistiness in the air promising to flatten fancy updos.

Cinderella arrived, beautiful and ready for the ball. Gabriel exchanged flowers with his princess, and I was allowed to snap a few photos to capture the magic.The church’s garden courtyard offers an ideal locale for beautiful photos. With the help of another couple, also parents of a Senior,  Gabriel and his prom group dashed between a few rain drops in the courtyard for an outdoor photo op. As parents we directed groupings and poses, and snapped photos with a frenzy.

Prom flowers
Prom flowe

 

Ready for the Promenade!
Ready for the Promenade!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the church photo shoot, the before Prom festivities continued at the local high school with “Promenade”. Promenade, I discovered, is an annual tradition where the community, accompanied by WCTV the local cable station, gathers together to act as paparazzi for the prom attendees. Students are announced individually  in the high school gym while walking through separate gym doors to opposite sides of a stage set in the middle. The prom dates climb the stairs of the stage, meet in the center, then pose to be photographed by a professional photographer. Promenade is an impressive display for parents, and a great way for the community to honor the students. With about 400 in the graduating class, it lasts several hours, but one by one, every student is announced while parents, friends, siblings, and grandparents patiently wait for their moment to honor their favorite high school senior.

The Prom was held at a local, relatively elegant, restaurant, the post prom party at the local Middle school, staffed by parent volunteers. As I reflect back on Gabriel’s Prom night, I realize the students, most likely, do not realize, the amount of effort and time their wonderful parents and community put forth in creating their magical Prom experience. Someday they will realize it, however.

Some day,  they will look back on their Senior Prom, view a few old photographs, and find their own motivation to wax poetic. Senior prom is classic Americana. WHS Senior Prom proved to be another classic, American high school experience for Gabriel.

 

A Family Graduation and NYC

May proved to be so busy for our family that we found ourselves running head long into one celebration after another. The month kicked off with our oldest daughter, Courtney, graduating from The University of Akron with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Receiving her degree was the end of a very long journey for Courtney, so despite the limit of tickets available for friends and family, we begged and borrowed enough seats in order to make sure all of her siblings could attend. If you are counting heads that’s nine tickets needed; a tough acquisition since the total ticket count available was only five per graduate.

All the kids at graduation
All the kids at graduation

After graduation, our family had a celebratory Italian dinner at a local restaurant. We ordered giant wood-fired pizzas to share with some ketchup on the side. Gabriel ate quickly before we whisked him off to meet his Local Coordinator, and a few other exchange students, for a whirlwind trip to NYC, the next appointment on the calendar of events for this host family.

Northeast Ohio is about an 8-9 hour drive from NYC, so Gabriel’s group rode the bus all night Friday in order to arrive at Macy’s  on Saturday morning. Everyone hopped off the bus  for a day long tour of NYC, then hopped back about 8pm for their return bus trip to Ohio. Twelve hours in the Big Apple isn’t quite enough time to see and do it all, but Gabriel had a great time, and was able to make it home in time to celebrate, Mother’s Day.

But first!  "Let me take a selfie" Photo Credit: Ryan Dunfee
But first! “Let me take a selfie”
Photo Credit: Ryan Dunfee

We kept our Mother’s Day celebrations low-key this year, by grilling steak and eating at home. In truth, what more could a mother want than to see her oldest daughter graduate college and have everyone gathered together to share memories and a meal? Gabriel’s new, American girlfriend came over Mother’s Day evening to visit with him, and to discuss their plans for the next weekend…….Prom!

Are you feeling out of breath yet? If not, I’m sure you can imagine the craziness and wonder we experienced as the final weeks of Gabriel’s exchange ticked by, and this Academic year in America began to draw to a close. There was no time for sadness, but lots to celebrate!