A Global Perspective: How Foreign Exchange Programs Shaped Our Family and Changed Our Lives Forever

It was Kindergarten, and Jeffrey’s teacher was speaking to geography. With a map of the USA, Kansas City area centered, she asked the students “Where does someone you know live?” Many kids listed off nearby towns. A few listed other states, where grandparents lived. Then my brother raised his hand and said “I know someone from Germany.”

The teacher needed to get a new map.

I was blessed to have a great cultural experience in high school. Jeffrey was lucky in that he grew up with that cultural experience– from the time he was a small child, family around the world was a part of his everyday life.

It all started really quickly. My mom and I were working out at our old gym, winding down in the cool down area and saw a flyer about hosting a foreign exchange student. We skimmed over it and saw the descriptions of the great students who were available, so we decided to write down the number. On the way home, we laughed and said “Man, wouldn’t that be fun?” We knew dad would shoot down the idea, so we didn’t get our hopes up too much, but we considered it, thought about which room she would take, and wondered if Jeffrey would be too young for us to host a student. Would it be worth it for him?

We got home and casually asked dad “Hey, could we host an exchange student?” He simply said “Sure.”

…wait, what? But then we realized that it doesn’t necessarily mean a student would be available… just that we could call and find out. We called, and we had our interview with the coordinator. He seemed really excited and, after a background check and short application process, we were approved. Only a few days later, Carolin arrived. I don’t think we realized how much our lives would be impacted by foreign exchange even when she arrived.

Our year with Carolin was great. I honestly only remember bits and pieces of her first time here because it seemed like it went by really quickly; we all grew to love her so much. Carolin had no fear. No, really, she had no fear– one time in gym class, she was trying to get the ball in a pickup game of basketball. She did manage to get the ball… and some stitches. Carolin was a bright spot of sunshine for pretty much everyone she knew (except the kid she collided with in basketball, who I think was probably afraid of her after that…) and she really worked hard to give herself a successful year in the USA. I remember when she left, it was one of the only times I had seen my dad cry. He didn’t even cry at his parents’ funerals, but he cried– hard– when Carolin went home. She was truly a part of our family, a part of our home, and saying goodbye just didn’t seem like an option– it was horrible to think that Carolin was leaving after we had spent ten months growing together as a family, as I’d spent ten months growing closer to her as a sister.

Carolin’s parents reached out and offered to bring me to Germany for a visit. It was the trip of a lifetime, one I’ll never forget. Looking back, it’s been nearly a decade since that trip, but the ways it shaped me and gave me a broader perspective are things that time won’t fade. It was my first trip away from family, my first trip away from home really, and it seems that in some ways, the things that could go wrong, did. When I arrived in Germany, my luggage didn’t… it means I spent my first day and a half in a new country wearing my sister’s underwear. It was silly, but I didn’t mind, because the opportunities to see how Carolin lived, see her life and the city she lived in, as well as the town she spent her childhood in and other cities we got to travel to, the opportunity to taste the food and experience her culture and life made things like lost luggage seem insignificant. They tracked the luggage down, and all was well. I spent 3 weeks eating Eis, playing Rummikub, and riding a train to see different exciting parts of the country my sister lived in and loved.

It wasn’t long after I got home from the best overseas experience I could ask for, that my family decided to host again. So, about a month later, Sabine moved into our home. We had a great experience with Carolin being from Germany, and Sabine was from Germany, too, so they couldn’t be that different, right?

Oh, we were so wrong. While Carolin could spend 3 hours shopping and come out with maybe a pair of jeans, Sabine could spend that same 3 hours amassing four or five VERY large shopping bags. Two girls, one country, and they couldn’t be more different. At first, Bee and I had a rocky start. We didn’t run in the same social circles in high school, which made us clash a lot. But even through some of the turmoil we experienced together, eventually, we snapped out of it and grew together as sisters, too, spending countless hours watching chick flicks and buying enough junk food to cover a bed so we could snack, gossip, and lust after hot movie guys.

While I was growing, learning, experiencing culture and listening to foreign music, talking about other countries, and learning about different ways of life, it felt like hosting exchange students was tailor made for me as a high school student. My family quickly realized, though, that hosting was for all of us. Jeffrey was in early elementary school when my family was hosting our first two students. For many kids his age, the world consisted of the places nearest to them– where they went to the grocery store, the parks they played at, perhaps a distant relative or a vacation spot. For Jeffrey, the world was massive. It consisted of people and places halfway across the globe, of other cultures and languages and distances that many kids only dream of, or sometimes, don’t know of at all until they’re much older.

After Sabine left, which also left us in tears, we took a year-long break from hosting. After all, it was my first year of college, and it was just a big time of transition. It didn’t take long for us to realize that our home, our lives, felt emptier without students there to stay. It was during this time that Carolin came back for her first of many visits, one of which was a 3-month long stay with us for an internship. During this visit, we really got to solidify in our minds that this wasn’t a 10-month commitment where you host a kid and move on. It was a forever bond, a forever love that continued long after these students were gone. Carolin was still my sister, and when she visited again, we picked up where we left off. Our bonds aren’t broken when a student leaves, not in the slightest. And the thing is, this was 10 years ago when there wasn’t a constant ability to Skype or use a smartphone app to text back and forth. This was during the early years of Facebook when communication globally was still fairly hard and limited to calling cards that charged a fortune a minute or long-distance emails when you had the time.

Even with those challenges for communication, we were able to stay connected and keep in touch, making that distance feel so much smaller.

After our year-long hiatus, my family decided it was time to host again, and in a much bigger way. During our year off from hosting, my mom had become a coordinator for foreign exchange and helped guide students through their American year, leading meetings and helping when there was a struggle with homesickness, or to help get the students enrolled in school. She walked them through any challenges they might have faced, and it was all the encouragement we needed to decide that we couldn’t resist another student.

During my second year of college, I moved to the dorms, and my parents chose to host Marius. Living at the dorms meant I really didn’t think I’d have a relationship with our student– after all, I was gone a lot at school, even if it was local. Hosting, we were sure, was purely for Jeffrey, so we got a boy who was interested in the same things Jeffrey was, like soccer. Jeffrey got a ton out of the experience, and getting a boy was a great choice for him. Marius and Jeffrey connected and bonded so quickly. But the real surprise was when Marius and I bonded, too. After all, I was in the dorms and only stopping by on weekends or school breaks.

My mom had a great group of girls, a bigger group that year, and as we grew close and connected, I got the opportunity to invite the girls over for a dorm sleepover. It was so great realizing that even in the dorms, these students were a part of my life. And the best part was knowing that even though I wasn’t necessarily hosting these students, they were still friends, people I connected with. In fact, even years later, some of these same girls who came to my dorm sleepover are doing amazing things that I get to see as I follow them on Instagram or we take peeks at each others’ lives on Facebook.

Marius and I had this great love-hate relationship. We joke that it mostly consisted of hate, and we still tease each other and give each other heck today. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t hate each other at all. We poke fun, like true siblings. One of my best memories of Marius comes from a time in my life when things weren’t perfect. On the day of my wedding to my now ex-husband, I was so devastated because my siblings couldn’t be there. Obviously, it was expensive, and just too difficult for them to fly out. I’ll never forget Marius saying he wished there was a live feed online where he could watch the wedding. It made my heart swell to know that he cared and wanted to be there, even though he couldn’t.

It was hard going through the preparation for my wedding knowing parts of my heart were missing from my wedding day that I wanted desperately to share with family. As I put on my dress and was struggling to zip it, I heard someone ask “Do you need some help with that?” I turned, and there was Marius, looking so dapper. He had flown halfway across the globe to surprise me for my wedding. (In hindsight, I probably should’ve known the marriage wouldn’t work out when I was more excited to see my brother than my ex-husband). Marius, through all of our heckling, truly blessed me with so much love and respect, and still continues to.

Not long after Marius was home, Lucas and Sebastian joined our family. Lucas, sweet Lucas from Brazil, and Sebastian from Sweden, they branched us out of Germany. After mom had worked with the students and grown to love them, we realized that there was so much love in our heart for so many countries, and cultures, and students, and that as much as our German experience had shaped us and grown us, we were ready to grow even more.

Lucas and Sebastian were two peas in a pod. The two of them connected instantly with each other, and they had a unique experience in that they were living with someone going through the same struggles and same excitement that they were experiencing. When they missed home, they could talk to each other about that and find ways out of it. When they were excited about prom, they could get dressed together and look forward to it. They had an unshakable bond as brothers that allowed them to have a deeper connection than many students have with other students they know here. But it isn’t just about students who live together. Just yesterday, a girl who had stayed in Kansas 4 years ago, Theresa, visited. She said that Vera, another student from the year she was here, is still her best friend, and they get to see each other a couple of times a year. These are lifelong friendships, lasting experiences that change lives.

After my divorce, I moved back home, and later, experienced the birth of my first child. My exchange siblings were there with me during that experience, sending love and encouragement.

When we hosted our most recent student, Nicholas, I wondered how Zach would react. After all, he was brand new to the world. I also wondered what an exchange student would think of being in a home with a brand new baby. After all, babies can be loud, and a little overwhelming at times. But Nicholas latched on to Zach almost instantly, and they had a bond that was really special, as well. It seemed like no matter what situation these students were in, they immediately responded with love and attachment… when Carolin and Sabine entered a home with a young child and a high school student, they grew close to both of us. When Marius was living with an elementary schooler and had a host sister occasionally home from college, he adapted and loved it. When Lucas and Sebastian were paired in a home with another exchange student, they grew closer to each other and had a great year. When Nicholas was tossed into an extended family environment with host parents, a host sister with a new baby, and a host brother, he adapted, too.

In all of these ten years, my life has been shaped and changed. I have stories to tell about every single one of these students, who are so close to my heart and mind. We’ve been blessed with students joining us on vacation even years after they’ve been here. We’ve had students come for short visits. My grandmother still gets phone calls and facebook messages on her birthday from the students.

There’s no distinction, really, between my actual sibling and my international siblings, when I talk to someone. They’ll ask “How many siblings do you have?” I’ll respond, without any hesitation, that I have 7 siblings. Because I do, I do have 7 siblings– Jeffrey, and my 6 international siblings who I love.

But my exchange experience hasn’t just included the great students we’ve hosted. So many students have been brought into our lives, our community, even our home, by my mom’s work as a coordinator at Foreign Links Around the Globe. We’ve had the opportunity to get to know students from dozens of countries and backgrounds, and each year when I get to see the profiles of the students spending their year here in my community that I grew up in, I get so excited.

The past few years, I realized that my mom being a coordinator didn’t just mean that it was on her to hang out with the students. I realized that I wanted so much more and collaborated with my mom and the exchange students on a series of videos that really brought home the message of how amazing foreign exchange is.

These students aren’t just a part of their family’s life, but they’re a part of sports teams and volunteer organizations and churches and classrooms… they’re amazing individuals with hobbies and interests that allow them to connect with others so quickly, forming lifelong bonds.

I’m so lucky that I’ve gotten to know each and every one of these students, and every year, I have more students to add to my heart and my mind.

As a host family, we’ve celebrated birthdays and holidays, endured heartbreaks and homesickness, and exchanged so many hugs, tears, memories, friendships, family bonds, family game nights, and so much more….

I love the fact that Zach is now nearly the age Jeffrey was when we started hosting, and I am realizing that he is having those same startling experiences in that his world is HUGE. In our spare bedroom, we have a full-wall map of the world. If you take Zach into the spare room and say “Where do we live?” He’ll point at Kansas in the USA. If you ask him, “Zach, where does Gabi live?” He can point at Brazil. You can ask him where various students live and he gets them. While I’m sure to him, the world hasn’t quite made total sense, as he grows, he’s going to grow up knowing different countries and cultures, feeling different experiences, understanding different accents and even knowing more languages, because we’ve had the opportunity to open our hearts to students, not just those who live with us, but all of the students we’ve grown to love over the years.

I remember one student that we didn’t host that really sticks in my mind was a guy named Sergio. Sergio was a kind-hearted, talented guy. And Sergio had quite a few opinions. The thing is, Sergio and I didn’t really see eye-to-eye on many things. But the thing I loved most about him was that he was so open-minded. We could sit there and disagree on a topic, and he’d hear me out, he would listen, and he would be very polite and hear my side of things. All he asked in return was that he could share his opinion, and receive the same respect in return. We had so many great discussions, long conversations, and I loved getting that experience.

It seemed that no matter what I did, whether it was shopping with Sabine or talking with Sergio or asking Candy to sing her favorite song of the moment on camera, I had an unending bond and connection with each of these kids who have touched my heart.

Because of that, when someone asks me “So, since you hosted in high school, do you think you’d host someday?” there’s no hesitation when I say “Yes.” Because I will host. When I was in high school, I thought I was giving someone else the opportunity of a lifetime by opening our home for them to spend a year abroad. I thought “Wow. I’m really helping her.” What I didn’t realize was how foreign exchange would change ME, help me, grow me, give ME the opportunity of a lifetime. Because my heart now has so many students– well over 100– that I’ve gotten to know personally, and the best part is that there’s SO much room for more.

As placement season for FLAG winds down, I look over the profiles of the students who are still available to be hosted, and I know that there is a place for each and every one of them. I know that there is a home who is going to love them, and form that lifelong bond, the way I have gotten to with all of our students.

There are still students who are available for placement for the upcoming school year. If you’d like to host an exchange student, you can visit FLAG’s website to find out more information, or email me for more information!

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7 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. I see where every situation works with an exchange student. So many times people think the only time to get a student is when I have a high school student but you have shown anytime is the right time.

    1. I have heard of so many different families who have hosted with a positive experience. Personally, we’ve had students in homes with young kids, in homes with high school students, in homes with kids away at college, in all kinds of situations. I personally haven’t experienced hosting students in a single parent home or in an empty nester home, but those I know who have hosted in those situations have LOVED the experience. There’s truly no wrong stage of life to host.

  2. When my family hosted Aom, from Thailand when I was in high school was one of the best experiences we had as a family. It is such an interesting way to learn about another culture without having to leave the comfort of your own home. It has been 8 years since Aom and my family met and we still communicate through Facebook and keep up with each others lives. Hosting may only be a 10 month commitment, but it leads to lifelong friendships.

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