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

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

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

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, Uncategorized

Varsity Letters

This past Fall was filled with soccer. Gabriel played mostly JV soccer for his high school team, and my daughter, Micah, played soccer for her private all girls high school team. Having two high school soccer players in the house required strict attention to schedules and a balancing act of managing rides, soccer Mom duties, and tending to the needs of non-soccer playing siblings that would send most corporate CEO cowering into a corner. We were busy.

The best part of the soccer season, however, occurred after the last game. The infamous awards night, or in my daughter’s case, soccer team banquet.

The public high school honored all of their Fall sports during one massive assembly on a Thursday evening. Name after name of scholar athlete was read, while bleachers filled with proud parents looked on. After a short break for cookies in the cafeteria, the various Fall sports teams separated into individual classrooms for sport specific awards; speeches from coaches, and individual recognition. Gabriel’s team returned to the gym.

To our surprise, Gabriel’s coach spoke briefly about each “Senior” recognizing him within this select group. Kind words were exchanged and Gabriel received a Varsity School Letter, pin, and a special Senior gift. He was thrilled and we were too. 

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Gabriel earned his “W” Varsity letter

Micah’s banquet was equally rewarding. After three years of playing on her school’s soccer team, and a bit of high school athletic politics, she received her Varsity letter. For Micah, this meant the ability to purchase a Varsity letter (woman) jacket, valuable cultural capital at her school. It was a sweet victory earned through patience, persistence and fortitude.

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Micah and her letter (woman) jacket.

It was a busy soccer season, but the effort was worth it. Two high school soccer players, two varsity letters, two varsity letter jackets. American high school culture at its best.

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WHS Varsity Letterman jacket—oh yeah!

Foreign Exchange Students

Gabriel’s First Pumpkin

Did you know Pumpkins did not grow in Brazil? I didn’t until I asked Gabriel. Needless to say, when I explained we would be carving pumpkins to use as decorations to celebrate an American Halloween, Gabriel had no frame of reference for this cultural experience.

Our family hosted an International Pumpkin Fest last weekend. As a fun activity, I suggested all the exchange students bring a pumpkin to carve. I thought it would be a great American cultural experience for the exchange students to experience.

My favorite moment of the evening was standing around our impromptu pumpkin carving station in our living room, helping Gabriel carve his first pumpkin. He ran into his bedroom two different times to change his shirt, after realizing the full scope of our project.

“You just have to reach in, Gabriel, and grab the ‘pumpkin guts'”

“Oh, boy….I think I need to change my shirt”

Gabriel’s expression was priceless. There is no way to explain a US American’s love of pumpkin carving.  It makes no sense, but, like Homecoming, it’s what we do each fall to celebrate. Sometimes, culture defies explanation, and you just have to live it, to believe it.

As the party wrapped up, upon my direction, Gabriel carried his giant pumpkin outside to our front porch.

“It’s not good”, he said.

“No, it will look fabulous lit up. I promise, you’ll see”, I said.

“Oh, I think it’s bad. I think it’s a bad pumpkin”.

“No really, it’s great….trust me”.

My husband took out his cell phone, placed it into the pumpkin, and ….magic!

 “Oh, it’s good!  It’s good! Yeah!, okay….okay”

Gabriel's First North American Pumpkin
Gabriel’s First North American Pumpkin

Pumpkin carving phenomenon explained. Sometimes you just have to live it to know it.

Happy Halloween!

Foreign Exchange Students

The International Pumpkin Fest!

Chinese PumpkinCostumes, Trick or Treat, Pumpkin Carving, Pumpkin flavored cuisine, China, Brazil and Germany. These were just a few of the ingredients at the International Pumpkin Fest held at our house last night. Most of the exchange students and host families,  I supervise through Academic Year in America (AYA), came together to share culture, food and friendship.

Guided by the inspiration of Pinterest, my daughter, Micah and I, planned a delicious array of Pumpkin Pie Popcorn, Pumpkin Pie Cream Cheese Dip, Pumpkin Macaroni and Cheese, and BBQ Beef Sandwiches. A German exchange student brought Kaiserschmarm (delicious caramelized German pancakes), and others brought an assortment of chips, pretzels, nuts, and cookies. It was a feast of Fall treats.

As a host family it is always fun to meet others who “are as crazy as you”. Student exchanges are as meaningful to host families as they are to the exchange student. You really can’t fully understand until you live it. Our International Pumpkin Fest brought together cultures and families, and helped us all build new friendships.

One host “Mom”, who is actually a retired Grandma, is having a wonderful time rediscovering the joy of having a teenager in the house. She sent me a lovely email, after the party, that summarized beautifully why I do what I do, for AYA.

 “Thanks for the nice get together – it seems like those folks are my kind of folks – all good people who like helping and you are our leader   🙂   Thank you, Regenia”

From Left to Right: China, Germany, Brazil, China
From Left to Right: China, Germany, Brazil, China
Foreign Exchange Students, Uncategorized

Homecoming

1186196_467365383361180_1611851314_nIt’s Homecoming weekend in our small town. Since my older children homeschooled, and my current high school aged daughter attends a private, all girls school, Gabriel is introducing our family to the local high school homecoming culture. It’s been an education for all of us.

Gabriel has caused quite a sensation at the high school with the female population. He was asked my numerous young ladies to be their date to Homecoming. He feigned ignorance until one of his favorite girls chose her moment. He accepted and reassured us that, “she is very beautiful”.  How sweet we thought. How cute.

Neither Gabriel, nor my husband and I, realized the extent of pageantry associated with the annual Homecoming dance. Apparently, the first invitation was insufficient. Gabriel was instructed by his date that he must now ask her to the dance. He described the dialogue to us one evening.

“But you asked me?”he said.

“Yes”, but you must now ask me”

“And if I do, you will say, yes?”

“Yes, but you must ask”

“O.K. Will you go with me to Homecoming?”

“No, not that way. You know. Ask cute”

Confused, Gabriel sought out the cultural experts; the Physics class. The teacher explained with a laugh, “You know Gabriel, with flowers or candy…..cute!”

 

“What is this?” he asked my husband and I.

I shook my head. I had no idea. Was he going to the Homecoming dance or getting ready to propose marriage? Was this a little over the top?

“I don’t know, Gabriel”, I admitted. “This is a culture I don’t understand either”.

My husband summed it up for him. “I guess you are learning that American girls are high maintenance”.

“Hey!” I cautioned. “Watch the stereotypes”.

Eventually we figured it out. Gabriel’s date got her “official proposal to the dance”. She provided instruction on numerous other cultural expectations for the evening. Flowers, her dress color and his subsequent tie choice, budget for the evening’s dinner, and time and location of pictures were just a few of the lessons. It was a personalized, independent study on American high school culture and dating for Gabriel; direct and complete.

It’s been an interesting cultural lesson for our entire family. You never realize how important it is to have a cultural ambassador until you try to navigate the murky waters of a high school dance. We salute Gabriel’s date for setting sail, inviting him into the boat, and making sure his voyage was smooth sailing.

Foreign Exchange Students

Getting to Know John Deere

Not too long ago, my husband decided to introduce Gabriel to a good friend of his, John Deere. Being the main provider of lawn service for our family, my husband is always anxious to find a little help from unsuspecting children. Exchange students are never exempt from his tactics.

I don’t think Gabriel had been in our home more than a week, when I overheard the following conversation.

“Hey Gabriel!”

“yeah”

“Would you like to learn to drive a tractor?”

“A what?”

“Here, come outside. I’ll show you”

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Poor Gabriel.  He never stood a chance. The call of the green machine was too great.

From the look on his face, however, I think he enjoyed his lesson on lawn maintenance. I guess there must be something about a green tractor and the great outdoors that appeals to men across cultures. Go figure.