Broadening children’s minds about different cultures is critical in today’s world and a goal for many parents. It prepares them for an increasingly diverse society, bolsters cultural intelligence, encourages them to respect differences and builds strong relationships within their communities and abroad.
Many local families are meeting that goal of broadening their children’s cultural experiences by opening their hearts and their homes to the world.
Through the EF (Education First) Exchange Year organization, high schoolers from 13 different countries, including the Netherlands, Norway, Japan, France, Germany, Denmark, Thailand and Spain, are leaving their home countries and venturing to the United States to live with an American family, attend high school and experience American culture for a full academic year. In exchange, the American hosts learn about the students’ countries and cultures.
This year, families in Fulton, DeKalb, Cherokee, Henry and Walker counties are hosting international students, said Taryn Evans, local coordinator for EF Exchange Year.
Evans helps families through the application process and with finding the right student-family match. She then serves as a liaison between the American host family and the family of their international student during the entire year.
“This year, I have 14 amazing exchange students currently in the program,” said Evans, who added that the criteria for a great host family includes three simple things … “love, patience and an adventurous spirit.”
“Host families can come in any form — from a single person, to a single parent; from the married couple with no children to the married couple with children; or retired grandparents,” she said. “There isn’t a certain type that makes for a great host family. We are looking for households that can provide a loving and nurturing environment.”
In addition to providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the participant, Evans said sponsoring an exchange student connects children from both families with a new cultural experience; ultimately making them feel more connected to the world beyond both borders. Not only do exchange students share their cultural traditions, but host families also have the opportunity to recapture and share American traditions like Thanksgiving and Fourth of July celebrations, she said.
EF’s exchange students also enrich the community, including the high school the exchange student attends, she said. Those students participate in school activities like pep rallies, sports teams, school clubs, homecoming and prom. High schools like Sequoyah, Creekview and Etowah are working this year with EF Exchange Year to welcome and accommodate international students on their campuses.
To host a student, EF Exchange host parents must be at least 25 years old and complete an application. All members of the host family who are 17 years or older and living in the household must also pass a background check. The home must pass an inspection, which will assess the cleanliness of the home, verify the bedroom accommodations for the student and the participation readiness of all family members. Families must be willing to provide transportation to and from school and activities, as well as three meals a day and reasonable snacks.
Once the requirements are met for both the American hosts and their international families, communication between the two families begins before the students arrive in the United States. This enables both families to get to know each other. EF Exchange Year students are required to speak English, so host families often communicate with the student’s non-English speaking family through the exchange student.
Ten days prior to meeting their American hosts, EF students will arrive in Pennsylvania or New York to attend a welcome camp.
“This part of the process allows students to adjust to the time differences before heading to their final home stay,” Evans said. “I enjoy the airport greetings and seeing the students meet their American families.”
A year later, after living together and learning different cultures and traditions, exchange students often truly feel like a member of their American families. That relationship typically does not end at the departing gate of the airport. Host families and exchange families most often stay connected.
“About 75 percent of families maintain the relationship,” Evans said. “Many students come back to visit their American families, or host families go visit exchange students and their families in their homeland.”
Evans knows this firsthand. She was not only an exchange student in Japan when she was 15, but also a host “sister” to four exchange students when she was in middle and high school.
“I’ve kept in contact with my host ‘sister’ for 25 years,” she said.
In addition, Evans has also been a host “mom” six times.
“International exchange is my passion,” she said. “I love it, and my five kids love it.”