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!

 

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Foreign Exchange Students

Easter!

Due to scheduling issues, we could not take any small or large trips for Spring Break. Gabriel did have the opportunity, however, to travel with a group of fellow exchange students to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. Imagine traveling with 7 teenaged boys and one other adult chaperone, and you can imagine the level of patience and generosity that fill the heart of Gabriel’s Local Coordinator for his exchange program.

Photo Credit: Ryan Dunfee
Photo Credit: Ryan Dunfee
Photo Credit: Ryan Dunfee
Photo Credit: Ryan Dunfee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Gabriel returned from his week long “educational field trip”, one of the youngest Spoerndle kids had a dance performance as a Sprout with a professional dance company in the area, Saturday night. The next day, we concluded our family “Spring Break” weekend with Easter!

It’s a busy life. It’s a full life. But we are making every moment matter. This international family only has one academic year to live life to its fullest.

Sporting their East best
Sporting their East best
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

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

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.

Foreign Exchange Students

Gabriel’s First Pumpkin

Did you know Pumpkins did not grow in Brazil? I didn’t until I asked Gabriel. Needless to say, when I explained we would be carving pumpkins to use as decorations to celebrate an American Halloween, Gabriel had no frame of reference for this cultural experience.

Our family hosted an International Pumpkin Fest last weekend. As a fun activity, I suggested all the exchange students bring a pumpkin to carve. I thought it would be a great American cultural experience for the exchange students to experience.

My favorite moment of the evening was standing around our impromptu pumpkin carving station in our living room, helping Gabriel carve his first pumpkin. He ran into his bedroom two different times to change his shirt, after realizing the full scope of our project.

“You just have to reach in, Gabriel, and grab the ‘pumpkin guts'”

“Oh, boy….I think I need to change my shirt”

Gabriel’s expression was priceless. There is no way to explain a US American’s love of pumpkin carving.  It makes no sense, but, like Homecoming, it’s what we do each fall to celebrate. Sometimes, culture defies explanation, and you just have to live it, to believe it.

As the party wrapped up, upon my direction, Gabriel carried his giant pumpkin outside to our front porch.

“It’s not good”, he said.

“No, it will look fabulous lit up. I promise, you’ll see”, I said.

“Oh, I think it’s bad. I think it’s a bad pumpkin”.

“No really, it’s great….trust me”.

My husband took out his cell phone, placed it into the pumpkin, and ….magic!

 “Oh, it’s good!  It’s good! Yeah!, okay….okay”

Gabriel's First North American Pumpkin
Gabriel’s First North American Pumpkin

Pumpkin carving phenomenon explained. Sometimes you just have to live it to know it.

Happy Halloween!

Foreign Exchange Students

A One Month Anniversary

We were celebrating my daughter’s birthday with a family dinner at Olive Garden. Sitting around the table, eating pasta, salad and those amazing breadsticks, we laughed with each other, chatted about the news in our lives, and relished the unique experience of being gathered together around one table. The meal was excellent, the company even better.

As the conversation and dinner lagged, Gabriel made an announcement.

“You know, today….it is exactly one month that I have been here. It seems so fast!”

I looked at him in amazement and realized I had forgotten I hadn’t known him his whole life. It was only one month ago that I had met this young man for the first time.  One month ago, we had arrived at the airport searching for him through a sea of passengers, and hoping to recognize him from his photos. One month ago, we had drove from the airport trying to speak slowly for understanding. One month ago, we were nervous, polite and unsure of each other. Now we were “family”. Had it really been one month?

“You’re right”, I said. “It was August 15 and now it is September. Happy Anniversary!”

We reminisced about the past month. It had been good, very good, but busy. Lots of soccer practices and games, the frustrations of registering at a new school, the start of classes, crazy teachers who didn’t understand the struggles of taking a class as a non-native English speaker, catching the school bus; most of the time. So many things. So many experiences. So fast.

I usually try to remember important moments like birthdays and anniversaries, but this one caught me off guard. I’m glad we remembered, but I love that I forgot. Without our formal realization, Gabriel had become a permanent fixture in our family culture. He was not a stranger or a temporary resident in our home.  At that moment, I realized, Gabriel was family.

Foreign Exchange Students

Getting to Know John Deere

Not too long ago, my husband decided to introduce Gabriel to a good friend of his, John Deere. Being the main provider of lawn service for our family, my husband is always anxious to find a little help from unsuspecting children. Exchange students are never exempt from his tactics.

I don’t think Gabriel had been in our home more than a week, when I overheard the following conversation.

“Hey Gabriel!”

“yeah”

“Would you like to learn to drive a tractor?”

“A what?”

“Here, come outside. I’ll show you”

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Poor Gabriel.  He never stood a chance. The call of the green machine was too great.

From the look on his face, however, I think he enjoyed his lesson on lawn maintenance. I guess there must be something about a green tractor and the great outdoors that appeals to men across cultures. Go figure.

Foreign Exchange Students, Uncategorized

Get Ready, Get Set, Go!

Hello and welcome to my blog, “An International Family”. I chose to create this blog to chronicle our family’s experience with international student exchange.

Our family fell into hosting exchange students completely by accident. In 2006, we were a homeschool family and often received mailings directed to traditional brick and mortar schools at our home. One day a postcard sent in the mail beckoned to me saying, “Take Your Foreign Language Students to Europe!” It was such a refreshing idea, that I went to the company’s website to peruse my options and pondered how to market the idea to other homeschool families.

Then I saw it. A little button titled, “Host in the US”. I clicked and within moments I had entered my contact information and sent off an email inquiry regarding hosting an exchange student for a short three week visit.

The next day, I was called by a French teacher from a local high school who had received my contact information from the website. They were desperate for host families and “was I still interested?” Gulp. I realized I was launching into new territory, but what the heck. It was only three weeks in the summer. “Sure”, I said.

He asked me what type of student I would like to host. Trying  to appear diplomatic I said, “Ideally, a girl, but we can take a boy”. I had two teenage daughters at the time and absolutely did not want to host a boy. He promised to find a good match and would forward the student’s contact information to us as soon as possible.

Within the week, we received the notice of our match, a French boy named Guillaume. I looked at this kid’s profile and photo and wondered what I had gotten our family into.  I didn’t realize at the time we had just entered into one of the most exciting experiences of our family’s lifetime.

We picked up Guillaume at the school’s parking lot a few months later. It was mid-July and he would stay with our family for three weeks. His goal was to spend time with a typical American family to learn about typical American culture and to improve his English fluency. We were not to “entertain” him, but treat him as a member of the family.

After some formal introductions, he hopped into the front seat of our mini-van. I started the car, nervous and unsure what to say to this “new family member”. He placed his hand on the dashboard in front of him and said almost in disbelief to me, “We have this same car”. “You do?” I asked. “Yes, only green”, he answered.

There is a comfort and security in the familiar and we both smiled at each other relieved to have found common ground so quickly. Guillaume’s stay with our family was a series of “Us too!” moments. The world shrunk daily as we began to realize  we had more in common with northern France, than even some of our American neighbors. It was an exciting educational time of bonding and learning for Guillaume and our family.

Circa 2006

Three weeks passed very quickly, and before we knew it we were saying goodbyes and sharing hugs at the airport. There were many tears from everyone and we both promised to stay in touch. We held to our promises, exchanging emails, letters, photos, and Christmas gifts for years. My oldest two daughters visited his family in France the next summer. His younger brother, Pierre, and younger sister, Charlotte visited us in subsequent summers.

My daughter,  Sammi, so inspired from meeting Guillaume and his family fell in love with France and French culture. Because of our relationship with this student through a three week foreign exchange, she was able to travel independently to Europe multiple times while still in high school and experience French culture in an authentic and personal way. She later chose to major in French education in college and spent last summer studying in a college in Provence to conclude her undergraduate education. She will begin her career as a French teacher this Fall at a local high school. All of this, because we chose to say, “yes” to “can you host a student?”

Last May, I became a Local Coordinator for Academic Year in America (AYA). I am responsible for connecting host families with international students and helping them through the often murky waters of student exchange paperwork and cultural challenges. I love my work, and believe so much in the power of student exchange to change cultural expectations and stereotypes. I truly believe student exchange helps future generations along the path to world peace and unity.

Won’t you join our family and others in the adventure of a lifetime? I promise it will change you in every good way and you won’t be disappointed.