“Our exchange student added such interest to our empty-nesting life”

Teens all over the world have dreams of attending a High School in the USA, and of experiencing American culture first hand. These experiences are made possible by Greenheart’s community of host families–people who open their hearts and homes to international high school exchange students. These host families share their homes and their perspectives on life in the USA, and often make life-long friends with their student and his/her family.

Being a host family is a commitment. And we treasure each and every one of our host families. We love to hear why they started hosting and what keeps them doing it. Here is Kathy Mann’s response to those questions.

Why did you and your husband decide to host?

We are both 60 years old and one year into empty nesting, after raising our six kids. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I missed having kids in our home after ours all left! Having kids in the home adds a richness, energy, and interest to our family life that I found lacking when our home emptied out. I also love mothering (e.g., the nurturing and care of children) and discovered that I really missed doing that. So hosting an exchange student was appealing to add all that back into our family/home life for a time.

My husband and I also both enjoy learning about and experiencing other cultures. We knew that if we hosted an exchange student, we would have the opportunity to meet an interesting person and learn about another culture and country different than our own, and gain a broader perspective of the world and life. We would also get a lot of pleasure out of teaching an exchange student about our culture and country. Lastly, our faith is very important to us, and the bible tells us to be hospitable to strangers. Hospitality is a way to show love and care to another person in need of a place to live.

Who are you hosting this year?

Ana from Georgia had been accepted as an exchange student and was so excited to come to the U.S., but she was getting rather stressed that she had not been chosen by a family to host her. With time running out before classes started, she was sad thinking about the possibility that she might not get a family home placement and that she might be unable to realize her dream of coming to the U.S. When we chose her, and she found out she was matched with a family, she was beyond excited!

Hosting an exchange student is everything we had hoped it would be. Our Greenheart Local Coordinator did a great job of suggesting student profiles that she thought would be a good match for us, and the student we got (Ana) was perfect for our family! Ana has added such interest to our empty-nesting life!

What is it like getting your student situated with life/school/community after arrival to the U.S.?

I’m not going to lie…there was a lot to do to get ready for our student’s arrival, and right after our student came too! But since we are empty nesters, I had extra time on my hands and familiarity with some of the things we had to do, because I had had to do them with my own kids when they were growing up!

Before Ana came, we prepared her bedroom so that she would have a comfortable place to rest and relax. We had a lot of paperwork to complete for her high school, and it was a stretching experience to learn the technology to create accounts for school-based websites that would be necessary for her to see assignments, check grades, and pay fees. We attended a local orientation for host families, and got familiar with Ana’s health insurance should she need to use it for illness or injury. Once she came, we had a very busy week setting up her bank account, choosing a cell phone plan and getting that set up, going to her school orientation for new students, choosing classes, shopping for school supplies, getting COVID vaccines, and getting immunizations she was missing and needed to attend school. Whew…it was a lot! But it was welcome work in some ways, because we were strangers with each other and didn’t have that comfortable familiarity to just hang out, doing nothing in particular. So it was good to have things to do in those initial days to keep us busy. It was challenging also, because those early days were the ones where jet lag set in and there was a lot of fatigue for Ana, too. We learned to do one or two things in the morning hours and then be home so that she could rest or nap until her body got used to the time change from traveling across the world.

What is the hardest thing about hosting an exchange student?

For our family, there were a couple of hard things about hosting an exchange student.

The first one is that for us, we had gotten used to empty nesting and having our house be our place of total respite and relaxation. Introducing a stranger to the home takes your home from being a place of respite/comfort to a place of mild uncomfortableness and being slightly on edge, at least at first! There is a stranger moving around in your home that you aren’t used to, and it can be hard to simply relax as we used to know relaxation. There are extra conversations to be had to make sure the student is not lonely or bored, or just needs a listening ear; and there are extra errands to run or do when the student needs something, and frequent interruptions when the student needs to know how to do something like run the dishwasher or washing machine, or wants to know what foods she can help herself to when she is hungry, or just wants someone to talk to or do something with.

The second hard thing was when we thought we were communicating clearly about something and that the student understood it, but finding out later from her actions that indeed she had not understood it at all! Comprehension often lags behind expression of language, so don’t be deceived into thinking that just because your student has good expressive language skills in English, that he or she understands the English language just as well!

Both of these hard things have improved over time! Once we got comfortable with our student, we felt like we could relax more again in our home. As Ana’s English got better with practice and lots of textbook reading, her comprehension improved and there are less times where she doesn’t understand what we say to her.

What do you like most about hosting your exchange student?

Nearly every day, we learn more interesting and new things about Ana’s culture and country. We have enjoyed cooking Georgian meals together and we love the cuisine of that country. We have also learned so much about Georgia. When we were matched with Ana, we knew absolutely nothing about her country. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I had to google Georgia and see where it was even located in the world. I’d never heard of Georgia!

Greenheart’s resources for host families is also excellent, and provided us much needed information on Georgia’s history, people, customs and culture, so that we could be a bit more prepared before our student came. Now that Ana has been with us for several months, we have learned so much about her country’s politics, religion, culture, and family life. We have celebrated her birthday in the Georgian style, and often prepare and eat Georgian meals together. It has also been interesting in light of the current political unrest between Ukraine and Russia, to have Ana’s perspective on this, given that her country and older relatives have experienced firsthand a takeover of their country by Russia.

What are some of your favorite memories so far this year?

It was fun introducing Ana to American foods she has never had (peanut butter, lasagna, Cheetos, Mexican fare, and so many more), introducing her to our American holidays and other cultural events (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Super Bowl stand out as favorites so far), and traveling to Colorado, Chicago, and California. Ana had never seen huge skyscrapers before, or stood so close to animals at a zoo. She was brought to tears for the privilege to stand so close to tigers and lions, and also to see original Van Gogh art! It has been fun to experience some of these “firsts” with our student and see the U.S. through her eyes!

Thank you Kathy for sharing your hosting story with Greenheart! If you’re interested in being a Host Family for an international high school exchange student, please visit HostwithGreenheart.org to Learn More and Apply.