Of couches and tchotchkes: pros and cons of hosting an exchange student

Exchange Student Hosting, www.manicmumbling.comAs I’ve mentioned, the term exchange student horror stories is one of the more frequent searches that brings people here. I’m still trying to figure this one out. Are you all considering hosting a student and wondering if it’s crazy? Maybe your own kid’s thinking about exchange, and you want ammunition to talk him out of it?

OR … are you creative industry types trolling for movie fodder?

Because if it’s that last one, I’ve got a great idea {call me}.

If it’s either of the former, I’ll warn you I’m biased. We’re preparing to welcome our sixth exchange student to town. Between Mike and me we’ve also been counselors to another five. Our oldest is going on exchange, and we’re actively hounding him to make good use of the tutorials we bought so he can coherently ask for directions to the bathroom once he gets to his host country later this summer.

Outside of Google searches, I’m asked every once in a while about the pros and cons of hosting exchange students. It’s hard to come up with a list. It’s kind of like quantifying the ups and downs of parenting, really. The downs of parenting are pretty straightforward. You don’t have to practice sleeping in ninety-minute spurts every night, or actively wear spit up on your shirt to know neither is especially your cup of tea.

The pros are harder to quantify: how it feels to be woken early because a toddler just wants to snuggle, or watching your normally surly teenager stop and hold the door for someone, because you taught him that. Pros of parenting are harder to define, but they’re there. And they’re substantial.

But, I’ve been asked, so I’ll answer.

First, I’m not going to call them “cons,” but rather “things that can impact the host family experience.” I know, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well, but here goes:

  1. Time and energy – You’re not running a hotel. Your student should be family, not a guest. They’ll need help with homework and learning the bus system. They’ll need to be registered for school and to go shopping for supplies. They’ll need instruction on cleaning their bathroom and using the dishwasher. They’ll need someone with whom to discuss cultural differences, to be patient while they adjust to a new way of life. Depending upon where they’re from, those adjustments could be significant.
  2. Decorum – I’m a yeller. And a swearer. My own family is used to this and (usually) copes. I try to be more chill when we’re hosting. It’s not always easy, but it’s helpful to avoid terrifying kids right off the bat.
  3. Rides – Teenagers need to be taken places. If you don’t have good public transportation, you’ll want to encourage the making of friends with drivers’ licenses, or get used to increased chauffeur duty.
  4. Risk – Some students manage themselves as proper ambassadors of their countries. For others, rules are made to be broken. The occasional kid will care more about the location of the next party than the possibility of being sent home. It does happen.
  5. Fit – There are some families and students who, for whatever reason, never click. Maybe the cultural differences are too drastic. Maybe someone in the family wasn’t totally convinced hosting was a good idea. Maybe the student has unrealistic expectations for his exchange, or lacks maturity.

If you’re contemplating hosting, you’ve probably come up with most of these cons already, and there are ways to cope with each.

The pros tend to be harder to quantify:Exchange Student Hosting, www.manicmumbling.com

  1. Except for the tchotchkes, I mean. Exchange students bring stuff, and later they send stuff. Sometimes they leave stuff. Mostly it’s good stuff. Other times it’s a drawer full of kitsch from ceramics class.
  2. For serial host families like ours, there are the half dozen or so more Mother’s Day messages every year than I expect. Same with birthday and holiday wishes. These people tend to stay in touch.
  3. And there are couches for us almost every corner of the world whenever we take a notion to travel. Host an exchange student and you’ll open up a standing invitation from her family, who are often enthusiastic about showing gratitude for your having taken care of their kid.
  4. Your exchange student might serve as a role model for your own kids. Never underestimate the impact of exposure to someone who humbles himself daily in a non-native language, who keeps his chin up through homesickness, loneliness, and constantly having to live outside his comfort zone.
  5. Then there is the value of perspective, which is in short supply in this age of rampant and growing xenophobia. Welcome an exchange student into your home, learn about her and where she’s from and allow her to experience your version of family life. Be prepared to reconsider the way you think about the rest of the world, as well as to challenge the way the rest of the world thinks about us.

And finally …

  1. Love. Ugh, I know. Cheesey-peesey, but chances are your student will become a real extension of your family. She’ll return for visits, and bring her boyfriend to meet you. He’ll ask about your mother’s health and send graduation photos. Of course, not every student/family bond ends up a lifelong one, but many do, and it’s a feeling like no other.

Ultimately, if you’re contemplating hosting, if you have a little extra time, a spare bed, some wiggle room in your grocery budget, and some patience, whether or not you currently have kids living at home, you might very well have something to offer as a host. There are dozens of programs. All require proper vetting and come with training and support. For programs in your area, reach out to your local high school counselor’s office. Contact your local Rotary District (my personal favorite), or check out the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Exchange Programs.

And do feel free to contact me or comment (whether or not you have a movie script in mind).

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