Exchange Students

A Note on Our Experience Hosting Foreign Exchange Students

Between 1996 and 2003, my wife and I hosted five high school exchange students, four from the former Soviet Union and one from France through an organization called Academic Year in the USA (AYUSA.) The four from the former Soviet Union came here through a program called Freedom Support Act, fully funded by our government to promote better understanding between our countries, and to seed the former Soviet countries with young people who have first hand experience with America.

I will not attempt to address all of the positive political and cultural outcomes I think the Freedom Support Act program engenders. But I will point out one remarkable thing. This program assumes that virtually any student chosen to come here from the former Soviet Union placed in virtually any home in the United States will have a positive experience. It sounds like incredible hubris when you think about it, a kind of American pride stretched to an absurd extreme. But after experiencing our local group of host parents over the past several years, I’m basically convinced that it’s true. We host parents were rich and poor, city, rural, and suburban, liberal and conservative. But our students did not see our fine distinctions. They saw the essential American-ness of us, experienced American culture in our schools and cities and malls and religious institutions and parks, and learned that we are not the same as they see on TV, or perhaps are characterized in the news they hear about us at home, but we do have a national character. Discovering it is the reason they are here.

Host families are screened before students are placed, and the students are chosen very carefully. The agencies responsible for bringing them here have counselors and community representatives that the kids can talk to if problems arise. The Freedom Support Act students get insurance coverage and an allowance (though there are costs associated with having a teenager in your house, believe me.) But these kids are the cream of the crop. They are interviewed in their home countries by teams of American and local teachers. They need top grades, and they need top recommendations to even be considered. Their spoken and written English must be first rate. They are evaluated for their likely fitness to spend a year away from home and they are asked to write essays about why they want to spend a year in the US. Of roughly 80,000 students from all over the former Soviet Union who apply, about a thousand are chosen to come here. All of the kids we have hosted attended Central High School, Philadelphia’s premier academic high school. All of them did extremely well, getting mostly A’s in their courses. All have been involved in extra-curricular activities. Our French student won the city public league tennis championship. One of our Russian students acted in the community theater and another was a stage manager. One of the kids took horseback riding lessons, mucking out stalls at the stables early in the morning to pay for it. They were all fantastic students.

But the reason I am writing this is to tell you that however valuable the experience was for the kids who come here, it was equally enriching for us. With these kids, we added a family member for a year who brought humor and light to our house, and with whom we have made life-long bonds. The little we felt we did for these kids — mostly just including them in the fabric of our lives, taking them to the places we went and including them in our activities — was seen by them as a gift of riches, and they returned the gift by being the kinds of kids all parents wish for — focused, engaged teenagers with an almost insatiable hunger for information, activity, and involvement. I won’t pretend that there are no trials associated with having an adolescent in your home for a year. There are. They are growing and questing creatures, sometimes stubborn and misguided, who need real guidance at times. And at times, their foreignness was an issue for them, at school and in the community. We had two teenagers in our home on September 11th 2001, and helping them understand what was happening and how we and our friends and neighbors felt about it was interesting and at times challenging. But my wife and my son and his wife and I have felt at all points we got more back for our efforts than we were ever asked to give. Through the eyes of our students, we got to see other worlds, and we got to see our world and ourselves reflected in their eyes.

In her essay about why she wanted to come to America, one of our students wrote, “to be a little bridge between your country and mine, between your family and mine.” If you are considering hosting an exchange student, don’t hesitate. Enriching traffic crosses that bridge. In both directions.