Monday, June 9, 2014

Our Experience Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student–Part 1

Many of you probably know that my family hosted a foreign exchange student during the 2013-14 school year.  She was with us for 10 months, and recently returned to her home country.  I thought I would share a little about our experience today.  This is not a sponsored post. 

We had discussed hosting a foreign exchange student for a couple of years, and both LC, myself, and the kids all agreed it was something we would like to do.  Well, this was my daughter’s senior year, and I wanted her to share in our experience, so this was the year to do it.  The agency we went through is called Youth For Understanding (YFU).  The reason we chose this agency is because of an email I received from the agency looking for host families.  I am a school counselor, and I received this email at work. 

It all started with that email, and I contacted YFU to inquire about whether they had any female exchange students from Sweden.  Why Sweden?  Because my maternal grandfather came from Sweden, and we had always been raised being told that we were Swedes.  My grandfather was very proud of his Swedish heritage.  He was called “The big Swede” by friends and family.  I knew a limited amount of information about Sweden, but I have always been curious to learn more.  I thought hosting a student from Sweden would be a wonderful way to teach my own children about Sweden. 

YFU responded to my email inquiry and gave some information about an 18 year old girl from Stockholm.  Her name was Josefine, and he even sent me a picture and some background information on her.  I knew immediately that she was the one.  So, we applied to be a host family.  At first, we signed up to be an arrival family, which meant that we would keep her for the first 6 weeks, and then she would be moved to another host family to live for the rest of the school year.  YFU was to be responsible for finding her a permanent family.  The reason we opted to be an arrival family was mainly skepticism.  What if we didn’t like her?  What if she just wasn’t a good fit for our family?  What if she and Miss 18 Year Old didn’t get along?  What if we could not afford to keep her for the whole year?  Not to mention that we only have a four bedroom house and no spare bedrooms. 

There was a lot of paperwork that we had to complete to make an application, and we had to go through a background check.  We also had to go through a home visit, and this visit lasted for a couple of hours.  As far as living arrangements, my daughter agreed to give the student her bedroom to sleep in, and she would sleep on the sofa in the family room.  during the day, the two would share the space, and they would also be sharing a bathroom. 

We found out in June that we had been approved, and that Josefine would be coming to live with us!  We received a packet of information about her and some pictures of she and her family.  We were also able to start communicating with her through email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  She was to arrive on August 8, 2013.  The kids and I were overjoyed and so full of excitement!  We loved it when we got to be Facebook and Instagram friends with her.  We anxiously looked at every picture we could find of her.  The photos sprinkled throughout this post are some of my favorite pictures of her  that I saw before she arrived.   LC was the biggest skeptic, and the one who worried the most about how things would turn out.  I really owe him a big thank you because I really think he did this for me.  If it weren’t for the fact that he knew how much I wanted this, I am not sure if he would have been on board. 

My daughter cleaned out her closet and made room for her to hang her things, and gave her some drawers to keep things.  She did purchase some additional storage for her bedroom, and storage so that some things could be kept in the family room where my daughter would be sleeping.  This house is a split level, and the was it is set up, my daughter’s bedroom, the family room, and a full bathroom are all downstairs.  So the girls would be sharing this space.


The day finally came for her to arrive!  We were to pick her up from the airport in Pittsburgh on the evening of August 8th.  My daughter and I drove up there to pick her up.  According to the paperwork we had received, a YFU representative was supposed to meet us at the airport.  That never happened.  When we got there, we were sitting at her gate, and we received a text from YFU saying that her flight was delayed.  That is it!  I kept texting back to whomever had sent me this information and no response.  I tried asking at the airport, and they would not give me any information about her flight.  We finally decided to leave the airport, and go to dinner.  We went to dinner and did a little shopping, and were just waiting around for hours to hear something.  I tried emailing our YFU representative, I tried texting whomever had initially texted me.  And I was getting nowhere fast.  I even had LC at home trying to reach someone who could tell us something. 

This is where I felt that YFU dropped the ball.  I was very unhappy with the way this situation was being handled so far, and also worried about Josefine, knowing that she was stuck somewhere, alone, and she is not an American.  I finally received another text saying that her flight had been cancelled and she would be arriving the following afternoon.  That was it, not other explanation at all.  Full of anger, we drove home feeling disappointed and worried about Josefine.  I think it was midnight that night before I received information that she was in Newark, and would be spending the night in a hotel, and that she would be arriving the next day at around noon.  The whole evening was a flurry of phone calls and trying to reach someone who could tell us something.  At one point, my husband did tell someone at YFU off for the way this was being handled. 

Early the next morning, we received a phone call from YFU saying that she was now not going to arrive until around 6:00 in the evening instead of during the early afternoon.  This change, we were told, had been made by her family, because it was a direct flight, and she would not have to switch planes.  At some point during that day, we were able to speak to her on the phone.  It was so relieving to hear her voice, but I could tell that she was extremely nervous and stressed out. 

We made our second trip to Pittsburgh in two days (it is a 2 hour drive), and went to pick her up, and this time she actually arrived!  It was LC, Mr. 5 Year Old, and me.  We had made her a sign and were holding it as we saw her coming down the stairs.  My first thought upon seeing her was how pretty she was.  We waited for her bags, and we were on our way back to Bridgeport in no time.  During the drive, we talked the entire time, and I was surprised at how well she spoke English.  She asked lots of questions and we answered.  When we got home, we ordered a couple of pizzas, and the kids were there waiting for her.  We gave her a tour, ate dinner, and let her spend some time just getting settled in.  She went to bed fairly early.  She had jet lag for a week or so.  Sweden is 6 hours ahead of us in time. 

Before she arrived, I had typed up a huge list of everything I thought she needed to know.  Where things were located, household rules, just information about how we do things and how we live.  That made it easier for her than trying to tell her all of these things.  She didn’t have to try to remember anything because she had it right there to look at whenever she needed to.  I also labeled the cabinets in the kitchen with little white stickers so that she would have an easier time finding things. 

She arrived with one large suitcase, and one small suitcase.  We were very surprised as to how little she had with her.  We spent her first day taking her to Wal-Mart to get food, taking her to the mall, and taking her to dinner.  She could not believe it when we walked into Wal-Mart!  I think it was the biggest store she had ever been in.  She says stores are much smaller in Sweden, and that everything is bigger in America.  She was very confused trying to pick out personal hygiene items and food that she wanted.  She said there are not nearly as many choices in Sweden.  At the mall, she didn’t buy anything.  We were all walking around with her, and I think she felt so overwhelmed, and probably a little uncomfortable that we were following right along behind her.  But at least she saw what the mall was like.  She wanted to eat somewhere American for dinner, so we took her to the Texas Roadhouse for dinner.  You can’t get much more America than that!
I am going to stop here for now.  I think that sums up how we came to have a foreign exchange student, her arrival, and her first day with us.  I will be back soon, and tell you more about the time she spent with us.  We did end up keeping her for the whole ten months, and I will tell you how that came to be as well!  I hope you will come back to read more! 

Has your family ever hosted an exchange student?  If so, what was your experience like?  If you have questions in particular that you would like to ask me about hosting an exchange student feel free to ask me I the comments, and I will be sure to reply. 

Link Parties:

The chicken chick
Monday Funday
Pursuit of a Functional Home