Exchange programs provide growth for students and hosts alike.
By Chris Haise
Many definitions of education, from the Oxford dictionary to Aristotle, speak to the growth of the individual. They describe an enlightening experience, new discoveries, and fulfilling your potential within society.
In this sense, there are few opportunities for education greater than exchange student programs. Wauwatosa and other surrounding school districts have long played host to foreign students through many accredited exchange programs.
The national exchange organization AFS-USA maintains programs in 40 nations, and exchanges with students from more than 80 countries. They do this through local offices across the globe, including here in Southeastern Wisconsin.
The organization was founded after World War II, and their website indicates they still have a bold mission: to help prevent future conflict through cultural exchange and understanding.
The professional support staff at this nonprofit organization works in tandem with high schools and administrators to create and foster international exchange opportunities. Apart from the administrative aspects of these education programs, AFS and other organizations rely upon host families here and abroad to support the students.
Aware of the challenges inherent with welcoming a teenager into your home, AFS offers support to all host families. The organization is committed to matching students and hosts based on best fit. Local chapters provide Liaisons and schedule regular check-ins to help hosts navigate any challenges.
This support starts at the beginning of the journey with an informational meeting online that goes over the basic elements of becoming a host. Other online materials and FAQs provide a good picture of what hosting entails early in the process for any potential host family.
Another prominent exchange organization is the International Student Exchange (ISE). Founded in the 1980’s, ISE is another State Department accredited exchange program focused on cultural enrichment and diplomacy through student exchange.
ISE also offers support for host families through a dedicated network of professionals and volunteers. Namely, their Student Support Teams are a 24/7 resource for both students and families.
Like AFS, ISE is dedicated to finding the best fit for hosts and students. Host family testimonials describe tearful goodbyes and the end of their “incredibly rewarding experience.” Whether exchange families are describing “life-long memories” or how their family has grown, the host family experience
It is the support from host families that is the backbone and most impactful aspect of the program. The direct and informal learning between students and families is what the AFS and ISE missions are all about.
One family was adamant that the impact on both students and hosts is life changing. “Hosting a foreign exchange student for a full school year was a lot like having a brand-new family member. You root for them and care for them the same way you do your own children,” they said.
The host added, “You try to get them involved in sports and extracurriculars, make sure they are included in social events, dances and just weekend parties. You also get ties to their families back home and become uniquely part of another family as well. It’s great to have them call you, mom or dad. In general, that’s a bond that never ends.”
Host families, as may be expected, are likely to encounter challenges. Responsible for a student from a foreign country, away from their parents and home. Hosts feel they really need to look out for the kids, ensuring they assimilate, and that their English is sufficient to cope.
Both organizations make clear that the financial burden of host families is to feed, clothe, and house their students. Students bring their own spending money, and any trips or activities beyond the basic act of hosting is entirely discretionary for host families.
However, with dedication and the support of the exchange organizations, hosts often find those concerns dissipate quickly. The opportunity to watch these kids grow alongside your own is “life changing.”
Beyond the personal and familial bonds that will be forged, hosting a foreign exchange student is a selfless way to make a positive impact by facilitating a growing education and world view for tomorrow’s leaders.
The experience of host families often leads to bonds of friendship that last long after the initial exchange is completed. The lives of students and hosts are so impacted by their time that further visits are coordinated.
The lifelong memories and growth for both the foreign student and their temporary family is what makes the foreign exchange program so rewarding for all involved.
If you or someone you know would like to participate in changing lives through education, please visit the AFS or ISE websites for more information, contact a local branch, or attend the informal online hosting sessions.