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

Cultural Exchange Brings Tingling Feelings to Life

AAAHHHH!!  Was the shriek I heard coming from the other side of the bushes.  This was no ordinary scream, as we were in an area surrounded by jaguars, pumas, and bobcats.  And by no ordinary scream, I mean it didn’t sound quite like an animal attack, but something else.  I rounded the corner to find my cousin, amongst other students, taken aback by the “massive” spider they had just spotted right outside the jaguar enclosure.    

For a group of Wisconsin teens on their first visit to Costa Rica, any creature would appear “massive” in fake spider on armcomparison to what they are used to seeing and this spider sure qualified.  Thankfully, they didn’t scream every time they saw a new insect/animal or they would have been hoarse by day two, but there was a lot of “new” for this group to take in.

Our spider encounter at the Costa Rican zoo we visited that day was just one of the many cultural experiences these students had over the course of their cultural exchange trip to Costa Rica.  When you add that to the cockroaches, gecko lizards, mutant mosquitoes and the occasional rat/mouse there’s already a lot to experience not even counting human interaction.  This was a very special group of exchange students as they had received Costa Rican exchange students in their homes January and would now live with the same students in Costa Rica.  

Over the course of two weeks, the students visited the host students high school, attended classes, participated in educational and recreational activities, and most importantly, were immersed into the Costa Rican culture.

When I talk about cultural exchanges, I always refer to “tingling” moments or sensations where cultural interaction is taking place, but there is no good way to describe the feeling as it is not something you can detect physically (unless you’re screaming).  What’s fascinating is everyone experiences these moments differently for a variety of reasons and there is no telling what their main take aways will be.

Observing these students over the course of the exchange I noticed a lot of these tingling moments. There were card games the US students shared and there was salsa dancing the Costa Ricans shared.  There was our trip to the capital city San José, punctuated be getting stranded (but not soaked) under a torrential downpour and a visit to the main central market of San José.  There was also the unique experience of living through a power outage in all of Central America.  Besides that, there were many great memories created on the other excursions such as the beach island trip, where Wisconsinites and Costa Ricans could be seen kayaking, playing volleyball, and having a good time chilling out in the jacuzzi.      

dave with host familyThe little things were also noted.  My cousin, for one, was relieved despite his limited Spanish, that there were still Costa Ricans that spoke naturally slow enough for him to understand.  There were also students very keen to pick up vocabulary and some carried around a notebook to be ready at a moment’s notice.  Even the teacher/chaperone had a list of different foods to try that was made for her by students at the high school.  (I was curious to hear from her what toad’s soup tasted like.)  

These were only the things that I could observed.  The other aspect of this trip was all the opportunities the students had on the weekends and evenings with their host families.  Even though we insisted the students only spoke Spanish when together, we could rest assured that they were being forced to try out the language while at home.  For the higher level students, this was their time to speak the language freely without feeling as if they were being graded.  For the lower level students this was their chance to see just how far they could get while having their host sibling as a backup should they get stuck trying to communicate something to their host parents.

For me (and them) it was a big accomplishment completing both stages of the exchange.  The only thing I’ve ever regretted about international travel was not starting sooner (and I started when I was 20).  These students now not only have the international cultural travel experience at a young age, but they also have international life long friends that will no doubt continue to be resources for them.  There was lots of sadness at the going away party, however I don’t foresee this being the last time they are together.     

I still keep in touch with my original host family from 11 years ago and rarely do I miss a celebration.  Even being fully integrated into my wife’s Costa Rican family doesn’t take away from that first experience and bond I’ll always have.  I visited a lot of countries after first coming to Costa Rica, but no matter how much I enjoyed the other places, it was never enough to overcome the experience I had from my first time in Costa Rica.  

The future is bright for these students as it’s anyone’s guess where this experience will take them.  I ended up in Costa Rica, however maybe they will never return to Costa Rica This exchange though will no doubt give them the confidence to take other risks putting them out of their comfort zone.  Let’s just hope those risks don’t involve jumping into a jaguar enclosure.  That would provoke one extraordinary scream.  

group photo at park