My family has been hosting high school exchange students since 2014. We have added eight international kids to our family, and are preparing to welcome number nine. When we first started hosting, we had no idea the impact it would have on our lives. We have learned, shared, and grown in so many ways by interacting with these amazing students from abroad. My kids have improved their communication skills as they learn to communicate effectively with someone from a different cultural background and who speaks a different language. We have learned about holiday traditions from around the world. We have gained insight into not just what is different in other countries and cultures, but WHY is it is different, thus gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation for the world. We have also learned about the ties that connect us, and how to make meaningful and life changing relationships in the most unexpected of ways.
I have also been a Local Coordinator for students and host families in the West Michigan area and have had the privilege of working with over 100 students and their host families! So, why do we host? It's simple, while selflessly giving of their homes and hearts, a host family will often gain just as much as they give! But what does that really look like? Here are 5 surprising benefits of opening your home to an exchange student.
1 - See Your "Daily Grind" With Fresh Eyes
We're living in an age of speed, convenience, and automation. As calendar pages fly by, days turn to months and months turn to years in the hustle of our jam-packed schedules. Hosting an exchange student provides a tangible way to "stop and smell the roses” as we begin to see daily life through new eyes and with new appreciation! “When you have to explain so much of what you do to someone else, you are given the chance to see it again like it’s the first time, and that is precious. Life became something to notice again instead of being routine." – host mom Charlotte Powell
Showing Isidro from Spain frozen Muskegon Lake. He had never seen snow or a frozen lake!
2 - Come Face-to-Face with a New Culture
Cultural interaction has always been a hallmark of student exchange, and it's arguably more critical than ever in today’s world. If we want to break down prejudices and build understanding, RELATIONSHIPS are the most likely antidote! When we invite exchange students into our communities – to share in our schools, play on our teams, and sit at our tables – we invite a new perspective. We share what is sacred to us and learn about that which is foreign. These interactions with the “other” lead us into new layers of empathy and understanding, and we, in turn, model to our children exactly what it looks like to embrace differences. “The magic of student exchange is that you get to look behind the curtain into how people actually function in their day-to-day life. We find that we are different, but we are much, much more the same." – host mom Jill Amunrud
3 - Gain a Mentor for Your Kids!
Exchange powerfully shapes the worldview of children of all ages, giving them a lasting relationship with the outside world! It's a common misconception that host families should have a teen son or daughter in the home. While teens generally love the chance to help a student plug into the high school, younger children make fantastic hosts as well. Young children are generally very open and bond easily with their new "big brother" or "big sister." And since the very nature of hosting requires learning about and accepting somebody who is different than their own family, the life-lesson of growing up with an exchange student is invaluable. Of course, the daily connections are perhaps the sweetest in the end! “I thought it would feel a little weird having someone other than family in our house all of the time, but it’s not weird at all. She feels like she really is part of our family. And I love to show her stuff, and she tells me all about her country. It’s really cool!” – host sister Emily, age 11
Johanna from Germany loved being a big sister to Mia and Austin! They became best buddies! Johanna came back to visit two years after her exchange and we went on a family vacation together to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
4) Stay Connected for LIFE
Time and again, host families report an ongoing relationship with their student and his/her natural parents that outlasts the original 5 or 10 month program. These family connections that span continents are probably the most unique and impressive component to student exchange. Host parents are truly expanding their family throughout the world! “You get to know people, and it (student exchange) gives you a more long-term relationship. I was an exchange student in Denmark when I was younger, and I’ve kept in touch with my Danish host families. We were even able to take the kids to Denmark to visit them, and I know that for the rest of our lives we’ll be in touch with our German exchange student Stina, too. Exchange shows you that the world is still big, but it’s not THAT big.” - host mom Jill Fisher
My husband and I had the opportunity to visit Arturo and his family in Madrid, Spain.
5) Laugh! (Seriously!) You might be surprised to find that IE students don’t need a lot of possessions, excursions, or special treatment. What DO they need? They need YOU! A warm, supportive “home away from home.” A place where they feel safe. A place where they can be GOOFY. Candid connections and good-natured fumbles – these are often the most memorable and endearing! “It’s like our family expanded when we hosted Henrik. We have so much fun remembering all the silly things we did together, like teaching him that shouting ‘SHOTGUN’ meant you wanted to ride in the front seat of the car. (When the kids first did this in front of him, he couldn't figure out what we were doing. Were we going to shoot guns or what?!) I can now say I have 3 children......two in the US and one in Germany.” – host mom Sharon Parry
Curious about what it takes to become a host family? All you need is a spare bed, an open heart and a desire to be an involved and active family! Students come with their own spending money and insurance and hosts provide: “room and board,” help with local transportation, and (most importantly) the support of FAMILY.
To learn more about how you can experience cultural exchange in your own home and community as a Host Family or Local Coordinator, send me an email or check out the West Michigan student exchange Facebook page!