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July 1, 2009 > A positive international experience

A positive international experience

By Meredith Eidem

Learning about another country may take place in school, could be gained by using the local library for help, may involve watching a television show, but there is another way: learning first hand by becoming a host family to a foreign exchange student.

"Hosting is one of the most awesome experiences," exclaimed Teresa Knapp, National Program Supervisor for Northwest Services Peace Program. She explains that taking a student into your home does much more than help him learn more about the United States; it helps you to learn more about yourself and your family. "You see yourself through someone else's eyes."

Knapp's family has hosted fourteen times. She has had rewarding experiences that have lasted even longer than a school year. Lately she has gone to Germany to a former student's wedding. She has taken the students into her home and blended them into her family.

"The schools benefit tremendously" Knapp said. The students attend local schools, such as in the Milpitas Unified School District. There were three foreign exchange students last year who were fluent in English, taking mainstream classes.

United States History and English with an emphasis on American literature are required classes. Not only do they learn about American history, culture, and lifestyles, they can lend a helping hand by offering another, different viewpoint that can help classmates and the outlook of the entire school.

The student may start off a stranger, but a host family can make a difference in his life that can have a lasting effect. Knapp was happy to say that she has stayed in contact with one of her exchange students and now is an adopted grandmother for his child.

Hosting exchange students bridges cultural gaps. The high school student becomes part of the family by conversing and sharing stories, eating meals together, studying, playing and possibly getting involved in community activities such as a volunteer project.

Students also become immersed in our culture when they get involved in after-school activities such as clubs, sports, and music groups such as marching band. They can build long-lasting friendships and "realize we have core values in common such as loving families, joy in accomplishments and world peace."

One of Knapp's students called from Brazil when 9-11 happened. She said, "...you have to come and live with us and we will take care of you."

The requirements are simply to provide a bed for the student that can be in his own room or in a shared room with a child of the same sex and to provide three meals each day that do not necessarily have to be cooked by the host family.

The student must be expected to follow the same rules, curfews and guidelines as the family expects for the other children in the household. The student has his own health insurance and spending money for clothes, school supplies, and for special events like the prom.

There is an in-depth matching up process by trained coordinators. Each student completes a twenty-five page application that gives many details about his family's values, interests, activities, and the type of home environment the student may be looking for in the United States.

For example, an only child may want to live with a family with children younger than he/she is to experience being a sibling. The coordinators also conduct in-home interviews with the host families. It is important for all members of the family to want to be a part of this project.

The coordinators explain the way the exchange works as well. "There are very high standards for the students" said Orton Wisegarver, Program Manager for California who, along with his wife, has hosted eight times and they have kept in contact with students. They are looking forward to a family reunion this summer in Germany and Austria where they will meet up with all of their children. "We're American Mom and Dad" Wisegarver said.

Northwest Services Peace Program is a member of the U.S. State Department International Exchange Program for Secondary School Students. It is a not-for-profit organization that provides ongoing support after placement for the host families and students.

Students come from more than twenty countries such as Poland, France, Vietnam, Colombia, Brazil, and the list goes on. They are selected based on their academic excellence, English abilities, maturity, and their ability to work smoothly with their peers.

Wisegarver said "These are the cream of the crop. Hosting students from halfway around the world changes your outlook on the world; it's a wonderful thing."

Three foreign exchange students enjoyed the Milpitas high schools and community last year and more students are on their way, needing host families for the 2009-2010 school year.

There is no such thing as a typical family. Northwest Services is accepting of all lifestyles. Families may have teenagers or they may have only young children.
They may be retired. Single people, single parents, and gay parents can be hosts with the consent of the student.

For more information contact www.nw-services.com or call (858) 231-1847.
Keep in mind that there is also an outbound program for American students who would like to spend a school year in another country.

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