Not all CIEE host families host for a full academic year. Just as important are our welcome families. Welcome families "welcome" students into their home for a shorter amount of time (as little as two weeks) until a student's permanent placement is secured. These few weeks are a great opportunity for students to get acclimated to their community, and host families get a taste of hosting an exchange student! We asked Julie, a welcome family from Wisconsin, to tell us about their experience as a welcome family.
We decided to be a welcome family because all of us had traveled abroad at different times to places such as England, Scotland, Ireland, and South Korea, and knew the kindness of others made a difference to us during our travels. Yet, we were afraid to commit to an entire year. My husband is retired and I work full-time. Our youngest daughter, age 22, lives at home with us, but she attends school full-time and works two part-time jobs. As a family, we didn’t know how much time and energy we would have to devote to a teenager for the whole year. But, we were convinced that we could be patient with a student new to the U. S. who might not have great language skills yet. We hoped we could provide a fun and interesting beginning to a year of adventure.
The activities we did with our student were simple, varied, and focused on our community. On the first day when we picked her up at the airport, we introduced her to the Big 10 University near our home and bought her a t-shirt that showed her school spirit. After that we included her in our everyday activities such as grocery shopping, walking the dog through the neighborhood, and shopping at resale clothing stores. We strongly recommend introducing students to the local resale scene. Because there is a limit to what they can bring with them, and they may have limited financial means, resale stores are a great way to have fun, learn about their fashion customs and their comfort with our fashion, while not spending a lot of money. She came and visited me at work and we had lunch together. That visit added understanding to the stories I shared around the dinner table.
My favorite activity was taking our student to the county fair. She got to pet many animals for the first time such as goats, rabbits, cows, sheep, and horses. The food was unique to the fair and we learned she liked cotton candy and snow cones but not elephant ears. Plus, the rides made all of us scream with joy. It was hard to capture that day in pictures, but she sure tried.
A phrase that everyone in our home, including our student, had to learn was, “that’s different” as a replacement for, “that’s strange.” We explained that using the word “strange” brought an opinion and judgement that what one person did or knew was better than what another person did or knew. However, using the word “different” gave equality to all experiences.
We tried to be predictable and stick with routines. We thought that if our student knew what was coming, it would be less stressful. We ate together as a family in the evening around 5:30 pm and everyone talked about their day. Whether good things or bad things happened, we all shared something. We went grocery shopping every Sunday and she got to pick out things to try in addition to making sure we had things she liked on hand. On a more fun note, she and I made a new batch of cookies every Thursday night. Sometimes we made cookies from her country and sometimes we made traditional US cookies. Her favorite were monster cookies, but if we were out of homemade cookies, she decided Oreos were a great substitute.
Because we were only a welcoming family, we chose not establish too many rules. Although we did not allow cell phones at the table and she had to charge her phone in the kitchen every night like the rest of us, we let her take showers as long as she wanted. She had to bring her dishes to the sink, and rinse them, but she didn’t have to load or unload the dishwasher. She could come with us to walk the dog but she did not have to be part of the rotation of feeding the dog. We looked at it as establishing a general baseline that her next family could use to get more specific.
As a family, even in the six short weeks our student was with us, we learned our hearts expanded more than we thought they would. When she went to her permanent family, we all cried. We learned we watch a lot of television and most of it is not appropriate for young women. We learned chicken was always a safe choice at supper and we loved trying new dishes that she cooked for us. We learned having another person join our family was fun. It pushed us to get out and do more things in our community as a family. Overall, I believe hosting a student made our family stronger. We were all working toward the same goal of helping our student get comfortable in our culture and that required us to reflect on our familial patterns. We hope many other families will consider being a welcoming family.