dee and me, detail from a Mother-Daughter mural
that our Moms-Daughters group created.
Last night Jim and I attended a meeting for families who will be hosting exchange students from Mexico City starting next week. Our oldest daughter’s school has a two-week exchange program with a bilingual school in Mexico’s capital, and we signed up to be a host family.
Our exchange student is a twelve-year-old girl who has an older brother and younger sister. She loves animals—her menagerie includes a dog, rabbit, turtles, birds, and fish. I wrote last night to her father to let him know that we are also animal lovers, with three dogs, turkeys, a horse, and a bullsnake. (I made sure to tell him that the bullsnake lives outside.)
We’re excited to host this young girl. The exchange program coordinators have planned activities of all kinds to give the students a taste of the best things to do and see in Albuquerque and surrounding areas. The host family’s job is to provide three square meals a day, a private room, and a comfortable, safe, and stable environment. Of course, the mother in me is also prepared to provide love, support, and a wonderful experience—in short, a home away from home.
Benefits of Exchange Student Hosting
- Gain a lasting friendship: While two weeks might not be long enough to bond for a lifetime, foreign exchange is built on trust. The parents of the student send their child to another country with faith that she will be kept safe and cared for. In turn, we embrace the student into our family. Assuming all goes well, we enter this as strangers and walk away knowing that we each took a leap of faith and met one another’s trust.
- Learn about another culture: Having an exchange student is immersion into another culture, except instead of you going to another country, the country comes to you. We’ll plow this child with questions about her life, family, school, traditions, foods, friends, home. You name it, we’ll want to know about it. She’ll be her country’s ambassador, and we’ll be ours.
- See your family and your life through someone else’s eyes: There is nothing like putting the mirror to yourself to help realize how fortunate you are. And to remind yourself that if you can create the family you want to be for this student, you can be that family always.
- Do the things you love most about the place where you live: With almost all of our family living in our city, we don’t do enough of the things tourists do in our town.
- Be reminded of the importance of community: I hope to introduce our student to my parents and Jim’s, and to have her get to know Dee’s friends. Also, Dee’s best friends’ parents, who are all part of a common carpool, offered to accommodate this new rider in our carpool. Doing so wasn’t easy and involved a couple of people loaning vans to those of us who were limited by car size. Once again I was struck by the generosity of friends.
What to Expect (and Tips to Handle the Unexpected)
- Homesickness: This girl is still a pretty tiny person in the world. This is her first exchange, and I’m prepared for her to hit a wall. (My gosh, I do whenever I travel abroad, and I’m an adult!) If it happens, we’ll do everything we can to help her get through—cook a favorite meal or ask her to show us how to cook something from her country, let her sleep with the girls’ stuffed animals, hug her, take her somewhere fun to distract her, let her call home (although that can make it worse), or meet up with another exchange student if she has a friend in the group.
- Illness: I’m not the world’s best caregiver of sick people, but the good news is I’m better with children and animals than with my husband. (smile) Although, last night when the program coordinator asked us what we’d do if our host child woke up in the night with nausea, I whispered to Jim that I’d throw a towel over her head and run get him. But in all honesty, I can cope. We’d have to call the coordinator before administering any medications, even over-the-counter, although we can provide ginger ale, Saltines, and anything else that might provide short-term relief. And I will sit by her side and soothe her.
- Conflict: Even though 12-year-olds are less likely than high schoolers to rebel, we’ve been advised to expect that conflicts might arise. Perhaps the student will want to do nothing but listen to her iPod or be on email or want to go somewhere that we can’t accommodate. Maybe she doesn’t like the food or gets up late every morning. Who knows? What I do know is that it will be important to let her know our schedule and our expectations. We have routines, practices, and traditions, and while we’ll be flexible we also need to maintain sane, healthy lives.
- Exhaustion: Immersion in another country can be exhausting—all that thinking and speaking and living in a different language, not to mention that fact that you never really let your guard down. We were advised that our student might become withdrawn, expecially with all the activity, and if this happens to not take it personally. We’ll give our student down time, let her take naps or go to bed early. And of course, we love to sit quietly and read. Exhaustion we can handle.
Our temporary family member arrives this Saturday afternoon. We’ll let you know how it goes.
In the mean time, I’m curious if any of you’ve hosted foreign exchange students or have been an exchange student yourself. If so, what was your experience? And if not, have you ever entertained the idea of either role? Did you long to be an exchange student in high school? Do you toy with the notion of hosting a student now? I want to hear about it.