Just Exactly How Do You Choose an Exchange Student to Host?

By Brenda Hornberger, Regional Director

You and your family have decided you would love to invite an exchange student to share life with you for the upcoming academic year. Now what? Just exactly how do you decide which one will be the perfect student for you? Good question!

My family has been hosting exchange students for many years. I’ve been working in foreign exchange for many years. I have been asked for advice on selecting a student by many prospective host families. And I still don’t have a definitive answer! So I decided to put the question out to several of our host families who have hosted numerous times to compare notes and share some collective advice shared by those who have “been there, done that”!

One of the most prevalent answers I received was “common or similar interests”. Makes sense! If your family loves sports, pick a student who also loves sports. With everything else each side is going to have to get used to/adapt to, having that one thing in common to talk about, do together, and enjoy, will make the other adjustments much easier!

Another popular answer was “flexibility”. One family told me “no one will be a 100% perfect fit, but if the perspective student is open and flexible, that tells me he/she can most likely adapt”. Another family shared what they look for to determine that flexibility: does the student say things like “I really would like to…if at all possible” or do they instead say “I want to...”? That was actually something I had not consciously thought about but probably subconsciously put into action every time I looked for a student as well. Again, makes sense!

Two  things that were mentioned to keep in mind if the student is being added to a larger, busy, on-the-go-most-of-the-time family, were “I look for students that are used to pitching in with chores” and “family-oriented students – because most Sundays we go to Grammy and Grampy’s for a meal with extended family where we total 19”. Again, good points!

A “no-kids-in-the-household family”, who frequently has hosted 2 students for us, said that they thought it was fun to look for students who were only children at home – “so they can see what it is like to have a sibling”. Brilliant! They don’t have to put up with each other forever, but a year might be nice.

A mom shared “I enjoy seeing a personality come through on paper”. I can relate to that! I’ve read many student applications and have to say that when something they write puts a smile on my face, I tend to look at their whole application in a new light. The clincher for our choice one year was when I read that a young lady was afraid of bees. That was it! I am allergic, can spot them from 50 yards away and tend to head rapidly in the opposite direction. We had a great time that year running away from yellow jackets in the height of their aggressive Fall season!

The one answer I received from two different families that actually surprised me was “birth order”! That has never, ever entered my mind and I actually went back to the first family that gave me that response with a “Really? You do that?” But when I think about the two families that gave me that answer, it all makes sense that they would think about it. One shared that their entire family (minus 1) are “true firstborn children (AKA know-it-all)”. They are a loving family of adopted children with a firstborn & only child as parents. They select second born of the same gender students because “we don’t need anyone else telling us what to do!” LOVE the humor that came out in that answer! The 2nd family explained that “middle children tend to be adaptable” so it will give them an idea of who the most flexible/adaptable student might be. Again, brilliant!

All of this is great advice, but I’d like to share one more nugget that I think should take precedence over them all – try to keep your mind open to new opportunities. One of our sports minded families found the love of a new sport after they hosted 2 students who love volleyball. Going to watch their students compete led them to a new appreciation for the game. I’ve frequently seen the same thing happen in my family. We’ve become overnight (please don’t shake your heads!) 76ers fans for 2 separate seasons (both losing) when we hosted students who loved the game of basketball. In my defense, I think it was the live action of the game that won me over. Still can’t watch it on TV but love going to a live game! We became season ticket holders at a local live theater for a season while hosting a student who loved theater. And that’s just a small peek into how our lives have been changed because of the influence of a student who came already prepped with a love of music, crafts, or a sport we had never considered.

We’ve also taken quite a few chances on students that seemed to have slipped through the cracks. The little hidden gems that were a student with a seafood & cat allergy – because we could; the halal-practicing Muslim student – because we could; the computer geek – because we could. And they have turned out to be some of our most successful hosting years – because we could.

And I hope that your family finds that you “can” too. Hosting foreign exchange students has produced some of the most rewarding experiences in our lives – and continues to do so.