Foreign Exchange Students

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.

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Foreign Exchange Students

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…”.

 

 

Foreign Exchange Students

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.

 

Foreign Exchange Students

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.

 

 

Foreign Exchange Students

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.

 

Foreign Exchange Students

Local News

Trading Post: April 5th edition
Trading Post: April 5th edition

 

We made the local newspaper, The Trading Post. Actually, Academic Year in America made the local news. It’s time to recruit new host families for the 2014-2015 school year.

Has it almost been a year? I guess it has. Our whole family is dreading the inevitable “Goodbye” lurking around the corner. The experience of hosting always opens up family life to fresh new experiences. Even a boring weekend day holds something new to discover.

We’ve had some unexpected discoveries while hosting Gabriel, discoveries I never expected. Ironically, Gabriel introduced our family to many treasures held in our home town. It’s about seeing your own community through fresh eyes. Being a part of Gabriel’s experience has helped us get reacquainted with our hometown. Here are a few examples:

  • We joined the local YMCA Gabriel loves to work out, so he asked us about the local Y. His enthusiasm for exercise was contagious. Now the entire family is at the Y, working out, reconnecting with old friends and living a healthier life.
  • We met all kinds of new friends that live in our home town- Gabriel has interests outside of our regular family routine and therefore has met people we would never have met. Gabriel introduced us to new faces we will see long after he returns to Brazil. During our Friday night Chipotle tradition, it’s Gabriel who often greets more people and introduces us to them.
  • We became Grizzly parents– Although we live in a small community with good schools, our family has not taken advantage of them. That’s another story for another day, but since Gabriel attended our local high school, my husband and I have met the teachers, coaches, and fellow parents of Wadsworth High School Grizzlies. Since I graduated from WHS many moons ago, this has been a fun trip down memory lane. I didn’t expect all the reunions.

Hosting an international student definitely brings the world a lot closer. You just might be surprised, however, that it also helps you get to know your home town.

 

Foreign Exchange Students

Carnival!

It's time for Carnival in Recife
It’s time for Carnival in Recife

It’s Carnival in Brazil! According to Gabriel, our resident Brazilian cultural expert, “Carnival is the best!” Loosely tied to the religious tradition of Lent, Carnival is a party to beat all parties. It’s a chance for everyone in the community to come together, to dress in outrageous costumes, to dance, to sing, to drink.

Gabriel showed us some videos of Carnival past with friends. He found Youtube videos of different cultural dances and music. With the help of Google translate we translated many of the lyrics of the songs, so we could enjoy the lyrics as well as the incredible beat of Samba and Frevo music.

“I don’t think you have anything like Carnival”, Gabriel said.

“I don’t think so either”, I admitted.

“I think, this is why, why we come together and we are so…”

Gabriel was identifying an cultural difference between Brazil and the U.S., but struggling for the words. He has lived with American culture now for six and a half months and the honeymoon is over. Sure we have some fun things of our own; baseball games, American football games, DisneyWorld. But we also stress out a LOT, work too hard, get angry easily. It is impossible to hide the ugliness of culture for too long from someone who is new and full of observation in the effort to learn.

I nodded at Gabriel and said, “I know. I know what you mean”. I didn’t have the words either, but from the images I was watching of Carnival, of people of all ages dancing in the street, laughing at the cameras and simply enjoying life together, I knew I had never experienced that in my own culture; not regularly anyway.

Beautiful Recife and Carnival
Beautiful Recife and Carnival

Americans don’t have week long parties with friends. Short of college-aged Spring Break trips (which I never had the luxury of attending) I can’t think of a time when friends, neighbors, and even people you’ve never met before gather together for a week-long party designed to celebrate all the goodness of life. It’s wild. It’s loud. It’s full of music, dancing, no sleep, and crazy behavior reserved only for Carnival. It must make incredible memories. It must bond together a culture in a way I have yet to experience.

“You guys got to come sometime”, Gabriel said.

That’s the only invitation I need. Thank you Gabriel for teaching us about Carnival- Recife style. Read more about Carnival on NPR.org There’s even a movie for your viewing pleasure.

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Foreign Exchange Students

Snow Days

I’m sure one of the first things Gabriel noticed about Ohioans this Fall/ Winter was our obsession with discussing the weather. It’s true we frequently discuss weather, but in our defense, the weather is ever changing, and generally proves to be an interesting topic for small talk with friends or strangers.

“Do you talk about the weather in Brazil ?”, I asked him after one particularly dramatic account by my husband regarding dipping temperatures.

“No, never”, he said.

“I guess I understand that”, I added. “Why would you talk about how perfect the weather is, if it’s perfect every day”.

This winter has been exceptionally volatile with deep-freeze wind chills and heavy snow storms. For someone used to 80F/ 25C and sunny, Ohio winter has proven to be quite a shock.

“In Brazil, we never thought this temperature could be anywhere, but like the North Pole”, Gabriel told me one day when the high was -3F.

“I know”, I responded. “It’s horrible, but for some reason we put up with it”.

This past week, Gabriel discovered one benefit of putting up with Ohio winters. Snow Days!

Snow Days rule at our house!
Snow Days rule at our house!

For the first time, Gabriel experienced joy mixed with heavy anticipation as we checked, then re-checked, the school closings list, waiting….For the first time, he understood the ecstasy of receiving a magical 411 phone call from the district Superintendent, even at 5:00am, announcing his regret at having to shut down school for the day. He, like most Ohio teens, embraced the reality of a “forced” pajama day of movies, video games, and sleeping in. Snow? Cold weather? No problem because there is no school!

These past two weeks, our quota of snow days has been met for the year. My teenage daughter found, and re-tweeted,  “5 day school week? That’s so 2013!” We are in amazement at the constant onslaught of cold, snow, and time off. No one is regretting the misfortune of living in  extreme January Ohio this year. We may not have the beach. We may not have 25C and sun, but We. Have. Snow days!

Keeping warm in Ohio—

Foreign Exchange Students

Throwback Thursday– A First Thanksgiving

One of my favorite holidays is Thanksgiving. I’m not sure exactly when I discovered this, but I have a feeling it was sometime near the beginning of my motherhood career. As the Mom of the family, traditionally speaking, the thrill of holidays lessens a bit because of the burden of creating the holiday. Once awarded the title of “Event Manager” for my own family, I quickly warmed up to the  joys of simple holidays that provide maximum fun with minimum exhaustion.

Birthdays and Christmas are awesome, but exhaustive in their expectations and duties. Thanksgiving, often under rated, asks little of me, but offers great rewards. All that is required for a successful celebration is the gathering up of food, family, and friends.

Thanksgiving, is also a truly American experience. Despite our vast diversity as citizens, most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in some form. This holiday is one of my favorite American cultural traditions to introduce to international friends. It’s true other countries have Thanksgiving celebrations, but only in the U.S.A., do we combine turkey, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, football, gratitude, family and friends into one big party, then follow it up with the epitome of consumerism with Black Friday madness. It’s classic American culture at its best.

This year our family had the privilege to introduce Thanksgiving to Gabriel. Like most teenage boys, Gabriel loves to eat. As I encouraged everyone to help themselves to seconds, I told Gabriel to grab a turkey leg. He hesitated at first, I think not wanting to seem greedy. We told him everyone should have a giant turkey leg for their first Thanksgiving. It’s delicious, fun and a bit crazy. He grabbed the leg and I snapped his picture. Nothing says, “American Thanksgiving” better than a giant turkey leg.

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Eat like an American

After dinner our family sat around the table and shared things we were thankful for. We migrated to the living room to watch football and play the Wii. We discussed and plotted our our Black Friday shopping trip. Relaxing and fun. A simple holiday with simple expectations and maximum enjoyment. I’m thankful for Thanksgiving.