Hosting an international exchange student can be a great experience for homeschooling families. We hosted a student from Ecuador, and while the commitment can seem daunting, having Isaac José with us for a school year enriched our lives.
What are some of the benefits of hosting an international exchange student?
- A year-long unit study. Having a student from South America with us for a school year meant that we were learning about “the rest of the Americas” at every turn. Isaac was generous with his knowledge about the history, government, and culture of Ecuador, as well as comparing Ecuador to other South American countries. We also read library books and dug into websites about Ecuador. We learned geography, finding new interest in our giant framed world map in the kitchen, and we added maps of South America and Ecuador specifically. We learned that while Ecuador is small in size compared to the U.S., it, too has distinct regions, from the Andes to the Ecuadorian Coast. We learned about the great volcanoes of Ecuador — and, of course, about the Equator! We learned about indigenous peoples of South America, and we learned anew about the European colonization of North and South America. We learned about Darwin and Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, with its unique animal species. We learned about Ecuadorian music, food, herbal medicines — and so much more. Like so many unit studies, a great benefit was that our elementary age son learned at his own level, while the teens were able to learn things at a more advanced level, while we were all sort of generally immersed in Ecuador.
- A door to learning a foreign language. While it’s important to remember that exchange students really do want to improve their English, we found a lot of opportunity for Isaac to help us learn Spanish phrases and vocabulary. Our older sons’ study of Spanish was much more interesting and effective when they had a native speaker in the house. Beyond providing direct conversational opportunities, hosting a Spanish-speaking student was just inspirational, helping children and parents alike appreciate the beauty of Spanish and the practicality of speaking another language. We also got to watch Isaac’s English capabilities expand and explore with him the various things that “don’t translate” from one language to another — and see him begin to be able to “think” not only in Spanish, but in English. These were helpful concepts for our own sons to grasp as they were introduced to Spanish.
- A view to international perspectives. We learned about the impact of U.S. companies’ oil exploration and production in Ecuador — more money in an impoverished country, but pollution that affects the nation’s poorest peoples and environmental degradation in the Amazon. We learned about the impact of U.S. and World Bank policies. We learned about immigration laws. We learned about the interplay of governments as they make trade policies and alliances. We paid attention to the news in a different way, considering international perspectives on all these things.
- A “local” exchange with our community’s high school. International exchange students have to attend school by law. While I had two other high school age sons among my brood, they were homeschooling, and we didn’t have any children at the high school. Our international “son” was quite family-oriented, and he wanted me to be involved. I attended school orientation and parent-teacher conferences at his request, and our family attended many high school soccer games — he was a valued member of the soccer team. If you host a student, you may not have to be as involved in all these things, but we enjoyed it, and I got a first hand look at both the challenges and positive things in our town’s high school.
- An experience in sharing resources. Adding another family member meant we all had to stretch. For example, my husband and I were interested to see our two older sons come to an agreement that rather than sharing a room so our newcomer could have a private room, the family dynamic would be better if our more introverted son kept his own room, while our more extroverted son shared his bedroom with his Ecuadorian brother. (Exchange students must have their own bed but may share a room). This worked out beautifully throughout the year, and I thought it was remarkable that our teens figured out the best approach, even though it seemed unlikely or lopsided to some people. More problematic were ongoing struggles to give everyone access to the family desktop computer. Our exchange student was enamored with the computer and internet access he did not have in his own country, and also unskilled in dealing with malware, frequently clicking on things that even our youngest computer user grew up knowing to avoid. We all had to learn to be thoughtful about computer time, while trying to patiently help him understand PC hygiene. (Yes, our computers have virus protection. We still teach our kids not to click on spammy free offers).
- An opportunity to develop compassion. Our exchange student was proud of his country, but he also was well aware of the poverty and problems there. Once when we were eating at a restaurant, a man at another table began having a serious medical problem, and the rescue squad showed up in just a few minutes to help him. Our exchange student was transfixed — “In Ecuador, he dies,” he told us. Our children were shocked by the differences in living conditions that our international son could tell us about. Rather than thinking of the country as just “somewhere else,” they began to see it as peopled by individuals who have needs, many of them unmet.
- A possible interest in outbound exchange. One of our sons was so interested in the exchange student process, he wanted to be an international student in another country. If your family hosts an international student, one of your children may develop the same ambition, leading to a rich and transformative experience in another country. Our case was unique — our exchange student’s family actually did a direct reciprocal private exchange with us — meaning after Isaac stayed with us for a school year, his parents invited our son to live with them in Ecuador for a year. You should definitely not go into hosting with this in your mind; it’s an unusual outcome. However, your teen may apply to participate in an outbound exchange program such as the Rotary Youth Exchange.
- A potential academic or life focus. After sharing his bedroom with his Ecuadorian “brother” for a year and then living in Ecuador for a year, our son returned to the U.S. with a strong interest in Spanish and international studies. He spoke the language conversationally by then, and was able to use some Spanish in his work, and he studied those areas when he attended college. He had previously been a kid who was interested in a lot of things but had no specific likely academic direction. The international exposure gave him focus.
- Another person to love. We gained another family member for that year. We laughed and learned with him. We had meals together. We played soccer in the yard with him. We enjoyed his thoughtfulness and delight in new things. We took him to the doctor when he was sick; we spoke to his mother and father on the telephone. Our sons had another brother, and we had another son. It was not always easy and perfect, but that’s just like the rest of life, and we loved him. Again, this may not work as well in all families, but I suspect many homeschoolers are among those families who have the open hearts to welcome and love an international student.
As homeschoolers, we felt we got the most possible out of our experience hosting an international exchange student. Every member of the family benefited academically and personally. I hope more families will consider hosting a student. It seems like it’s something you do for the student, but if you are flexible and open, the experience is enriching for everyone.