Creating a Cultural Home: Life and Hosting in Exchange

By Jillian Sims; Academic Year Program Compliance and Operations Manager

Mary Armstrong is a Regional Director with CCI Greenheart in Minnesota, working with many Local Coordinators, host families, and students in the “Frozen North,” as she affectionately refers to the states she oversees (MT, ND, SD, WY, NE, and MN). Mary first started her journey in cultural exchange many years ago in 1976 when her family first hosted a student and, later, she herself was an exchange student in France. Years later, a friend who was hosting asked her if she would like to be a host parent as well. That turned into becoming a Local Coordinator, and then Regional Manager, until ultimately reaching the position of Regional Director and working with CCI Greenheart in 2012. All in all, she has had more than 10 years of experience working in the world of cultural exchange, has hosted personally more than 15 students, and has worked with hundreds of host families, students, and LCs. It’s fair to say, she’s rather well versed in the language of cultural exchange.

Host dad, Bob, goes for a hike with his daughter and students

For Mary, hosting students is a family affair. Her children are also huge advocates for the experience and are involved in choosing the student that will become a family member for the year. Her family is especially fond of hosting scholarship students through the FLEX and YES programs, and this year was no exception, though it was a bit of a different family dynamic.

Her two eldest children are now out of the home, in college and studying abroad, but her youngest, Esther, wasn’t about to let the opportunity to host pass. ” I don’t want to be by myself this year!” she told her mother.

With aspirations of her own for world travel from growing up amongst exchange students, Esther is a fan of her family’s tradition. Mary says of hosting “We feel like hosting an exchange student serves to provide the opportunity to an exchange student to make a positive impression on our local community where their diversity really adds a new element into the mix. It certainly has impacted our lives as we learn about new cultures, discuss world politics and become world travelers – all while staying home and nurturing our family.”

Every year,the family tries to pick a culture that they are unfamiliar with and this year they have chosen students from Ghana (Trustee) and from Israel (Nayera). Mary says that both students are quite different from each other, but equally special. Nayera is “outgoing and active” and regularly shares with her family about the intricacies of being an Arab in Israel, while speaking passionately about the challenges her country faces and how government policies do not indicate how her countrymen and women interact on a daily basis.”Nayera is a great student ambassador representing her country, and we surely hope her country takes some of her advice to be open-minded and welcoming.”

Nayara was also invited to speak at the CSIET conference on a student panel. When asked to speak about her greatest challenge, described her pride in being able to speak with her family about a cultural misunderstanding regarding her country’s flag and her personal identity. Mary and her family had unwittingly put a picture of the Israeli flag on Nayera’s welcome sign. Because this is not the image Nayera or her family identify with, she explained this to her new family and they together came to a better understanding and embraced Nayera and the Palestinian scarf that better represents her. Mary says “I’ll wear my Palestinian scarf knowing it came from my Israeli daughter!”

In the meanwhile, Trustee “bubbles with curiosity” at the new world around her. She recently put together a presentation for her school sharing her culture and proudly displayed her family school, culture, background and Ghanian dress. “Her eagerness to absorb everything has really impacted us and inspired us to share. One Sunday, we dedicated most of the day to researching her country and working on her country presentation which was really a special mom-daughter bonding time,” Mary recalls.

The girls enjoying the falls.

The girls enjoying the falls.

And it seems that this family already has many good memories together. Some days it is a “learn to sew” day that Mary put together when her girls expressed interest. There have also been trips to a rather freezing Lake Superior where the girls marveled at a road side sign that had marked where 300 inches of snow once lay. Both girls having never seen snow, so this was rather amazing to them.

They are so eager to see that miraculous “white stuff” that one morning Trustee was  heard screaming “It snowed, it snowed!” only for it to be discovered that Minnesota had simply gotten its first frost. “Later comes the real snow!” Mary promised.

As a Regional Director, Mary and her family have perhaps more experience than most with cultural exchange, and she credits her husband’s great patience and love of the experience that the many years have brought. With all of this experience comes knowledge, and Mary encourages being open minded and being able to laugh over the differences. “Some of the best advice I can give to prospective host families is a reminder that teenagers make mistakes and do unpredictable things, so be prepared for an adventure if you decide to host. I feel like it’s so important to use the opportunity of hosting an exchange student to learn from each other. … To be able to share is a gift that should be treasured and encouraged. ” With all of these years of hosting and living and working in the world of exchange, Mary and her family now enjoy regular invitations to graduations, weddings, etc. They are even “grandparents” to one of their early Kyrgyzstaian daughter’s two boys. Not too bad for nearly 40 years in cultural exchange!

Interested in opening your door to a life of exchange, learning, laughter, and fun? Consider hosting an exchange student! Click here to learn more about how to host with CCI Greenheart!