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Hosting foreign exchange students creates extended families, cultural awareness

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Education First High School Exchange Year is looking for host families for foreign exchange students. (Submitted photo)

Hosting foreign exchange students can be just as rewarding for the host families as it can be for the students themselves, creating cultural experiences and extended families.

Sara Whipple is an international exchange coordinator for the non-profit Education First High School Exchange Year, a non-profit organization that works to place foreign exchange students throughout the United States from 13 different countries for a school year. She mentors mentors the students and their host families while the students are here.

She said for the exchange students, staying with a host family gives them the opportunity to have the American experience.

"A lot of them are just excited to come over and experience the American lifestyle, so a lot of them in their applications will say they're biggest dream is to taste a peanut butter jelly sandwich. They'd never had one before. Or a root beer float. Or one of the things they look forward to most is making a s'more around a campfire," Whipple said.

JoAnne Ovall, regional coordinator for North Dakota, has hosted foreign exchange students herself on her farm.

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"A lot of the kids that come to North Dakota and South Dakota have never heard of North Dakota or South Dakota," she said. "They have no idea what they're coming to, and they're usually kind of nervous. What they find when they come here is we have extremely welcoming people. We're very friendly. We're very open," she said.

North and South Dakota offers experiences they might not get in other parts of the country, or in their home countries.

"They get an experience that they wouldn't get going to a big city ... We don't even have big, huge school systems. Our big schools are like 800 kids. I have schools that have 46 kids that have exchange kids, so they get to participate in everything," Ovall said. "They get to learn things and experience new sports, new kinds of music ... our cuisine. They eat real beef and real pork ... It's just a new experience for them, and they embrace it."

The find differences in what we may think of as common experiences.

"S'mores. They love s'mores. They've never experienced a s'more before. Fishing — a lot of them had never been fishing. They all love shooting guns ... In most countries, you can't have a gun in your house, so they love target practice ... They love the simple, little things that they've never seen before — having a calf be born, holding a chick in their hands, going to a school game and everybody's cheering," Ovall said.

She noted the differences even in the land that her students have told her.

"Something that all of our kids have seemed to notice is the sky where we live. Because we don't live in a big city, they actually get to see the sky. I know that we were sitting on the tailgate of a pickup with this Italian boy who was, he was pretty big-city and pretty designer everything ... watching a bonfire and he looked up and he said, 'Oh my gosh. I have never seen a sky like that. That's gorgeous,'" Ovall said.

Hosting foreign exchange students has an impact on host families, too.

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"They say that they form such a strong bond that they actually think of those students as their children, so when those students go back to their home countries, they maintain these relationships most of the time with their host families," Whipple said. "A lot of times those families will end up traveling overseas to go meet their family. Sometimes they're in their weddings. It's just a really awesome cultural experience. They can learn so much about other countries in addition to having like that second families."

Ovall, who has participated in the program for years, said her family has also benefited.

"My children grew up with exchange students in their home pretty much every year since 1993," she said. " ... We love the kids, and I've got to go to Europe and visit my kids, and they come back and visit. I have kids and grandkids all over the world. On my birthday, I get messages from all corners of the globe. It's pretty amazing," she said.

Those students and their families become like extended families.

"You actually gain a family member that lives in another country. By doing that, you also gain their family. Your extended family gets bigger, and you have more chances to go visit them and to travel ... The parents of those exchange kids treat you like gold, because you took care of their child for 10 months, gave them a loving home, made them part of the family. In turn, they become part of your family also," Ovall said.

It can help broaden the host family's perspective as well.

"Your children and yourself become more open-minded. You get to know someone from a different country. It's not just hearing about it. You learn about their traditions, the different kinds of food they eat, the different habits they have," Ovall said. "Just those little things that we do everyday, they do those similar things but they do them maybe a little different."

For Ovall, though, the relationships are the best part.

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"I have found it to be extremely educational, but I would say it's more emotional to me. You actually learn to love them and in turn, love their culture," she said.

Ovall's gotten to see some of her students again since hosting them.

"We had a student two years ago from Taiwan, and he's actually coming back. He's going to go to school in Mankato, MN because it was close to us," she said.

Ovall's been to visit some of them, too.

"I went to Europe one time, to Germany, and four of my exchange kids that had been there different years all got together with me. To listen to them talk about me was funny. I didn't realize there are certain habits that I have and things that I say that they all picked up on and they all remembered," she laughed.

Education First is looking for families to host foreign exchange students for the school year. If you're interested in hosting a foreign exchange student, contact Sarah Whipple at (406) 939-3876.

Host families have are responsible for fulfilling basic needs of their students.

"They don't have to have their own room; they can share with somebody, but they have to have their own bed and a space for their belongings," Whipple said. "They have to be able to get that student to and from school, whether that's driving them there themselves or getting them hooked up on the school bus or car pool with another parent ... The only other responsibility they would have is providing three meals a day for that student, including some snacks in between as well."

Beyond that, the students themselves are responsible for their expenses.

"The exchange students are responsible for everything else. They pay for their doctor bills. They pay for their sports. They pay for their clothes. The host family is more than welcome to help out with that if they wish, but it's definitely not expected," Whipple said.

Kayla Henson is a former Dickinson Press reporter.
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