Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student
Text and Snapshots by Patricia Dillon Saint
Photo Illustration by John Fulton
When a young person from another country joins the family for a year, the result can be a strengthening of family bonds, an exchange of heritages, and a sharing of different ways of life.
My husband and I had never discussed hosting an exchange student. Then Kirk read in the newspaper that a dozen exchange students who had come to our community of Bloomington, Ind., for their senior year of high school were living in temporary arrangements due to a shortage of permanent host families.
It didn't take long for Inciser to feel at home in our house, raiding the kitchen refrigerator like everyone else. She used the globe to show our children where Turkey was.
We met with the area exchange student coordinator to discuss the program and the responsibilities of a host family. And a few days later our family met Inciser (pronounced Inja), a young woman from Turkey.
We gave her a tour of the house and talked. Soon everyone agreed to the host family commitment, and we welcomed her into our family.
Our children quickly made Inciser feel at home. Bill, 16, was excited about having another teen-ager to share stories with, and Mary, 14, offered her room to Inciser without reluctance.
Our younger children, T. J., 8, and Patrick, 5, learned where Turkey was on the world globe and were curious about the food she ate. We rearranged a few closets, informed relatives and neighbors, and rehearsed table manners with the younger children.
Adjusting to a new routine
The first few weeks were a little awkward as everyone assumed a new family routine; dinners now included dessert, and the house was a little cleaner than normal.
This new formality lasted less than a month, however. As the comfort level among us grew, Inciser's status gradually changed from guest to extended family member.
A few weeks after she moved in, we had a neighborhood party for family, friends, neighbors, and the area's exchange coordinator. This turned out to be a good way to introduce Inciser to several people in a casual, less intimidating setting.
In Turkey, Inciser lived in an affluent area of a midsize city with her parents, who were both medical doctors. Extremely mature for her 18 years, she enjoyed conversations about politics, economics, and (especially after their weekly telephone conversation) her family.
Inciser, Patrick, and T.J. learned some history while visiting Fort Macon State Park, in Atlantic Beach, N.C.
Inciser explained that because her older brother had been away at college in the United States, her parents had pampered her like an only child. In her "new" family, however, she suddenly became the oldest of five siblings, with little brothers whose daily ritual included jumping and wrestling on her bed as she tried to do her homework.
We could see that Inciser was becoming accustomed to her new family and no longer felt like a pampered guest. She raided the refrigerator (like everyone else) without asking, enjoyed watching the Disney Channel, and could resolve a conflict with her "younger brothers" without looking for parental guidance.
She also understood that being part of the family meant having age-appropriate rules just like the other children. She returned from social activities on time, planned her social activities around the family schedule, and communicated openly with us.
The challenge of making friends
The most difficult transition for Inciser was making friends at school. She felt that discipline in her new school, when compared to Turkish schools, was somewhat lax.
She expressed amazement at how informally students spoke to teachers and staff and showed what seemed to her a lack of respect toward them.
We encouraged her participation on the school track and tennis teams, and she tried to mingle socially. But in general she found her fellow students seemed more concerned about their weekend activities than in developing new friendships.
The area exchange coordinator arranged group activities and hosted parties throughout the year, and because of their common circumstances, the exchange students tended to form friendships among themselves. Inciser's best friend was a girl from France.
Our family became the focal point of Inciser's social life. We included her in all family activities and many social events.
Typical weekends were spent relaxing after a long week of school and work--talking, reading books, and playing basketball in the driveway. In Turkey, Inciser's family lives in an urban area, and she loved the quiet, wooded setting of our suburban neighborhood.
At EPCOT, the family poses in front of Spaceship Earth. During Inciser's stay we also took family vacation trips to the North Carolina coast and to Washington, D.C.
As parents our most difficult task was making Inciser feel special and secure in her new environment, while ensuring our children received their normal doses of attention and care.
Something we learned was that the more a host family includes an exchange student in its regular activities, like school or church events, neighborhood cookouts, vacations, and holiday gatherings, the more blended the family will become.
A host family should also make an effort to share in the exchange student's culture. As the year progressed we learned about Turkish customs, food, and traditions. We placed the Turkish flag in the dining room window and regularly enjoyed Turkish apricots and pistachios for snacks.
The children enjoyed listening to Turkish music and played the Turkish national anthem via the Internet.
We learned about other customs more indirectly. For example, when Inciser entered our house, she switched her shoes for slippers. She explained to us that, in her country, even adults remove their shoes when entering someone's home.
As for American customs, the first unusual event Inciser experienced was Halloween. She was reluctant to participate at first, but when she realized the entire family was involved, she joined without hesitation.
She enjoyed dressing up as a military aviator, walking through the neighborhood to observe the other costumes, and collecting "trick or treat" candy.
The family gathers to open presents on Christmas Day.
Inciser loved chocolate and enjoyed trying new desserts, especially during the Christmas holidays.
As a Moslem, Inciser does not celebrate Christmas. But she enjoyed the yuletide month of great food, family entertaining, and lots of presents.
For a pre-Christmas dinner for our family's closest friends, she agreed to prepare her favorite Turkish meal. And this was quite an undertaking on her part, because cooking was a completely new experience.
She consulted with her mother about recipes and ingredients, then spent all afternoon preparing a fabulous meal, welcoming Bill and Mary's help with the finishing touches. The menu included homemade chicken broth soup, spicy meatballs, Mediterranean rice, a potato dish, and Turkish bread (similar to Italian bread).
After dinner we laughed because she had used every pot, pan, and serving dish in the kitchen. "I never really appreciated my Mom's cooking," Inciser admitted, "but now I know how much time and work it takes to prepare a meal!"
Inciser sits in front of Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where we learned that "It's a small world after all."
When hosting students with a different faith, it is best to inform them of the facilities available for their faith and let them decide how and if they want to share their religion. Our college community had places where Inciser could worship. But she preferred to practice her Moslem faith privately, quietly observing her special religious holidays.
We were comfortable discussing the similarities and differences between the Moslem and Christian faiths, and she enjoyed attending a few church events with us.
We were able to include Inciser on several short family vacation trips. We visited the North Carolina coast, an air show, Walt Disney World in Florida, and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Our experience of hosting an exchange student strengthened our family ties; made us proud to exchange our heritage; exposed us to a different, yet very similar, way of life; and involved our children in the act of giving on a daily basis.
A farewell shot on Inciser's last day in the States.
Inciser has returned to Turkey and is attending college. We talk on the telephone every other month, correspond on the Internet, and are planning a visit in a few years.
On her last day with us, the emotions were high. Saying goodbye is not always easy, so instead Inciser said, "See you later, because goodbye is so final."
Right before we left for the airport, Kirk gave Inciser and each of our children a balloon, then asked them to make a special wish and let it go.
We watched the balloons rise and drift off in different directions. They were both a symbol of holding on to the great memories and welcoming new beginnings.
A former den leader, Patricia Dillon Saint lives in Trafalgar, Ind.
A Member of the Pack
Inciser had never been exposed to any Scouting programs, and as a leader for my son's Wolf Cub Scout den at the time, I encouraged her to join us for den and pack events.
She was impressed by the boys' commitment and eagerness at such a young age to earn their badges. She enjoyed helping with projects, crafts, and field trips, and she participated in den meetings.
For several weeks, she watched the boys reluctantly practice for their first flag ceremony, to be done during the last pack meeting of the year.
Practice after practice, we watched and wondered if they would ever get the commands and sequence of events right.
When the boys performed the ceremony flawlessly, they received praise from the other dens and pack leaders, and Inciser shared in their excitement and pride.
She particularly enjoyed field trips. And by the time we took our final one for the year--to McCormick's Creek State Park, including a tour of the nature center and a hike to a waterfall--the boys had come to consider her as one of their den leaders.
How to Become a Host Family
If you are interested in hosting an exchange student, contact your local high school administrative staff to determine which exchange organizations the school sponsors.
Inquire about any special requirements, past experiences with exchange students; and ask for a list of host families from previous years so you can direct your questions to reliable sources.
If possible, screen the applications and look for students who seem the most compatible with the interests and life style of your family.
For example, if your family likes to go hiking and camping, look for a student who enjoys the outdoors. Or if having the same religion is important, then select one with a similar faith.
You will not be alone as a host family. The local exchange program coordinator, who is also hosting a student, serves as the liaison between the exchange students and host families, arranging the initial introductions, scheduling social activities, and helping to resolve any problems that may arise.
On rare occasions a student will have to be placed with another family. Examples of valid reasons for this include rivalry between the host family children and the student that cannot be resolved within a few months, or failure to follow family rules.
Students pay for travel expenses and are expected to bring spending money. The host family pays for all living expenses during the school year.
If your family is matched to a student prior to the school year, you should begin corresponding before the student's arrival. Inquire about their food preferences, interest in sports or cultural events, and hobbies. Also describe your life style as well. This will help shorten the adjustment period.
The best advice is to treat your exchange student in the same manner as you treat your own children. That is how he or she wants to be treated and can best experience being part of an American family.
Copyright © 1998 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.
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