Most often when we think about family, we think of our nuclear families, and yet like many things, it can be life-changing to consider a broader lens. This broader framework is one that transcends biological, geographic, and language barriers, and involves hosting an international student for a study abroad experience.
As I have learned more about this possibility, I found myself reflective, remembering a dear friend who joined my high school for a year from Germany and stayed with my close friend’s family. I think about what her presence meant for our group of friends and also for the larger school community. I also think about the times I have been overseas myself and what those experiences meant for me to get outside of myself a bit and connect more to the world and cultures around me.
So much of life really is about relationships, and there’s something really beautiful that happens when we connect with people from other cultures.
Recently, I spent some time talking with Amy Cloud, a resident of the greater Chattanooga area, about her experience hosting. The conversation was delightful and thought-provoking, so much so, that I want to share insights from Amy’s experience with you here. Amy and her family hosted a 10th grade female student from Germany for the 2021-2022 school year through an organization called International Experience. Amy reflected that when she was a teenager and involved in her church youth group, an exchange student also from Germany, who was staying with a family in the community, joined the church youth group. This student became one of Amy’s friends. Through that experience, Amy held onto the hope that opening up her own home might be something she offer to an exchange student one day.
Adjustment As A Family
When I asked Amy about what the adjustment was like, she shared that it took a little bit of time to work out communication because English is a second language, and usually exchange students have not been immersed in the English language before to this degree. Amy reflected that when their student first arrived, they spent a lot of intentional time together to bond as a family. After some time transitioning to life together, Amy reflected that humor gave them a way to connect more; once they began to laugh together more, then they all felt more connected.
With any challenges that arose they just had to have communication about expectations. Amy shared how their exchange student was included in their family meetings because she was treated as a member of the family for the time that she was with them. As a family member, you go through the best parts and the hard parts of being in a family. This means that they all communicated together about chores or any other issue that arose that needed to be discussed. Amy shared how they valued treating their exchange student as a member of the family which played out in helping with responsibilities such as chores, cleaning, babysitting, etc.
In regards to expectations, Amy reflected that anytime you are bringing someone into your own family, the fewer expectations you have and the fewer expectations they have, the better of an experience everyone has. With fewer expectations, there is simply more room to accept someone as they are.
Adjustment With Peers
In talking through the social adjustment, Amy reflected that it was a little hard at first as it took some time for their exchange student to adjust socially. Amy noted that initially there was some understandable expectation of her waiting for others to reach out socially, yet when she began to initiate spending time with peers, things began to shift in a way that led to more social connection. While taking the initiative socially instead of only expecting others to reach out to her was uncomfortable, she came out the other side proud of herself.
This is different for each student. The more extroverted students may make friends very quickly, whereas the more introverted students tend to need a little extra support socially. Amy noted that their exchange student getting plugged into the school community made a big difference in her overall experience of the area and the community at large. Amy reflected that typically the students who just go to school and go home may have a harder experience socially. Getting connected often looks different for each student, but can happen in various ways whether through sports, the arts, or any kind of school club or service opportunity.
Highlights Of The Experience
In our conversation together, Amy reflected on the highlights of her experience. She noted that it was an especially cool experience for her kids as for that one school year, they got to experience what life feels like with an older sibling as their exchange student was a little bit older than her own kids. Amy noted that sometimes people think that the exchange student must be the same age as their own child or children, but that Amy did not see this to be the case. She also especially loved seeing the exchange student share her culture with her own biological children, which broadened her children’s view of the world.
Amy shared how when you love your city, it’s so fun to share it with someone who has never experienced it before. Amy and her family were intentional about giving her opportunities in the area: exploring, hikes, etc. They especially enjoyed taking her to the Rock City Enchanted Garden of Lights, the Chattanooga Farmer’s Market, and Lookouts baseball games. Amy reflected on how incredible it was to see and experience Chattanooga and the surrounding area through her eyes.
Change As A Family
Amy reflected how sometimes as a culture we can be so insular; she explained how the experience helped them to be more open and more hospitable, and to not be so guarded about their own home, but to let people into their lives.
Amy reflected on how sometimes parents have some trepidation about what parenting a teenager might be like, yet how parenting their exchange student for the school year gave Amy a lot of encouragement for parenting her own kids as they move into their teenage years.
Things To Consider
Amy conveyed that for anyone considering hosting an exchange student, make sure you host with a reputable organization. Do your homework on your organization as you want to ensure that you work with one that is vetting their students and families, and following the Department of State regulations.
Also, Amy recommends having a conversation with your own family about the right fit in terms of an exchange student with your family. A good organization can help match you with someone that is compatible. Many times, there is a lot of excitement in considering what country of origin might be most interesting to your family, yet it may be that a personality match, common interests, and/or faith and values may be even more important considerations. There may, however, be motivating reasons to host someone from a certain country if, for instance, your own child is learning the exchange student’s language or desires to learn more about that country, etc.
All About Relationships
Ultimately, the host experience is about relationships. Many times the relationship extends beyond that of the host family and the exchange student as often a relationship is also developed with the exchange student’s biological family. Amy reflected on how special it was when their exchange student’s biological family came to visit their daughter, which meant that they got to know Amy and her family as well as see Chattanooga and some of the surrounding area. Amy shared how they opened up their home even more by extending hospitality to the biological family members visiting. The relationship continues today as Amy and her family grew quite close to their exchange student and continue to stay in touch.
After listening to Amy share about the experience, I think about what an incredible gift that she gave not only to their exchange student, but to her own children. At the end of the day, it seems like relationships really are one of our greatest gifts: the gift of presence to our children, to our larger families, and to friends around us.