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Open Your Door to a New World: Host a Foreign Exchange

Have you considered hosting a foreign exchange student? More and younger families are deciding to host students. Here's why, plus the benefits of hosting a student and the deciding factors to consider.

child peeking through doorHave you ever considered hosting a foreign exchange student in your home? Host families provide high school-aged students from around the world a chance to live and study in the United States for up to a full year, while hosts can gain new perspectives and form lifelong friendships.

“It’s a great way for American families to get exposure to another culture,” says Keri Charles, national director of placement for the EF Foundation for Foreign Study, a nonprofit that places approximately 3,000 international students in the U.S. each year. “It’s as much of a sharing experience for the [host] family as it is for the student.”

Last year, Jon Dietrich and his wife worked with AFS-USA to welcome a teen student from Thailand into their Harlem apartment for a 10-month stay. Throughout that time, Dietrich says the experience that stands out in his mind is when he took the student to his first NBA game. “The boy we had was a huge basketball fan. He knew everything about the NBA, he knew all the players and teams, but he never got to see a live game,” Dietrich says. “So I got tickets for us to go to a Knicks game. When we walked into MSG, he was just like in awe—he had never seen anything like that in his life and never thought he would. The expression on his face made everything worthwhile.”

Host families are often surprised to find that the experience takes them out of their comfort zone, allowing them to see their own town or city through someone else’s eyes. Hosting an exchange student can encourage families to visit museums and take advantage of local events they might otherwise skip. 

Family Dynamics

Dietrich and his wife are not parents themselves, but families with children often take in foreign exchange students, Charles says, and it can be a valuable experience for the host children. “It’s often exciting for the exchange student to perhaps be an older sibling for the first time, [and] the American kids are so excited to have an older sibling to look up to—that’s a really neat opportunity for them at a young age.”

When her own teen daughter went to study in Spain last year, Peggy Blitt of Seaford hosted a 17-year-old student from Madrid in her home. While things got a little bumpy when Hurricane Sandy hit, Blitt says one of the positive aspects of the experience was the way the exchange student bonded with her younger daughter, who was 7 at the time. “She loved being with her and playing with her, and she would always ask me if she could babysit,” Blitt recalls. “Overall I would say it was a good experience for my family so they could see and learn about another culture. She shared with us that [in Spain] they throw 12 grapes out into the street for New Year’s Eve. So when it struck midnight, we were all throwing grapes into the street.”

Hosting an exchange student provides an opportunity for your children to practice tolerance and can spark an interest in new cultures. Organizations like the EF Foundation help families of all age ranges and sizes.

"We have a very open opportunity for families to come onto the program,” including families with toddlers or elementary school students, Charles says. Single parents, couples without children, and same-sex couples can host international students as well. “Essentially anyone who qualifies is welcome and we just try to find the right fit for that dynamic.”

EF Foundation places students ages 15 to 18 from across the globe in American homes. The foundation has a rigorous selection process; students must pass a strict screening process for motivation, character, grades, and proficiency in written and spoken English language skills.

American host families without teenagers work with EF Foundation “to talk about what it’s like to have a teenager,” Charles says. “We talk about typical issues that arise with teenagers.

Dietrich says the student who stayed in his home was mostly very well behaved, but he and his wife found out about halfway through the school year that the boy had been late to school every day. “It’s really important to establish the boundaries and what’s expected of them and also what kind of discipline or punishment there will be if they do something wrong,” Dietrich says. “You have to treat them like they’re your kid. At the end of it we felt like we wished we had set some more boundaries from the beginning—laid down the rules and really stuck with it.”

Hosting a Student

First, make sure the organization you go through complies with the program standards set forth by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide youth with safe and valuable international and cultural exchange experiences. Blitt says she and her daughter chose the organization Two Worlds United based on light Internet research and later found out that it was not accredited through CSIET. Though Blitt’s daughter was supposed to stay a full year in Spain, she came home to New York in less than 3 months due to a variety of communication and legal errors on the part of the exchange organization, Blitt says. She recommends doing thorough research on the organization and speaking with several other families who have gone through it in the past.

When you apply to be a host family, you’ll need to share information about your family dynamic and financial preparedness, as host families must provide room and board for the student. Many families are concerned about the expense of hosting an exchange student, but the majority of host families who work with the EF Foundation say that expenses met their expectations—or were even less of a concern than they had expected. 

Families are also asked to provide personal and professional references. 

Next, a local coordinator visits the home and conducts an in-home interview, discussing the program and expectations of the host family, and “making sure it’s a suitable, clean, loving environment,” Charles says.

EF Foundation works to match families with a student based on interests—for example, if a family is very active and enjoys outdoor activities, the foundation will look for a student who would complement that. 

Religion is also an important factor in placement. The foundation tries to pair students and families that will be accepting of each other’s religions or spiritual beliefs.

If the organization you go through allows you to choose the student you host, consider their interests and family life, Dietrich says—if they come from a big family and you have a small family, they may feel lonely or have trouble adjusting to a much different environment. “Our boy came from a larger city, and in his essay he said he was interested in being in a location where there’s lots of diversity. So we thought, what better place than New York City?”

Your Deciding Factors

If you’re considering hosting a student but aren’t sure it’s right for your family, Charles recommends connecting with another host family. “Families who are a little nervous about it might consider hosting a student for one semester,” Charles says, instead of a full year.

Dietrich suggests families decide on an area from which they want their student to come from, and do research on that area so they know what to expect. Dietrich and his wife chose Thailand because the couple had taught English there in the past and have plans to return there after retirement, so they were familiar with the culture and felt a connection to the student before he even arrived. If you haven’t traveled abroad, you can still research a specific country online and choose one that you’d like to visit one day.

Many families enjoy hosting enough to repeat the experience, and they often find the experience is different with each new student. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of families host every year or every other year. Both Dietrich and Blitt say they plan to host again in the future. “I think it’s a good thing, and I’d do it again under different circumstances. I’m trying to find a live-in nanny who wants to go to college here,” Blitt says.

“All in all, it was a great experience,” Dietrich says. “I would highly recommend it to anyone who has the room and time.”


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