Cultivating a Global Family Tree

Student exchange programs nourish families with expansive cultural roots, grounding both hosts and students as thinkers, givers, and leaders.

By Sara G. Stephens

We live in a world that hinges on cultural understanding. As individuals, we benefit personally, intellectually and professionally any time we experience the customs, traditions, and languages of another country. As families, we grow every time we share love and kindness with others; fortified by this enrichment, we grow stronger as our families extend outward into the global community. As co-inhabitants of an increasingly fragile planet, we awaken what was once only a dreamy appreciation for world peace every time we venture outside our cultural comfort zones and into the multi-threaded tapestry of a multi-cultural world.

As with any formative understanding, cultural awareness is best engrained when it is cultivated at an early age. Once the seed of cultural exchange has been planted, the desire to learn about more cultures, more people, and more of the world emerges as a matter of course.

Such is the basis of student exchange programs. The cultural immersion that takes place in these programs returns more than any family vacation, social media pen pal, or video documentary can ever offer.

New Family For Life

Houston mom Josette Hughes was introduced to exchange student programs 20 years ago, when her parents hosted Stefan, a student from Sweden. Stefan lived with this family his senior year before returning to his home country. Every three years since, he visits the family for at least 3-4 weeks. “He became a big part of our family,” Hughes says, “So much so, that in 2005 he and his wife came from Sweden and were married at my parents’ church.” The student and his wife now have a daughter, and the three visited Hughes’ parents last May for their traditional visit.

The experience so thrilled her parents that Hughes picked up on the cultural tradition. On August 31, a Jamaican exchange student and her mother came to stay with the Houston mom. Peta-Gaye graduated high school in Jamaica and came to Houston to register at Lamar University for the Spring 2014 semester. “Her motivation is to be college educated after her high school years, simply because there are very few opportunities in Jamaica, especially for women, to either to pursue a college degree or be educated past the high school level,” Hughes says. The ability to help Peta-Gaye reach her potential is, in itself, a reward beyond measure.

Becki Bates Pitre, a realtor in Beaumont, has enjoyed hosting two exchange students from Germany– one in 2001 and another in 2004. Both students attended PNG (Port Neches Grove) High School.  “It was a wonderful experience, and we have kept in touch over all these years,” Pitre says. “Both [students] have both been back to visit several times, and my daughter spent the summer of 04 with their families in Germany.”

The Pitre family grew immensely from the cultural exchange. The students, besides enjoying a taste of the life for the “typical American teen,” also became inextricably attached to American history based on sheer timing. “The first student was here during 9-11,” explains Pitre, “and the other student was on her way here when New York had the blackout (August 03). She was stranded at a university in New York for a few days before she got to Port Neches.”

In spite of these blips of darkness, both exchange students returned home feeling they had left a part of their families behind in the U.S. And the families who hosted them felt the same bittersweet emotions as they bid farewell to new family additions with whom they would be forever connected.

Rules of Exchange

The internet is replete with resources for involvement, as either a student or a host family. 

Often the process begins with completing a simple form expressing interest in the program. From there, an extensive process usually takes place, as the exchange agency works to most effectively match students with host families, based on a variety of factors.

These steps are well documented and efficiently conducted, as they have been for years. But many aspects of the program fall somewhere between these formulaic processes. These preparation points are critical to the success of any exchange student experience.

Natalie Monzon learned one critical preparation point, albeit too late to, when she responded to the rotary’s request for a family to host 17-year-old Maria from Portugal.

“At first, she seemed like a very nice girl—outgoing and motivated,” Monzon says. “She was always telling me she was fine—that I didn’t need to go help her with stuff at school. She had friends and understood the system.”

But in the afternoons, Maria never there when Monzon went to pick her up. The student never answered her cell phone, which she had gotten from the rotary to keep in touch with her host family and her own parents.

Maria would come home late from school, around six or seven o’clock—always with great excuses. “I kept telling her, if you want to go out with friends and get a coffee or something, that’s fine, just let me know where you are,” Monzon says.

When Monzon’s boys came home with their progress reports, Maria explained she didn’t have one, because the school didn’t provide them for exchange students. Monzon checked the girl’s grades online. “She was flunking everything, including choir,” Monzon says. “In English, she had a grade of 3/100. I understand getting a zero, but how do you get a 3?” Monzon marvels. She visited the school to discover that Maria had not been showing up to any of her classes. “No one knew her,” Monzon says. “I would drop her off, watch her go into the school, and then I guess she just sneaked out.”

At one point, Monzon discovered Maria’s cell phone was broken. The student commented that it was okay, because she really didn’t need a phone. Monzon considered this a strange way for a teenage girl to feel, and became convinced the girls was doing things she didn’t want the family to know about. “That made me very nervous, I didn’t want to be responsible for her.”

Her curiosity piqued by the girl’s grades and compulsive lying, Monzon went into Maria’s room to have a look around. She found food stashed everywhere—under the beds, in closets—amidst a flurry of empty candy and ice-cream wrappers. “It was kind of disturbing,” Monzon admits.

At the end of the girl’s three-month stay, the Monzon’s were ready to see her go. Although Maria was supposed to move on to the next of three families’ homes, neither of the remaining families wanted her, after hearing about all the problems. She was sent home before Thanksgiving.

Monzon went to Maria’s school to unenroll her, only to discover more troubling news. The student had never picked up any of her books, and had never even registered her locker. “Since day one, she had no plan of going to school,” Monzon observes.

In the evaluation form she completed for the rotary, Monzon pointed out the problems with the program’s selection process. “Whatever process they had was really bad. The girl had an eating disorder that was not developed here–she came with it. Her compulsion to lie also suggested a bigger problem. There’s no telling where that came from.”

From all this, Monzon learned one very important lesson: Establish contact with both the student’s parents and the student before you agree to hosting him or her.

The Monzon’s had attempted to establish this communication early on, mailing and emailing Maria with letters and photographs before her arrival. She never replied and neither did her father. Monzon says she just assumed that, “Teens will be teens. They have other stuff going on and can get easily distracted from answering letters and that kind of thing,” she says.

But the lack of reply from the girl’s father was a red flag Monzon wished she had taken seriously. Throughout Maria’s stay with her host family, the Monzon’s tried to contact the girl’s father to tell him what was going on, ask for feedback or information that could help them improve the situation. They never connected. To this date, they have never heard from Maria’s family.

“I strongly advise that before you agree to host a student, establish contact with the parents of the child and make sure you have good communication with them,” Monzon reinforces. “And the child, too. Make sure they’re interested. The exchange program is a team effort. Everyone has to be on board, or it just doesn’t work.”

All in the Family

When a host family either is unwilling or does not know how to participate in the program, even the best matched scenarios can go horribly awry. Similarly, when these ideas are carefully considered and accounted for, the resulting experience exceeds every expectation, yielding every benefit that comes from cultural understanding, along with the priceless gift of a new family member for life.

Responsibility for fulfilling these steps fall squarely, and equally, on everyone involved, including the exchange student, and every member of the hosting family.

As a senior in high school, writer Ellen Jovin was a member of an AFS host family in Los Angeles. “One thing I did not do, which I think would have been nice for the student and great for me, was learn a little French before her arrival to demonstrate an interest in her culture and language,” Jovin contemplates. “What can I say? I guess I was a self-absorbed 16-year-old.”

Jovin adds that years later, she is now aware of how exhausting it often is to be a guest in a foreign land, surrounded constantly by a foreign tongue. “Especially at the beginning, it can be lonely to be taken so fully and suddenly outside one’s native language. The words we use are very fundamental to our identity,” she explains.

Based on her experiences, Jovin has determined that if the host family demonstrates an interest in the exchange student’s own linguistic heritage, even asking for help or tips, this effort can be empowering and confidence-building for a young person whose status has changed overnight from insider to outsider. Although the situation poses a good opportunity for the host family to learn, Jovin recommends that the family prepare for its guest’s arrival by studying on their own. “That is a powerful sign of cross-cultural interest,” Jovin remarks.

Inspired by her experiences, over the past four years Jovin has serially studied 17 different languages, without classes, using teach-yourself products. To help would-be language learners, she has collected her reviews of hundreds of products into a single resources section on her “Words and Worlds of New York” website. The resource directory is free and searchable, so visitors can find whatever they need to help them prepare for their exchange students, across many languages.

Preparing for the Best

Exchange student veteran Sandra Kinney says she’s had both good and bad experiences with exchange students. “When it’s good, it’s really good,” she comments. “When it’s bad, it is extremely bad and miserable for all parties involved.

Kinney’s most recent exchange student had such an amazing experience, he keeps coming back, a subject of good-natured joking between him and the family. The young man is now doing an internship in the U.S. and spends a lot of time with Kinney’s family, brother and niece.

If there’s a good source for how to prepare for the best in your exchange student experience, it’s Kinney. Here’s her list of do’s and don’ts for anyone participating in such a program.

Do’s for the Host Family

  • Be open minded and supportive. The student is adjusting to a new school, new family, and different language. Be patient and try to find out as much about the student’s likes and dislikes.
  • Provide cultural and social experiences for the student. Host a cookout or a party. Let the student experience something he typically would not have exposure to in his country (we took a student swimming with the manatees).
  • Treat the student like family.

Don’ts for the Host Family

  • Don’t be inflexible or impose arbitrary rules. For instance, one of the exchange students we temporarily hosted was told she could not snack after school and she was given a very limited variety of food to eat because the host family (an older couple) had health issues and thought the student should be on the same restricted diet as they were.
  • Don’t assume that the student knows the rules. Talk about everything from the start. With what chores are the student expected to help? Is there a curfew?

Do’s for the Exchange Student

  • Let your host family know if something is bothering you.
  • Build a network of friends you can talk to (there will be times when you need to talk to friends or you may need to get away from your host family for a weekend).
  • Communicate with the exchange agency if there are any problems. Join clubs, sports teams or organizations (they provide an instant group of people that you can hang around).

Don’t for the Exchange Student

  • Don’t lie about your interests on your application. If you put down things on your application that are not true because you think it will give you a better chance of being selected, then you will be miserable. A family is going to select you, in part, because your interests and attributes match up nicely with the family’s lifestyle.

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