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

First Semester…. check!

The Fall semester of school was a whirlwind at our house. With two biological high school teens (A Senior cheerleader and a Freshman marching band drummer) plus a foreign exchange student teen, our calendar was full! It wasn’t until planning out this post and creating our latest video for Youtube that I realized my feeling the need to slow down time was perfectly legit.

We started the semester out strong with “First Day of School” pics for everyone.  September flew by with community service volunteering, a minor league baseball game outing, football games, marching band competitions, our oldest daughter’s 30th birthday (what?!) and our youngest daughter’s 18th!

Before we realized it, October was upon us and so were Homecoming Dances and a visit from our German “son”, David. He completed his exchange year in June, but was able to convince his parents to let him come back over Fall break to visit his former high

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David came home!

school friends and exchange family. It was truly a Homecoming week celebration in many ways for us this year!!

My Senior daughter, Sierra, began her college applications this fall too. So, in the spirit of supporting her choices, Leenah, Sierra and I visited Xavier University in Cincinnati. We really enjoyed their Open House event and of course, the outlet shopping we found along the way there. There is nothing like an all girls educational road trip to finish out a month.

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College Visit Photo Op

In November, Academic Year in America sent Sierra and I to Barcelona, Spain for their National Meeting. We managed to meet up with David and his family (once again) and also extend our trip to tour Carcassone, Arles and Nice, France. It was an amazing trip to begin the month.

*Note: I was able to bring a companion with me on this business trip for the first time. My husband was super excited, until we decided that Sierra should get to be my companion She studies French and Spanish and hopes to major in International Studies in college next year. Happy 18th Birthday, Happy Graduation….and better luck next time, John ❤ #Momanddaughtertrip

November continued with International Education Week presentations (a requirement of FLEX and KLYES scholarship students) and an enhancement activity through Hale Farm’s educational programming. The exchange students got their first taste of traditional American Thanksgiving dinner and a history lesson on the holiday from Honest Abe— such fun!

We wrapped up November with Thanksgiving dinner at our house and our annual kick-off to the Christmas season… tree lighting festivals in Akron and Cleveland. Since our student, Leenah, is Muslim, this was her first time celebrating and experiencing Christmas. She told us she wanted to “see it all!” so we made time for outdoor light displays, baking cookies, shopping, shopping, and shopping.

December is always a mad dash to Christmas break and this year was no exception. We started the month with an enhancement activity in Cleveland, Ohio with 13 exchange students, several host siblings, and host parents. We were quite a group!

We learned about American entrepreneurship through making candles at the Cleveland Candle Company, experienced the joys of American diversity through a scavenger hunt and lunch at the West Side Market, visited University Circle’s CircleFest celebration of light and art, and volunteered as Santa’s elves for the Polar Express train of the Cuyahoga Valley Railroad. And that…. was all in one day !

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Just another night at the North Pole!

December also the traditional end of semester band concerts, parties and gift exchanges but we topped off our exchange cluster’s first semester by seeing the touring Broadway shoe, “Mean Girls” at  Playhouse Square .

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Some students had dreaded Midterm exams before break and some spent their holiday from school preparing for them, but just like that… the first half of the exchange year is complete.

If you would like to get involved in hosting an exchange student for the 2020-2021 academic year, visit AYA’s website at: www.academicyear.org 

Foreign Exchange Students

Welcome to the USA

For the past several years AYA has asked me to help chaperone one of their student orientations during the month of August. Held in NYC, this is always an exciting, fun-filled four days as we greet students from all over the world, help them adapt to the fast-paced American lifestyle, site see in NYC, and then send them on their way to their host families scattered all over the US.

 

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This year, my daughter Sierra was able to volunteer as well as a teen chaperone. She was on hand as a “expert” of American teen culture and to provide a short presentation of her own exchange experience in Ecuador this past summer with the US Department of State’s  Youth Ambassadors program.

Along with two other American teens, Sierra and the others acted as wonderful liaisons to bridge cultural gaps and fears for the upcoming school year.

 

I decided to make a video this year for my new Youtube Channel, An International Family, to highlight the excitement and energy of Orientation. Not only does this kick off another year of AYA adventures for me as an Local Coordinator, but it also gives you some added insight to what exchange students experience before they even meet their families and friends for the next school year.

 

Strap on your seatbelts and get ready. This post marks the beginning of another year of adventure and cultural exchange!

Foreign Exchange Students

It’s not goodbye…

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Nicole from Italy poses for one last photo with her host family

Proms, final exams, and graduations have come and gone. Lockers have been closed for the last time and the once slightly unsure new international student has transformed into a confident bilingual “American” teenager. It’s June and that means another Academic Year in America has come to an end.

As a Local Coordinator, I am always on the look out for families who wish to serve as hosts to international students for a semester or whole academic year. I often hear, “I just don’t know if we can commit to hosting for all that time”. I completely understand the hesitancy and nerves, but I usually tell people, “As hard as this decision is now, I promise you time will fly and before you know it, you will be at the airport saying See you Later!”

I learned not to say “goodbye” a long time ago. Goodbye is way too final, and painful.I advise families and students to re-phrase their last moments as  “See you later”.

The truly difficult part of letting your international son or daughter return home isn’t the tear wrenching last hugs at the airport, but a deeper sadness that gnaws at your heart because you aren’t quite sure when the next hug will come. It is a dropping-your-first-child-off-at-college-level of grief that eases just a bit each time you host again.

It is no small thing to welcome a teenaged stranger into your home and family. Host families make meals, help with homework, attend sporting events, concerts, plays, and parent/teacher conferences. Host siblings learn to share their parents attention, but also their secrets with a new brother or sister. The rhythm of family life expands and conforms to its newest member and before you realize it, no one can imagine life without the other. The love and bond between students and families are real, meaningful, and long-lasting.

These past few weeks have been filled with parties: celebrations of host families and exchange students. Favorite foods have been served, gifts exchanged and lots of photos taken. Discussions of “how will we fit all of this stuff into your suitcase” and the mysterious magic of vacuum bags have filled our conversations. We have spent the final days of our exchange experiences in celebration, not sadness.

Holding on to this spirit, we go to the airport, that same airport we stood in nervously 5 or 10 months prior, ready to meet each other face-to-face for the first time. This time, our nerves are focused on whether the bag will weigh less than 50 pounds and the fear of losing our battle of holding back the flood of tears that threatens to burst forth at any moment.

We take one last photo, exchange one last hug, watch our son or daughter walk to the TSA agent and say, “See you Later”!

Visit our YouTube Channel for more real life hosting adventures

 

Foreign Exchange Students

Throwback Thursday: NYC Girls Trip

Part of my work as a Local Coordinator for Academic Year in America includes planning “enhancement activities” or educational field trips for the exchange student and their host families if they choose to tag along. Most of these enhancement activities are completed locally and involve learning about local government, history and culture.

This past May, however, upon the request of one of the students I supervise, we took a whirlwind weekend trip to NYC. The “we” involved one of my favorite super Host Moms, myself, my 17 year old daughter, and five international students. We drove 2 cars in and out of the city over two days and stayed overnight in New Jersey to save a bit of money.

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The girls take the city by storm!

We toured the UN, NBC Studios, Grand Central Station, Central Park and even managed to meet up with some other “local” AYA students and their coordinator for dinner one night.

Watch our adventure here: Taking the “World” to NYC

 

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.

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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?!

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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

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

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

Foreign Exchange Students

Ciao Mirko!

Announcing……….

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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!