Hosting an Exchange Student is a Full Immersion Experience

Resilience. That’s the word that came to my mind when I sat down to write this. I was thinking back to where I was a year ago. The heart of the frustration phase of the pandemic. Where I’d been home so long that the novelty had worn off. Our organization had pivoted, but virtual everything was taking its toll, especially with our Wisconsin-Costa Rica exchanges. Instead of a hosting exchange, we implemented an ambitious virtual exchange only to realize we had out-sized expectations. As much as we hyped it, we ended up hitting a virtual wall where even the teachers agreed that it was overkill with everything else being digital.

Fast forward a year and while I wouldn’t say we are back in business, we are making strides. Jan/Feb hosting exchanges are returning and it’s a welcome stress of relief as I’d much rather be pitching the opportunity to host a student. Virtual exchanges have their place, however the face-to-face opportunity is incomparable.

cheesehead model
Let the sports indoctrination begin!

Hosting is a full family immersion experience. You are hosting, but you’re having an immersion experience just as much as the exchange student is. This time of year I’m in full host family recruitment mode and therefore talk with many families. The biggest concerns I get from families is not knowing what to do with exchange students on nights and weekends and that they think they are too busy to host. Those sound like valid concerns, however it has never stopped a family from hosting.

A lot of people don’t factor in that, for the visitors, EVERYTHING is new and will likely take them 3-5 times longer to do things. Could be due to a lack of understanding, uncertainty, or just plain shock/awe. The Costa Ricans are super observant and will point out differences that you’d have no idea existed. 

I’ll never forget the student that shared that his host family had a lower drawer freezer and an upper door refrigerator. It seemed so mundane, but the more I thought about it I realized I had never seen a lower door freezer/refrigerator in Costa Rica. Or the one that slept all night in his winter jacket because he didn’t realize he could sleep under the covers (in Costa Rica it is so hot that the comforter is decorative and people sleep on top of it with a light blanket at most). 

Those first few days going through the basics and discovering these inconspicuous differences fuels the host’s curiosity. This is when families get “cocky” and develop a “Oh you thought that was impressive, wait till I show you this…” attitude. This is also when they get “selfish”. 

tubing
Teens + Snow for the first time

The best quote I’ve ever heard about hosting was when a host mom told me that hosting “…forced her family to do fun winter activities”. When she realized everything was a new experience for their guest, she took advantage to relive old family experiences.  Sledding, ice skating, family game night etc. This mom “selfishly” leveraged the situation to bring her family together and do things they hadn’t done in years.

To families concerned about being busy, I say it’s impossible to be too busy for an exchange student and in all honesty the busier the better. The families that have 4-5 kids of their own and offer to host multiple students are special. I can only imagine the stimuli overload an exchange student would have and how much they’d learn from the experience.  

Since every experience is new, it doesn’t matter how mundane or boring the activity might seem, for them it will be captivating. Students have gone to practices, games, tournaments and attended club meetings. Running errands is special as they are the best car riding companions. So many things to observe and take in. How are people driving? How do they drive in the snow? What music is on the radio? I’ll never forget when I took my wife on the interstate for the first time and passed a car going uphill. She didn’t realize it was a passing lane and thought a car would come over the hill and hit us head on. 

Just because these experiences are completely new for them, doesn’t mean they won’t be able to relate. The culture is different, but not earth shattering and have a lot of similarities. We’re not comparing smartphones to rotary phones, but rather Coke to Pepsi or the Vikings to the Bears. Playing sports/video games, listening to music, eating (a lot), sleeping in etc. describe teenagers no matter what country you are in.

One year later, our patience is paying off and I’m now more excited than ever to bring students and families together. Exchange programs are some of the oldest and most resilient programs in the world. It literally takes a pandemic to shutter them, and even then virtual options still exist. This winter’s exchange will be extra special for families/students and it will be one that I’ll always remember because of the road taken to get there.  

If your family would like to host a student or teacher for 2 weeks in the Muskego/Mukwonago area Jan 13-27 contact dustin@costaricafrika.com or visit bit.ly/hostingexchange

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