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.
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”.
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.
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?!
To find out more about hosting as a Welcome, Semester, or Full year Host Family, visit www.academicyear.org
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.