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Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

photos courtesy of AYUSA

Families host foreign exchange students for various reasons: to provide a learning experience for teens from another country, to forge friendships with their own children and to exchange cultural insights. The experience must be a good one, because some families host new exchange students year after year.

Hosting requirements are simple, says Debbie Rockelmann, regional director for AYUSA, a cultural exchange organization. Hosts “provide room and board, and a loving, nurturing environment,” says Rockelmann, a host every year since 1998.

Going Abroad

There are many opportunities for American students seeking to study abroad. “The gap year (between high school and college) is becoming very popular,” says AFS official Sue Fershing.

Besides becoming a foreign exchange student, Americans can volunteer, enroll in summer courses or take a language immersion program.

There are even foreign study programs for elementary-age kids. At age, 9, Lora Newman’s daughter spent six months living with a family in Geneva, Switzerland through the enFamille  program.

Younger kids adjust better to being part of the host family, while teenagers tend to want to be independent, says Newman, a mom of four. She also believes it's easier for younger kids to learn a new language. Newman’s 8-year-old son is now preparing for his chance to study abroad next year

“There’s no such thing as a perfect host family,” she says. Couples and singles, with or without children, and even empty nesters make good host families, she says. 

Application Process

Participating in a foreign exchange program requires extensive paperwork to get started, followed by an interview process. Applications, which include background checks, “are not for the faint of heart,” admits Sue Fershing, New Jersey chair for AFS,  formerly the American Field Service.

 “The safety of participants is the number one priority,” she says.  Much of the application process is designed to inform and prepare potential host families for their upcoming experience.

Cost of Housing a Student

Hosting an exchange student can add to your food bill, admits Rockelmann. “It’s not so bad if you merely provide what you would normally buy for your family,” she says. Visiting students usually have their own spending money and are expected to buy their own cosmetics and other items.

A discussion about money and expectations at the onset of the student’s visit will likely smooth the way for the year.

Family Dynamics

“Sibling” rivalries can develop between visiting and host kids who are the same sex or nearly the same age. But usually, “it helps other kids learn to share when there’s an extra person in the house,” says Lora Newman, a West Chester, PA mom who has both hosted and sent a child overseas.

The exchange experience is often terrific for elementary-age kids in the host family, despite the age difference with a teen exchange student, because they learn so much, says Fershing.

“Hosting an exchange student can be a wonderful experience for the entire family,” says Rockelmann. It teaches your kids tolerance and gives them great respect for other cultures, she says.

It’s a way to learn more about the world without leaving home. “You get a glimpse at least, by hosting a student,” Rockelmann adds. “We can’t all be diplomats or ambassadors, but this is something American families can do to make a difference.”

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids  and a Chester County, PA mom of two.

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