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

 

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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

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……….

Mirko
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!

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

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

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.