Foreign Exchange Students

Student Exchange and COVID-19

Last Monday I was counting the days until Spring Break.

By Tuesday evening, I was emailing my University students confirmation that our class would be moving online after a 2 week hiatus in response to COVID-19 identified in our State.

On Wednesday, I read news updates, sent emails to AYA student support staff, and tried to reassure nervous exchange students and host families what I was struggling to also understand.  News broke that a specific German scholarship program decided to conclude their exchange year early and students were to be sent back home.

“Will we be sent home too?”

“I don’t know, but AYA will tell us if anything will end your program year earlier than expected”.

The announcement was made that COVID-19 patient numbers were rising in Ohio and everyone was scrambling for answers to the question, “What do we do next”?

Thursday brought the announcement that K-12 schools in our area would close until April, per our Governor’s mandate. Host families and students were confused, a bit scared, and still wondering, “what do we do next”?

Our small group of students and families were scheduled to volunteer Thursday evening for a local non-profit, so we went, volunteered, and served as each other’s support group. We shared news we had heard, and tried to wrap our heads around what our lives were going to look like for the next few weeks. Or would it be a few months?

The empty store shelves, grim statistics revealing the worst was yet to come, news of dire circumstances in Italy…. it generated anxiety, more questions, and lots of stress.

By Thursday night, I needed reassurance too.  I used Instagram to message former exchange students, now family, in Italy and Spain. They were ok they said and so were their families. Their lives were sequestered at home, waiting out the storm…but they were all healthy. We promised each other we would stay in touch, pray for each other, and sent heart emojis to express a virtual “kiss” and “hug”.

On Friday morning I woke up and scanned the news. The reality of living with COVID-19 in my community was settling in and the level of anxiety was rising. I felt a bit hopeless, overwhelmed and needed to re-focus. How could we find joy in the midst of so much stress and anxiety? And then, I realized the lesson that tragedy always teaches: Life is precious.

We can not guarantee tomorrow, but we can celebrate today. Celebrating life is one of the reasons my family got involved with student exchange. Serving as a host family allows us to savor each day of family life, because in reality we only have 10 months of moments to share with each student. A trip to the grocery store, a visit to Chipotle, introducing the joy a Target run can bring…. all of these mundane errands become fresh new experiences when shared with your exchange student. There is joy to be found in each day.

I searched online for “Daily Celebrations for March”and was directed to the award-winning website/ blog “The Spruce”. I found a list of ways to celebrate March 14-21st, opened up an email to my host families and students and created our first “Corona Currier” newsletter (title under development). I reminded them of the life lesson I remembered, that we can celebrate and bring joy to each day, and gave them a list of ideas.

Today, is March 14th (3.14) and that equals pie! So, today, as the COVID-19 storm rages on around us, and we live with the uncertainty of what will happen next, we are choosing to take a moment and choose joy. Happy Pi Day everyone!

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Throwback to March 16, 2019 when David discovered Pizza Pie- Chicago Style

 

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.