Skip to main content

Today's Family Magazine

Why you should consider hosting an exchange student

By Judy M. Miller
My family has hosted a number of international exchange students over the past fifteen years.  I came across several pictures of our Japanese friend Emiko recently.  She was pictured with my son, then six years of age and my daughter as a toddler. My younger two children had not been born.

My son is now an adult and my daughter firmly in her teens.  The pictures of my kids and Emiko serve as a reminder of how long we have welcomed students and young adults into our home from all over the globe.  In addition to Japan, we have hosted students and young adults from Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Spain, France, and South Korea.

While one student proved challenging, primarily due to the male culture of his country, the other stays have been quite successful.  I chalk this up to our openness.  Hosting an exchange student is full of opportunity and rich rewards.
You can learn to communicate outside of your comfort zone
Our first exchange student arrived from Japan.  Prior to welcoming her we were concerned about communication.  We were told she spoke English well.  It turned it that her English was poor, at best.  Our Japanese was nonexistent.  We figured it out together.  By the time Emiko left, we could communicate pretty well using a combination of English, Japanese, and body gestures.  Humor came in handy, too.
You learn about cultural differences, first-hand, without the expense of traveling
Food is an easy way to share culture.  All of our exchange students have created at least one meal for us, a family favorite of theirs.  Years later any cereal eaten within our home is with a chocolate milk concoction introduced by our two French "daughters."
You grow globally
You gain exposure to the world. Kids learn, as adults should, that our world is much bigger than the communities, states, and the great nation in which we live.  Having an exchange student underscores the expanse of the world, and makes it real and less frightening.  We often fear what we have not had exposure to.
You develop understanding
You learn that people are more alike than they are different.  Culturally, we are conditioned to focus on differences––language, culture, politics, religion, race, ethnicity, perspective, etc., and see them as roadblocks to getting along.  Hosting enables you to focus on and embrace differences, the first steps to building understanding and compassion for one another.
When exposed to people of other cultures we begin to notice how similar we are, yet appreciate our differences.  Discussions about similarities and differences with an exchange student are wonderfully fascinating and educational.
You share and understand your culture
We often do not realize how rich and diverse our own culture is, or exactly what it is until we share it with someone whose culture is different. We have had ample opportunities to view our lifestyle through new lenses and understand how it might be seen by other cultures.  How our way of life is perceived has been humbling in a few instances, and funny at other times.
You have the opportunity to learn a new language
Or improve what you do know of it.  We have acquired a smattering of Korean and Japanese words and phrases.  Our kids have been able to improve their Spanish and French fluency, diction, and grammar.
You can cultivate meaningful and life-long relationships
Rarely a week goes by when we do not talk about or are not reminded of one or more of our exchange students.  We reminisce and laugh.  We miss the day-to-day interaction.  The bonds we have created still exist, and for that we are enriched and grateful.

We all had an enormous cry fest when our two young French women left.  My kids were sad for months. We have continued to stay in contact via social media and are able to celebrate their new life milestones, such as marriages and babies.

You become more comfortable with flexibility while realigning the important things
It is important to go over the expectations, rules, and consequences at the beginning of the hosting period and compare them with what your exchange student is used to.  We had a male that felt he did not need to let us in on where he was in the evenings.  He was used to total freedom and little adult oversight; this was part of his cultural upbringing.  We needed to know where he was since we were responsible for him and his safety.

Having someone live in your home for an extended time requires flexibility and openness.  You may find you need to ease up on schedules or expectations, while still adhering to the important family rules.
You can use "misunderstandings" and cultural differences as teachable moments
We have hosted exchange students that have pushed the envelope, from lying to not bathing.  We have used these misunderstandings and cultural nuances as teachable moments for all of the kids within our home, whether they concern safety, health, or courtesy.
Your kids value being an exchange student and wish to experience being hosted
My kids have and continue to travel as exchange students to other countries.  They understand what kind of exchange student they should strive to be.

Sometimes my kids are able to connect with students and adults we have hosted.  Other times their travel is full of new experiences and people. Travel has been very enriching and full of personal growth.