Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

Lisa R. Parker
Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

Text and Snapshots by Patricia Dillon Saint
Photo Illustration by John Fulton

When a young person from another country joins the
family for a year, the result can be a strengthening of family bonds, an
exchange of heritages, and a sharing of different ways of life.

My husband and I had never discussed hosting an exchange student. Then
Kirk read in the newspaper that a dozen exchange students who had come to
our community of Bloomington, Ind., for their senior year of high school
were living in temporary arrangements due to a shortage of permanent
host families.

raiding the kitchen refrigerator
It didn’t
take long for Inciser to feel at home in our house, raiding the kitchen refrigerator like
everyone else. She used the globe to show our children where Turkey was.

We met with the area exchange student coordinator to discuss the program
and the responsibilities of a host family. And a few days later our family
met Inciser (pronounced Inja), a young woman from Turkey.

We gave her a tour of the house and talked. Soon everyone agreed to the host
family commitment, and we welcomed her into our family.

Our children quickly made Inciser feel at home. Bill, 16, was excited
about having another teen-ager to share stories with, and Mary, 14,
offered her room to Inciser without reluctance.

Our younger children, T. J., 8, and Patrick, 5, learned where Turkey was
on the world globe and were curious about the food she ate. We rearranged
a few closets, informed relatives and neighbors, and rehearsed table manners
with the younger children.

Adjusting to a new routine

The first few weeks were a little awkward as everyone assumed a new family
routine; dinners now included dessert, and the house was a little cleaner
than normal.

This new formality lasted less than a month, however. As the comfort level
among us grew, Inciser’s status gradually changed from guest to extended
family member.

A few weeks after she moved in, we had a neighborhood party for family,
friends, neighbors, and the area’s exchange coordinator. This turned out
to be a good way to introduce Inciser to several people in a casual, less
intimidating setting.

In Turkey, Inciser lived in an affluent area of a midsize city with her
parents, who were both medical doctors. Extremely mature for her 18 years,
she enjoyed conversations about politics, economics, and (especially after
their weekly telephone conversation) her family.

Fort Macon

Inciser, Patrick, and T.J. learned some history while visiting Fort Macon State
Park, in Atlantic Beach, N.C.

Inciser explained that because her older brother had been away at college
in the United States, her parents had pampered her like an only child. In
her “new” family, however, she suddenly became the oldest of five siblings,
with little brothers whose daily ritual included jumping and wrestling
on her bed as she tried to do her homework.

We could see that Inciser was becoming accustomed to her new family and
no longer felt like a pampered guest. She raided the refrigerator (like
everyone else) without asking, enjoyed watching the Disney Channel, and
could resolve a conflict with her “younger brothers” without looking for
parental guidance.

She also understood that being part of the family meant having
age-appropriate rules just like the other children. She returned from
social activities on time, planned her social activities around the family
schedule, and communicated openly with us.

The challenge of making friends

The most difficult transition for Inciser was making friends at school.
She felt that discipline in her new school, when compared to Turkish
schools, was somewhat lax.

She expressed amazement at how informally students spoke to teachers and
staff and showed what seemed to her a lack of respect toward them.

We encouraged her participation on the school track and tennis teams, and
she tried to mingle socially. But in general she found her fellow students
seemed more concerned about their weekend activities than in developing
new friendships.

The area exchange coordinator arranged group activities and hosted parties
throughout the year, and because of their common circumstances, the exchange
students tended to form friendships among themselves. Inciser’s best friend
was a girl from France.

Our family became the focal point of Inciser’s social life. We included her
in all family activities and many social events.

Typical weekends were spent relaxing after a long week of school and
work–talking, reading books, and playing basketball in the driveway. In
Turkey, Inciser’s family lives in an urban area, and she loved the quiet,
wooded setting of our suburban neighborhood.

the family poses in front of Spaceship Earth
At EPCOT, the family poses in front of Spaceship Earth.
During Inciser’s stay we also took family vacation trips to the North Carolina
coast and to Washington, D.C.

As parents our most difficult task was making Inciser feel special and
secure in her new environment, while ensuring our children received their
normal doses of attention and care.

Something we learned was that the more a host family includes an exchange
student in its regular activities, like school or church events,
neighborhood cookouts, vacations, and holiday gatherings, the more blended
the family will become.

Blending cultures

A host family should also make an effort to share in the exchange student’s
culture. As the year progressed we learned about Turkish customs, food, and
traditions. We placed the Turkish flag in the dining room window and
regularly enjoyed Turkish apricots and pistachios for snacks.

The children enjoyed listening to Turkish music and played the Turkish
national anthem via the Internet.

We learned about other customs more indirectly. For example, when Inciser
entered our house, she switched her shoes for slippers. She explained to
us that, in her country, even adults remove their shoes when entering
someone’s home.

As for American customs, the first unusual event Inciser experienced was
Halloween. She was reluctant to participate at first, but when she realized
the entire family was involved, she joined without hesitation.

She enjoyed dressing up as a military aviator, walking through the
neighborhood to observe the other costumes, and collecting “trick or
treat” candy.

Christmas Day

The family gathers to open presents on Christmas Day.

Inciser loved chocolate and enjoyed trying new desserts, especially
during the Christmas holidays.

As a Moslem, Inciser does not celebrate Christmas. But she enjoyed the
yuletide month of great food, family entertaining, and lots of

For a pre-Christmas dinner for our family’s closest friends, she agreed
to prepare her favorite Turkish meal. And this was quite an undertaking
on her part, because cooking was a completely new experience.

She consulted with her mother about recipes and ingredients, then spent
all afternoon preparing a fabulous meal, welcoming Bill and Mary’s help
with the finishing touches. The menu included homemade chicken broth
soup, spicy meatballs, Mediterranean rice, a potato dish, and Turkish
bread (similar to Italian bread).

After dinner we laughed because she had used every pot, pan, and serving
dish in the kitchen. “I never really appreciated my Mom’s cooking,”
Inciser admitted, “but now I know how much time and work it takes to
prepare a meal!”

Walt Disney World

Inciser sits in front of Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World in Orlando,
Fla., where we learned that “It’s a small world after all.”

When hosting students with a different faith, it is best to inform them
of the facilities available for their faith and let them decide how and
if they want to share their religion. Our college community had places
where Inciser could worship. But she preferred to practice her Moslem
faith privately, quietly observing her special religious holidays.

We were comfortable discussing the similarities and differences between
the Moslem and Christian faiths, and she enjoyed attending a few church
events with us.

We were able to include Inciser on several short family vacation trips.
We visited the North Carolina coast, an air show, Walt Disney World in
Florida, and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Lifelong lessons

Our experience of hosting an exchange student strengthened our family
ties; made us proud to exchange our heritage; exposed us to a different,
yet very similar, way of life; and involved our children in the act of
giving on a daily basis.

Inciser's last day in the States
A farewell
shot on Inciser’s last day in the States.

Inciser has returned to Turkey and is attending college. We talk on the
telephone every other month, correspond on the Internet, and are planning
a visit in a few years.

On her last day with us, the emotions were high. Saying goodbye is not
always easy, so instead Inciser said, “See you later, because goodbye
is so final.”

Right before we left for the airport, Kirk gave Inciser and each of our
children a balloon, then asked them to make a special wish and let it

We watched the balloons rise and drift off in different directions.
They were both a symbol of holding on to the great memories and welcoming
new beginnings.

A former den leader, Patricia Dillon Saint lives in Trafalgar, Ind.

A Member of the Pack

Inciser had never been exposed to any Scouting programs, and as a leader
for my son’s Wolf Cub Scout den at the time, I encouraged her to join us
for den and pack events.

She was impressed by the boys’ commitment and eagerness at such a young
age to earn their badges. She enjoyed helping with projects, crafts, and
field trips, and she participated in den meetings.

For several weeks, she watched the boys reluctantly practice for their
first flag ceremony, to be done during the last pack meeting of the

Practice after practice, we watched and wondered if they would ever get
the commands and sequence of events right.

When the boys performed the ceremony flawlessly, they received praise
from the other dens and pack leaders, and Inciser shared in their
excitement and pride.

She particularly enjoyed field trips. And by the time we took our final
one for the year–to McCormick’s Creek State Park, including a tour of
the nature center and a hike to a waterfall–the boys had come to
consider her as one of their den leaders.

How to Become a Host Family

If you are interested in hosting an exchange student, contact your local
high school administrative staff to determine which exchange organizations
the school sponsors.

Inquire about any special requirements, past experiences with exchange
students; and ask for a list of host families from previous years so
you can direct your questions to reliable sources.

If possible, screen the applications and look for students who seem the
most compatible with the interests and life style of your family.

For example, if your family likes to go hiking and camping, look for a
student who enjoys the outdoors. Or if having the same religion is
important, then select one with a similar faith.

You will not be alone as a host family. The local exchange program
coordinator, who is also hosting a student, serves as the liaison
between the exchange students and host families, arranging the initial
introductions, scheduling social activities, and helping to resolve
any problems that may arise.

On rare occasions a student will have to be placed with another family.
Examples of valid reasons for this include rivalry between the host
family children and the student that cannot be resolved within a few
months, or failure to follow family rules.

Students pay for travel expenses and are expected to bring spending
money. The host family pays for all living expenses during the school

If your family is matched to a student prior to the school year, you
should begin corresponding before the student’s arrival. Inquire about
their food preferences, interest in sports or cultural events, and
hobbies. Also describe your life style as well. This will help shorten
the adjustment period.

The best advice is to treat your exchange student in the same manner
as you treat your own children. That is how he or she wants to be
treated and can best experience being part of an American family.


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