Families Speak on How Hosting International Students Changed Their Lives

10/24/2014 04:54 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

American Councils for International Education works with high school students ages 15-18 in over 50 different countries and connects them with host families in the US. The students come from a variety of countries, mostly from State Department-funded scholarships, all over the world and are selected based on English language ability, academic performance, writing samples, teacher recommendations, and certain overall qualities to be successful exchange students.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with two host families that, between them, have taken nearly every continent into their homes. Brian and Raina became interested in hosting an exchange student because they knew several host families and saw firsthand how the experience benefited the family and the student's lives. They took the leap to host their first student when their daughter's Russian language teacher strongly encouraged them to take this opportunity.

Their only child Becca quickly learned new definitions of "share" and "fair" after inviting another teen into the home. The trade paid off, as Becca eventually spent two summers traveling to Russia to visit the home countries of the family's former students. Her Russian language skills improved, even picking up phrases largely unknown to our American culture, such as, "I hate horse milk, raw OR fermented."

Adapting to a new environment

To be expected, it takes some time for the international students to adapt to their new surroundings, but hosts Brian and Raina say they largely face the same challenges that all parents of teenagers face: go to bed, get up, clean your room, get organized. Thankfully, the students that are chosen for the exchange program are highly motivated individuals who are determined to make the most out of their time and quickly respond to any guidance.

Dennis and Pam, another host family, agree that there are special challenges in not only welcoming a young adult into their household, but a young adult that has a minimal cultural reference to their new surroundings. "There is a steep learning curve in the beginning as everyone tries to learn and recognize body language, voice inflection, and all the other things we do to communicate," they say. Two years ago, their communication skills were put to the challenge when they hosted a deaf student from Nigeria. Pam learned sign language as quickly as she could, while both of them learned about Islam to help the student through Ramadan, which had just started before he arrived. "It was an amazing experience and helped us bond quickly."

As of this writing, Dennis and Pam have 19 daughters and sons across the globe in Moldova, Brazil, Bolivia, France, Austria, Slovakia, Germany, Japan, and Nigeria. While their concept of geographic distance has diminished through the experience, their menu has grown to include meals such as Jollof Rice (a Nigerian dish) and Kapustnica (a traditional sauerkraut soup made at Christmas in Slovakia).

For both families, some of the cultures that have passed through their homes have made a lasting impression. Dennis and Pam's own holiday traditions have expanded as they've incorporated traditions from their students. For Brian and Raina's daughter Becca, her firsthand contact with Shamanism and Buddhism at home and overseas made a big impact and inspired her to explore those traditions more deeply in her own life.

Dealing with stereotypes at-home and abroad

Some of the most formative lessons for the host and the student come from unveiling common stereotypes and prejudices that both sides bring to the table. While meeting people with different languages and cultures shows how similar people are around the world, Dennis and Pam also learned about their own stereotypes and the stereotypes students bring with them.

"For example," Dennis says, "one common belief of exchange students coming to the U.S. is that we only eat fast food and don't cook our meals. Practically every student we have hosted came with a fear that they would get fat while they were here. We have even experienced parents chastising their children during a Skype call about putting on the slightest amount of weight and asking us why we are feeding them so much food. We rarely eat fast food and cook just about every day. We enjoy sitting at the table, enjoying some good food, and talking."

When Brian and Raina's daughter Becca traveled to Russia to see a former student, she was introduced to prejudices she had never seen up close in the US. The student she was visiting was from far western Russia, an ethnically Mongolian region, and commonly endured ethnic slurs and was asked for her papers by the police when visiting cities like Moscow. Conversely, Becca experienced prejudices against her own country and was surprised to find how many people disliked America for a multitude of reasons.

Creating lasting connections

Both families have stayed In contact with their former students, though they've lost touch with a few. Dennis and Pam have visited several students, and last year Dennis went to Spain to attend the wedding of their first "full year" student from Germany. Currently they are helping their Nigerian student return to America to attend Gallaudet University.

For prospective host families, Dennis and Pam suggest having thoughtful conversations as a family and deciding if hosting an exchange student is right for everyone. "Keep an open mind, be flexible, and listen. You will need to employ these skills from beginning to end." For people interested in getting involved with a host organization, the couple has worked with many, some which aren't around anymore "for good reason." They suggest looking into American Councils' merit-based system where no money is involved to influence the selection of students, or Rotary International.

Brian and Raina's best piece of advice is, "Loosen up. You can do it! You will never forget the school year these students spend with you. It is so exciting to greet them, and so sad to see them go. It is wonderful to stay in touch and know that you have made a huge difference in their lives."

Hosting an international student gives you (and your student) the ability to experience different cultures right in your own home. The connections and education I've received from being part of an international community has been an important part of my work, as I've travelled to over 50 countries, and has inspired me to found the GlobalMindED Conference. On June 18-19, 2015, educators, policymakers, business professionals, and thought leaders from around the world will join to share innovative, world-class best practices in Denver. Learn more about how you can become involved here. Have you hosted an international student? How have you become more global, either at home, professionally, or abroad? Please share your experiences about expanding your global perspective in the comments.

Interested in learning more about becoming a host family through American Councils? For more information, visit http://inbound.americancouncils.org/.