I’ll never forget that Saturday morning seven years ago when our lives changed forever.  I was sleeping in – a rare treat – when the phone rang. My husband answered, and shortly afterwards he wandered into the bedroom with a curious look on his face.  “A lady who got our name from some friends wants to know if we’d like to host a German exchange student this year.”

First, some background.  At the time, our children attended three different schools, my husband traveled constantly, and I had a part-time job on top of tending the home front.  Nevertheless, I was immediately intrigued.  I’d been a summer exchange student in Finland at fifteen and had studied in Austria during college, so student exchange was in my blood.

After perusing the student’s application and talking with the kids, we collectively shrugged and said, “What’s one more kid?”  Not two weeks later, Thomas and easily twenty pounds of chocolate and gummy bears arrived; just days later he started marching band with our oldest, strutting in formation in 104 degree heat.
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The rest is Kahle family history.  Thomas lived with us for ten unforgettable months, and in the following years we hosted students from Germany, Sweden, Brazil, and the Netherlands.  I eventually became an area representative, placing students with host families and overseeing stays ranging from a semester to an entire school year.

Tips on Being a Host Family

Given my experience, I’d like to share a few things about who should consider long-term hosting, how to become a host family, and what the responsibility entails, bearing in mind that short-term or special programs may follow different guidelines.  First, note that all family types are eligible, including single parents, empty nesters, and gay parents, with sometimes additional permissions required.  The common denominator is an interest in other cultures.  Like me, many host parents have studied or lived abroad.  Maybe their children have enjoyed meeting exchange students at school, or the whole family simply thinks that hosting an exchange student sounds fun!

Let’s say you fall into the “fun” category.  The most important qualities you’ll need are flexibility and a sense of humor.  As with American teens, there may be times when your student misses the school bus, doesn’t do his chores, or bickers with your children (a sure sign that he is part of the family!).  Address the student as you would your own children, but knowing that he is simultaneously adapting to a foreign culture, learning a strange school system, and navigating the thorny issues of living with a new family.

First Step to Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

Your first step is working with an area representative and her organization.  I can’t emphasize the rep’s role enough.  She’s the one you’ll speed-dial with school issues, medical questions, advice on interpersonal problems, and the myriad other questions that arise.  You want someone who responds quickly and effectively.  Ask for references if an area representative contacts you, or ask friends for the names of representatives they’ve worked with successfully before you agree to host.

Exchange organizations follow U.S. Department of State regulations, and the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET) lists recognized agencies and other valuable information.  The best known are American Field Service and Rotary Club, although many other great agencies have entered the field.  Typically, representatives of the agencies identify host families through presentations or word of mouth, as with us, and show student profiles to the family based on the family’s preferred gender, placement length, and interests such as sports or music.

Placement Process and Responsibilities

During the standard placement process, you’ll undergo reference and criminal background checks, and a visit to your home to verify cleanliness, safety, and a proper bed and bathroom.  You’ll complete an application that includes your household rules, family interests, and home photos.  The student will have submitted a similar application, with often delightful personal essays and additional information on his English ability.

During this phase, all kinds of questions come up.  Yes, the student can share a room with a host sibling, and no, it doesn’t matter if your house is small as long as it meets the main requirements and your family is loving.  Although it’s great if you have teenagers, very young children also make wonderful host siblings.  And yes, your student would probably love to attend your place of worship!

Your student will have important responsibilities during his stay.  He must follow all federal, state, local and school rules, a change for students whose countries have a lower drinking age.  He will probably be required by his program to maintain a full course load with at least a “C” average, and he should participate in extracurricular activities, which you should attend, to make friends and improve his English.
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His program will typically expect him to pay for personal expenses, school supplies, extracurricular fees, and medical insurance.  In turn, your family can expect an additional $300/month on food, utility, and transportation costs.  Your student, as part of your family, will probably go on family vacations, with both sides working out expenses.

Despite all this preparation, problems can still happen, from poor initial grades or homesickness, to incompatibility, rule violations, or excessive computer use.  It’s critical that you, your student, and the representative meet to identify the problem, document what needs to be done, and set a follow-up date.  If this process doesn’t resolve more serious problems within two or more iterations, it’s time to consider a new host family.  In extreme cases, students are sent home if they refuse to change their behavior or their violation is unlawful.  Of our family’s seven students, one required an unexpected relocation, which was ultimately beneficial to everyone involved.  Of the nearly thirty students I placed, four were relocated, all with good results.

Why Host?

Given the possibility of problems, why host?  When it works out, as it usually does, you have a lifetime friendship.  We’ve visited our students’ families overseas, and several have returned to see us.  Our own children have gained an adventurous spirit, with one studying in Germany and another soon heading to Senegal.  We still cook the German and Brazilian dishes we grew to love, enjoy recalling funny language slips (swim “googles”), and comment on how such and such a student loved going out for Tex-Mex or knew everyone at high school within a week.  Perhaps my younger son put it best, though.  After Thomas returned to Germany, I wondered why my son was wearing the same t-shirt three days in a row.  “It smells like Thomas,” he said.  Now that is the reason we hosted.

 Thomas (in red) practices band music with our son.

Thomas enjoys “Muster Day” at Camp Mabry, an Austin military installation.

Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET): http://www.csiet.org/