Foreign Exchange Students

My Moroccan “daughter” Meriem…

Meriem
Meriem, our Moroccan daughter

I will keep this brief. Today is a hard day for our family and for Meriem. Today was the day we chose to avoid talking about, but prepared for nonetheless. Today was the day at 6:20AM when bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived we drove to our local airport, helped her sort out the weight distribution between her checked bag and carry-on and shared one last hug and a selfie. This day, like all of the “see you laters” of student exchange, is the hardest day.

I could share so much about our Moroccan daughter and all she taught us. I could tell you how we sorted through US Politics together trying to make sense of an election so many did not understand. I could tell you that we discovered there are more similarities to the Muslim and Christian faiths than there are differences. I could tell you how we shared endless laughs, dreams and stories, but all of that would be more meaningful to Meriem and our family than you.

So to summarize how much this exchange experience meant to my whole family, (and to convince you, dear reader to say “yes” to your own hosting experience) I will simply share a small snippet of a letter I gave to Meriem right before she hit the TSA line.

The love we have shared living and being a family for 10 months reminds me so much of the character of God. “Random” exchanges quickly evolve into “adopted sons and daughters” who fill my life with hope, love and friendship. On really bad days, when it seems like the evil of this world is winning, I only have to remember all the friends and “family” I have been blessed with all over the world, and I know love is real and conquers all. Love wins. It’s a constant comfort and makes me well up with tears just to think about it.

The love I have for you is very real and I wanted to share it with you in this letter, so you will never be able to doubt it…..I learned after the death of a family member 17 years ago, a simple truth that carries me through all of the “goodbye moments” life brings. It is simple and one I want you to remember. The love a family shares is so strong that no distance will ever be too great for it. Our family’s love will keep us close and we will be ever present because we live forever in each other’s thoughts, memories and hearts.

Bon Voyage my sweet daughter……

*Learn more about becoming a host family at Academic Year in America

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Foreign Exchange Students

Why yes! Mr. Incredible is my “son”!

The 2015-2016 school year brought two young men into our lives to live as our exchange sons, but I only refer to one as “Mr. Incredible”. Fifteen year old Javier stepped off his plane to meet our family in mid August of 2015. He was exhausted, having just spent a whirlwind four days at his orientation with Academic Year in America in New York City. My heart went out to him as we exchanged hugs to begin our year together as “family”.

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Welcome to Ohio, Javier!

I knew how tired Javier was feeling. I had served as a chaperone for the same orientation the week prior. During my week, I had the opportunity to co-chaperone a bus load of students with Bea, a representative of the Spanish partnering organization, STEP. As we chatted on the bus, she told me she knew Javier’s mother, and that she had interviewed him in Spain when he and his family came to apply for the program. She reassured me that we would love Javier. I told her I had no doubt we would, and to please tell his mother that I said “Hello!” And there you have it…international relations at work in the midst of a bus load of teenagers in NYC….one might say, incredible.

Before Javier’s arrival to the US, I had the good fortune to “chat” with his natural mother via WhatsApp. She was understandably nervous about sending her young son to the USA for a year away from his family. We connected easily by sharing photos and messages, her English as poor as my Spanish, but our mother’s love the only language required for understanding.

 

My children and I helped Javier load his suitcase into our car and drove home to meet the rest of his “family” for the next few weeks, including his fellow exchange brother, Mirko. After a brief moment to catch his breath, we rushed him off to the high school for a meeting with the guidance counselor followed by dinner at Chipotle and a trip to the mall for back to school shopping. Javier was exhausted, but we were on a mission. School would start the following week and the weekend was filled with our son Jonah’s college graduation and 21st birthday! We had to make every moment count.

Despite the hectic pace, Javier survived his first weekend with us and never blinked. He displayed his quintessential quiet and thoughtful character, and when we weren’t expecting it, displayed a clever dose of humor. He was the polar opposite of his exchange brother, but fit right into our family like he had been there from the beginning. We knew we wanted Javier to stay the entire year with us, asked him if it was ok, and when he agreed, transformed ourselves from “Welcome” family to “Permanent host family” of Mr. Incredible.

Mirko and Javier
The “Bad” Banana and Mr. Incredible

Javier’s gentle, kind, generous spirit was always a welcome relief in the midst of our often hectic, boisterous and noisy family life. He diplomatically mentioned one day that he was the designated “crepe chef” for his family at home.  If we would like, he would be happy to share his culinary skills with us. There were many, many times throughout the school year that I would take him up on his offer, Javier’s crepes bringing delicious magic to our meals.

Javier became a sort of aficionado of American cuisine. He and I explored the art of baking American chocolate chip cookies, a delicacy far removed from the dry, crusty Chips Ahoy sold in Spain. He marveled at the vast diversity of Oreo cookies for sale in US grocery stores, and so in the spirit of educational research, we embarked on a valuable market research initiative to compare and critique each variety.

We learned to rely on Javier’s companionship, as he always made time in his schedule to play ball with our family dog, video games with our youngest son, and even tag along on trips to the gym with my husband. Once, Javier drove with me on a very long 2+ hour drive to an exchange student’s home to conduct a “mediation” meeting between the family and student. He helped distract me from the problems that ensued with a sympathetic ear and laughter. Javier had a way of helping all of us remain calm and focus on the simple, good things in life like cheeseburgers, burritos, cookies….and a family’s love.

Javier kept us up to date on news of his family in Spain and translated messages to and from his Mother for me. During his stay we not only got to know him, but his entire family. We learned of his Dad’s love of Star Wars and his mother’s love of taking long walks every day for exercise. He helped me perfect a recipe for Paella and reminded me some day I would have to eat his father’s Paella. He told us so many stories of him and his brothers that we felt like we knew them too.

Javier was an adorable anomaly at his high school where girls often giggled as he passed by. While his exchange brother made a point to charm young women, Javier played it cool. I reminded him often that he was pretty much a celebrity and he would laugh at the suggestion. Once, unbeknownst to him, he was invited to a “Seniors Only” Halloween party and became a “rock star” at school the next week. How did he, a mere Sophomore, get invited to a Senior’s only party? When his parents worried about his adjustment to high school in the US, I reassured them that Javier was doing very well. He was, after all,  “Mr. Incredible”.

Javier’s family served as hosts to American college students throughout his childhood. His parents wanted their children to learn English at a young age and believed one of the best ways was to have the exchange students speak to them regularly in English. This experience helped Javier learn what it meant to be a part of a host family and gave him insight into the realities of exchange student life. During his time in the US, despite his young age, he never shied away from the multitude of challenges faced, but instead met each one with dignity, grace, courage and a smile.

Our year together passed too quickly, but our goodbye was not as bitter as years past. I knew Javier’s family had missed him terribly and could not wait to welcome him back home. I was excited for their reunion. We promised each other that our family would come to Spain to visit and began our plans to fulfill the promise during the summer of 2017.

As I work this year to encourage families to consider hosting an exchange student, I often share Javier’s story. Javier was only supposed to stay a few weeks with us until I found his permanent host family. By the end of his first weekend in our home, I knew we had found them. Who wouldn’t want to host Mr. Incredible?!

Javier
Who’s this “American” boy? Why…it’s Mr. Incredible!

To find out more about hosting as a Welcome, Semester, or Full year Host Family, visit www.academicyear.org

 

Foreign Exchange Students

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.

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

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!

 

Foreign Exchange Students

We would say, “Goodbye”, but that’s got to wait

As a member of a host family for an exchange student, each day begins to feel like it’s meant to be lived to its fullest. It doesn’t start out that way. But, one day, you wake up and realize you aren’t “us” and the student “them”. You realize the lines have blurred and you can’t see the difference. You realize you have become family. Your exchange student is no longer someone you host, but simply one of your kids.

As this realization settles in, it usually brings along reminders that the end of the year is approaching. You try not to focus on the end, but it’s darned reality keeps cropping up and nipping at your heart. The answer to this dilemma is to begin living life to its fullest.

And so…..we did. Our life as a family of 8 (now 9) is generally action-packed, but Springtime activities always seem to ramp everything up just a bit. I took lots of photos and made lots of notes, but there just wasn’t enough time left for blog posts. So, in an effort to catch up the rest of the world on our 2nd year as a host family, I present a number of “Throwbacks Posts” to remember the good times when life was lived to its fullest.

Foreign Exchange Students

The International Pumpkin Fest!

Chinese PumpkinCostumes, Trick or Treat, Pumpkin Carving, Pumpkin flavored cuisine, China, Brazil and Germany. These were just a few of the ingredients at the International Pumpkin Fest held at our house last night. Most of the exchange students and host families,  I supervise through Academic Year in America (AYA), came together to share culture, food and friendship.

Guided by the inspiration of Pinterest, my daughter, Micah and I, planned a delicious array of Pumpkin Pie Popcorn, Pumpkin Pie Cream Cheese Dip, Pumpkin Macaroni and Cheese, and BBQ Beef Sandwiches. A German exchange student brought Kaiserschmarm (delicious caramelized German pancakes), and others brought an assortment of chips, pretzels, nuts, and cookies. It was a feast of Fall treats.

As a host family it is always fun to meet others who “are as crazy as you”. Student exchanges are as meaningful to host families as they are to the exchange student. You really can’t fully understand until you live it. Our International Pumpkin Fest brought together cultures and families, and helped us all build new friendships.

One host “Mom”, who is actually a retired Grandma, is having a wonderful time rediscovering the joy of having a teenager in the house. She sent me a lovely email, after the party, that summarized beautifully why I do what I do, for AYA.

 “Thanks for the nice get together – it seems like those folks are my kind of folks – all good people who like helping and you are our leader   🙂   Thank you, Regenia”

From Left to Right: China, Germany, Brazil, China
From Left to Right: China, Germany, Brazil, China
Foreign Exchange Students, Uncategorized

Homecoming

1186196_467365383361180_1611851314_nIt’s Homecoming weekend in our small town. Since my older children homeschooled, and my current high school aged daughter attends a private, all girls school, Gabriel is introducing our family to the local high school homecoming culture. It’s been an education for all of us.

Gabriel has caused quite a sensation at the high school with the female population. He was asked my numerous young ladies to be their date to Homecoming. He feigned ignorance until one of his favorite girls chose her moment. He accepted and reassured us that, “she is very beautiful”.  How sweet we thought. How cute.

Neither Gabriel, nor my husband and I, realized the extent of pageantry associated with the annual Homecoming dance. Apparently, the first invitation was insufficient. Gabriel was instructed by his date that he must now ask her to the dance. He described the dialogue to us one evening.

“But you asked me?”he said.

“Yes”, but you must now ask me”

“And if I do, you will say, yes?”

“Yes, but you must ask”

“O.K. Will you go with me to Homecoming?”

“No, not that way. You know. Ask cute”

Confused, Gabriel sought out the cultural experts; the Physics class. The teacher explained with a laugh, “You know Gabriel, with flowers or candy…..cute!”

 

“What is this?” he asked my husband and I.

I shook my head. I had no idea. Was he going to the Homecoming dance or getting ready to propose marriage? Was this a little over the top?

“I don’t know, Gabriel”, I admitted. “This is a culture I don’t understand either”.

My husband summed it up for him. “I guess you are learning that American girls are high maintenance”.

“Hey!” I cautioned. “Watch the stereotypes”.

Eventually we figured it out. Gabriel’s date got her “official proposal to the dance”. She provided instruction on numerous other cultural expectations for the evening. Flowers, her dress color and his subsequent tie choice, budget for the evening’s dinner, and time and location of pictures were just a few of the lessons. It was a personalized, independent study on American high school culture and dating for Gabriel; direct and complete.

It’s been an interesting cultural lesson for our entire family. You never realize how important it is to have a cultural ambassador until you try to navigate the murky waters of a high school dance. We salute Gabriel’s date for setting sail, inviting him into the boat, and making sure his voyage was smooth sailing.