Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

My tiny school in rural southern Illinois saw quite a few foreign exchange students as I was growing up. I remember students from England, Ecuador, New Zealand, Japan, Yugoslavia, Germany, and Italy.

When I was in ninth grade, a close friend went to New Zealand as an exchange student and I was intrigued. I wasn’t able to become an exchange student myself, but I began talking to my parents about the possibility of becoming a host family. We decided to look into it. Our school had an active AFS (American Field Service) chapter, so we got information about hosting a student through AFS.

After further exploration, we decided to go for it. Little did we know that the decision would bring a longterm friendship that still crosses time zones, oceans and national borders. On our host family application we specified our choice of countries for our exchange student. Because I had been the one to express the interest and get the ball rolling, I got to choose. I chose Ireland, France and Australia – three countries I had always been interested in.

We were sent a student profile – a girl from France. As we reviewed the profile, my parents, my brother and I just felt this student wasn’t a good match for our family. A piano was the only reason AFS had matched her with us. The student had stated a desire to stay in a home with a piano, and we had a piano.

We sent the profile back to AFS and asked them to send us another. This time, they sent information about a female student from Australia. We looked over the pictures of her and her family and read the profile. Her name was Simone and she was three years old than me, one year older than my brother. This was our student!

After notifying AFS that we’d accepted the student, we had the opportunity to call her on the phone and begin writing to her. Truthfully, talking to her on the phone was a disaster. She couldn’t understand us and we couldn’t understand her. The accents and inflections of the Australian and American English were so different that we had a very hard time communicating.
Thankfully, reading and writing each other’s letters was not a problem.

AFS began making the arrangements for Simone to come to America for her year as an exchange student. In August 1988, we picked Simone up at the airport in St. Louis. My dad looked so different from the pictures we had sent that she didn’t even know him. As she stepped off the plane and hugged my mom and I, she noticed my dad standing next to us looking perplexed at being ignored. She whispered to me “Do ya reckon you should know that fellow there?” nodding at him.

Mom and I laughed as we told her it was Dad. She shrieked and began hugging him. Simone adapted quickly to life in America. At first the accents were difficult. The first Sunday she attended church services with us, she didn’t understand anything that was said. Her Australian accent was very thick and she said we spoke too fast for her to follow our words. We, on the other hand, thought she spoke too fast and was difficult to understand.

During the year of Simone’s stay, we had our ups and downs. Learning to live with someone new isn’t always easy, but we managed. That was during 1988 and 1989. Now, 18 years after first welcoming Simone into our family, she is still important to us. She lives outside of Sydney – thousands of miles away from her American home in Illinois.

We have kept in close contact in the years since she left America. In 1991, Simone came back to visit and brought her parents, her sister and a friend. We all enjoyed seeing Simone again and getting to know her family. Two years later, Simone and her parents returned again – this time Simone was Maid of Honor at my wedding. Then again, in 2004, Simone brought her fiance and son to spend a month in America – most of the time with my family.

Simone and her fiance were married in Las Vegas at the end of this visit. We still make occasional phone calls between America and Australia, send Christmas gifts and photos and keep in touch with email.

Many foreign exchange students leave their host families and don’t stay in touch. Our experience has proven that hosting an exchange student may last only for a school year, but the friendship made will last a lifetime.

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