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

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

You must meet my “son” Mirko!

It was a cold, wintry January day when I opened my email to see that my Regional Director at AYA had sent me  an application to view for “an Italian kid ” he thought my family would like to host. Before I wondered too long how Pieter had read my mind, I opened the attachment to read the application. His name was Mirko and he was 17.

I scanned his application to search for his “letter to my future host family”. I am a writer and believe this part of an application really reveals a student’s voice and personality. I wanted to officially meet Mirko through the words he chose as his introduction to his new American family.

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Mirko visiting”Little Italy” Cleveland, Ohio

As I read the letter, one comment in particular really resonated. Mirko said, “In my whole life, the thing that I really enjoy doing is communicating with other people in another language, different from mine”. It was as if Mirko had peeked into into my heart and read it.

I am often asked by potential host families, “How do I choose a student?” I tell them it is the same question as “How do I choose a new best friend?” You really don’t choose as much as know this student was meant to come and live with your family. You recognize something, a quality, in their application that reminds you of yourself  or someone in your family and that quality calls out to you, “we are friends”.

We accepted the opportunity to host Mirko, finished all the paperwork, exchanged a few emails with each other and set up a Skype meeting.  He was so nervous, and so were we. However, we talked, and talked, and talked like we had been waiting our whole lives to do so. We sent messages to each other through WhatsApp daily with a countdown of days until his arrival. We were so excited to finally meet in person, but ironically when that day arrived, I wasn’t home because of a work commitment. We joked later that Mirko had the honor of being the first exchange student to “Welcome” his host Mom to the family.

Our year together was marked with all sorts of wonderful memories including his girlfriend dramas at school, LOTS of discussion about politics and pasta, and endless moments of me telling my adopted stere0typically, passionate and strong-willed Italian son to “calm down and relax”. I adore Mirko’s passion and tremendous sense of humor. We drove each other crazy, but laughed at the absurdities of how stubborn we both were at the same time. Best friends for sure.

My favorite memory as I look back on last year was near the end of Mirko’s year abroad. On May 29th, we celebrated his 18th birthday, my (cough) birthday and my daughter, Micah’s 19th. Mirko and I shared the same birthday date (twins!) and Micah’s special day had only been 2 weeks earlier. It was a perfect family celebration and everyone was there. As family sang for us and we blew out the candles I knew this would be one of those moments to treasure for a lifetime.

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Happy Birthday to Us!

As sad as it was to say our goodbyes at the airport in June, we simply gave each other a quick hug and wave. Mirko and I knew that words were not possible at that moment. As much as we shared a love of languages…the words in either Italian or English were not possible. We promised to stay in touch and travel soon to reunite.

This cold, snowy day in March, just over two years after I opened that fateful email from my Regional Director, my husband and I are counting the days until we fly to Italy. Mirko has promised to introduce us to “real” pizza and help us try all the best local gelato. We will get to meet all of Mirko’s Italian family and friends and be guests at his house. He will once again serve us as a cultural ambassador to a country that is part of our heritage and identity, but also a place we have never had the chance to explore. We can’t wait!

If you want to learn about a new culture and make a new best friend, why not choose to host an exchange student through Academic Year in America? It’s an experience that you will treasure for a lifetime.

Foreign Exchange Students

Ciao Mirko!

Announcing……….

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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!