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.
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.
I will keep this brief. Today is a hard day for our family and for Meriem. Today was the day we chose to avoid talking about, but prepared for nonetheless. Today was the day at 6:20AM when bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived we drove to our local airport, helped her sort out the weight distribution between her checked bag and carry-on and shared one last hug and a selfie. This day, like all of the “see you laters” of student exchange, is the hardest day.
I could share so much about our Moroccan daughter and all she taught us. I could tell you how we sorted through US Politics together trying to make sense of an election so many did not understand. I could tell you that we discovered there are more similarities to the Muslim and Christian faiths than there are differences. I could tell you how we shared endless laughs, dreams and stories, but all of that would be more meaningful to Meriem and our family than you.
So to summarize how much this exchange experience meant to my whole family, (and to convince you, dear reader to say “yes” to your own hosting experience) I will simply share a small snippet of a letter I gave to Meriem right before she hit the TSA line.
The love we have shared living and being a family for 10 months reminds me so much of the character of God. “Random” exchanges quickly evolve into “adopted sons and daughters” who fill my life with hope, love and friendship. On really bad days, when it seems like the evil of this world is winning, I only have to remember all the friends and “family” I have been blessed with all over the world, and I know love is real and conquers all. Love wins. It’s a constant comfort and makes me well up with tears just to think about it.
The love I have for you is very real and I wanted to share it with you in this letter, so you will never be able to doubt it…..I learned after the death of a family member 17 years ago, a simple truth that carries me through all of the “goodbye moments” life brings. It is simple and one I want you to remember. The love a family shares is so strong that no distance will ever be too great for it. Our family’s love will keep us close and we will be ever present because we live forever in each other’s thoughts, memories and hearts.
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.
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.
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.
Gabriel came from Recife, Brazil to live with our family in early August, 2013. His English was still developing, but his giant smile and immediate embrace of each one of us at the airport won over our hearts in an instant. Everything was easy from the first moment with Gabriel. There was never any doubt in our minds that he belonged in our family.
We have so many, many wonderful memories of time spent together despite the fact that we never left home beyond a restaurant visit in a neighboring city. Whether it was laughing together over his first meeting with the school athletic director who thought if he just yelled louder Gabriel’s understanding of English would suddenly improve, spending way too much time waiting on him while he flew around Hollister in search of the perfect clothes for school, or giggling together in the car as we asked Siri answers to stupid questions, Gabriel routinely filled every moment of our mundane life with joy and laughter.
His enthusiasm for life was infectious and his gratitude and love for us expressed every day. I joked with his local coordinator that Gabriel had no idea what “personal space” was, but we both agreed that he represented everything good, fun and lovable about Brazilian culture. He was always cool under pressure, loved and accepted everyone, and never, never found a problem worthy enough to ruin the beauty of being alive one more day.
Gabriel played on the high school soccer team, made best friends with the neighbor down the street, found about 1,000 new friends in and around his high school classes, and fell in love with his first American girlfriend during the short ten months he stayed with us. He managed to encourage his host Dad to commit to intense workouts at the gym and entertained us with his passion for ketchup on pizza and resistance to wearing a winter coat, even during the coldest months because it made him, “look like a dork”. Gabriel introduced us to more people in our community than we had ever known before because of his infectious ability to engage everyone he met.
Gabriel very quickly took over a large part of my ever growing mother’s heart. His grandparents, who only spoke Portuguese, came to visit and travel about the USA with him at the end of his exchange year. Gabriel, interpreting for his grandfather during dinner at our house one of the last nights we were together said, “My grandpa says…..he knows I have always wanted a family with a Mom and a Dad and brothers and sisters, a big family and…he can see, being here with you, that I have found my family. He says he is very thankful for you being my American family”.
One of the hardest goodbyes I have ever experienced was dropping Gabriel off at the hotel room of his grandparents before they left for the rest of their tour of the US. We both cried buckets of tears and promised over and over again we would see each other soon. That was nearly three years ago, and even though we still haven’t had the opportunity to reunite officially, our love and friendship remain strong.
I can’t imagine our family without Gabriel. I am grateful for AYA, for the opportunity to participate in hosting an exchange student, and of course for Gabriel’s family in Brazil who sent him to the USA to live out a dream and meet his American family.
Academic Year in America is currently searching for qualified host families for the 2017-2018 school year. Whether you choose to act as a Welcome family, host a semester student, or dive right in for a full academic year, I promise you, it will be an experience you will never forget.
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.
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.