When We Said “Yes!” to Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

In early July my husband forwarded an email to me from a mutual friend. The subject of the email: Can you help find a family for a High School Foreign Exchange Student?” Ben had added another question, just for me: What do you think?

I wrote back immediately: “I’d love to do this.” And that is how, in the space of less than a half an hour, we decided to become host parents to a teenager from Germany.

The summer became a whirlwind of preparation.

In addition to the application and orientation process required by our exchange program, we had to transform our extra bedroom from a multipurpose storage-slash-guest room into a bedroom fit for a fifteen year old girl.

There was quite a domino effect involved; reorganizing one room turned into reorganizing the whole house. Of course, I learned that I needed pictures of nearly every room for our application the day after I’d torn them all apart.

As we shopped for new towels and schlepped carloads of donations to Goodwill, we knew that ultimately no amount of preparation would make us ready to become the acting parents of a teenager.

Our daughters are seven and ten; we haven’t the foggiest idea what to do with a fifteen-year-old.

Ready or not, in mid-August, Ruby arrived.

We had learned that she loves German rap music, so we cued up a Spotify list to play after we loaded her luggage into the trunk.

After a few moments I asked her if she knew the song. She hesitated for a moment before explaining that she does, but since it’s a very rude song about drugs and murder her mother doesn’t let her listen to it.

I laughed so hard my sides hurt (and changed the playlist pronto).

As I write this, Ruby has been living with us as a member of our family for less than two months. Her time with us has that oft-noted quality of timelessness; it feels like yesterday and forever, all at once.

We’ve experienced the thrill of waterskiing in Wisconsin and the agony of shopping for prepaid cell phone plans. We’ve survived student orientation, navigated party invitations, and swapped music recommendations (turns out there is a lot of lovely German rap music that is teen-tested and mother-approved).

This only child now has two little sisters who adore her, and I’m fairly sure the feeling is mutual.

It doesn’t seem quite right to say it’s been easy, but there has been a remarkable ease to opening our home and our hearts in this way.

We have neither the budget nor the personalities for extensive travel.

But just as good travel not only reveals truths about the world, but also truths about the self, we’re learning as much about our family and our culture as we’re learning about Ruby and her culture.

I love her, and preparing for her departure come June will be anything but easy.

[To learn more about hosting a foreign exchange student, visit AFS.org or ask your local high school which international education programs they recommend.]

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4 Comments

  1. Rika | Live Small - Be More

    As a former exchange student myself, I applaud you!!!
    I know from experience how influential these months will be for Ruby. Enjoy the time with her!

    Reply
  2. Seana Turner

    What a lovely thing to do! I’m laughing out loud about the playlist. I speak some German, but I bet I wouldn’t have recognized the lyrics:) I’m sure your younger children will remember this special girl and the time with her, and perhaps someday you will be able to visit her when she returns home. Our school has hosted students from China for many years. Unfortunately, their visas were denied by the Chinese government for the first time this year. Too bad.

    Reply
  3. Heather

    We hosted three teenage girls for a month one summer. It was a great experience and we still keep in touch with all of them, but especially our German girl. She has come to visit us and we have visited her in Germany. My mom is a widow and living by herself and I convinced her to host an exchange student last year (a girl from France) because I thought it would be good to have some company around. It was a great experience. When the exchange student heard that she was going to be with a single 60 something year old she was apprehensive and thought it wouldn’t be fun with the “grandma,” but they both had a great time together. The exchange student left in June, but her and my mom still talk at least once a week! I hope to host another exchange student again.

    Reply
  4. katrin kiener

    Dear Katherine, with tears in my eyes I read these lovely sentences you wrote about Ruby. I can feel from every word you write that Ruby had so much luck and something else that she got you and your family as a guest family. Be sure that you will ever a have a place in Ruby’s heart for making her happy — and also in mine. I hope these next months will be filled up with all kind of feelings.

    Greetings from Germany,
    Katrin (Ruby’s mum)

    Reply

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