Why would a single parent of two teenage girls sign up to host an exchange student? Let’s hear from host mom Charlotte Powell to find out!
Thanks for being here Charlotte! Can you tell us – What was it that made you decide to host?
I saw an ad in the local newspaper asking for host families. My girls were with me so we started talking about it and we all thought it would be cool to learn about other cultures. I always wanted my girls to know a much bigger world than just their hometown. Hosting seemed like the perfect way to introduce all of us to the bigger picture. And it has is so many ways!
After a year together what do you take away as your favorite memory?
This is hard as there are so many. I guess one of my favorite isn’t something specific but that moment when your host daughter becomes a member of the family and no longer feels like a guest. It might be they come downstairs in their pajamas with their hair a mess or when they laugh so hard they snort. I can remember the year I hosted two girls the exact moment it happened for me. I was in my room watching The Bachelorette (I know, don’t judge me but I love it!) and within a few minutes of the show starting both my girls and both exchange students were in my room sprawled across the bed picking our favorite bachelor. I quit watching the show and found myself the mother of four beautiful girls, not just two anymore. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. We were family just like that. In pajamas, talking trash about each other’s picks and laughing.
Where have your students come from?
I have hosted girls from Thailand, Germany and Montenegro. Next year I will have a girl from Spain.
Although they are from different countries, what did you find that was similar among the girls?
They are all teenagers. Teens aren’t that much different no matter where they come from. They all had a natural curiosity, respect, and sense of adventure. They also had a wonderful grasp of our language!
If you could give one piece of advice to a potential host family, what would it be?
It’s important to be understanding of a few things. First, as I said a moment ago, these are teenagers who will act just like teenagers no matter where they are from. They are not adults and will not behave like adults. They might make some bad decisions, they might get moody, they might even roll their eyes, but they need you to guide them and be patient with them and just like any teenager, they will surprise you with love when you least expect it. They will give you a host mom mother’s day card or bake you a cake for your birthday. Treat these kids as if they were your own, because for ten months, they are. Give them chores, take the phone away for a while, hug them, listen to them, ask them questions, get to know them.
Second, don’t try to change who they are. Appreciate the uniqueness they bring to your home. Embrace the culture clash. Laugh when moments get tense and don’t let things that annoy you go. Talk about them or they build up and become big issues.
How was hosting for your daughters? Did they immediately hit it off or did it take some time?
For each girl we hosted it was a little different. We have learned to do some activities together almost as soon as the student arrives. It is easier and more comfortable for us, to get to know them while doing something. We go boating, tubing, water skiing. It’s really hard for a student to be shy while being pulled behind a boat on a tube. But generally speaking it takes a little while for real connections to be made, but friendships begin quickly. My girls love to go to the airport with me to pick up the student. They want to start to get to know them immediately. The exchange students seem to want that too. They do experience differences in opinions and ideas, but they work through it.
When speaking with people who are interested in hosting, one question we often receive is “does it cost a lot.” How would you answer that based on your experiences?
This was actually one of my questions when I first considered hosting. I am a single mom on a teacher’s salary so I don’t have a large bank account but I still felt I had a lot to offer an exchange student. I think the best answer is hosting will cost as much or as little as you choose. As a host family you are only expected to provide three meals a day and housing. However, if you are like me, you occasionally do a little more. International Experience does a great job preparing these kids with the expectation that they buy what they need and any extras they want to do. They know what they are supposed to pay for and do so willingly. I have not noticed any increase in my utilities or grocery bill either. I do buy more cereal than I did before, the students I have hosted really like our sugary American cereal….Applejack’s in particular! But other than that, no real change in my budget. Even when I hosted two students at once, I never really noticed much change in my monthly budget.
Communication is also important here. When I took the two exchange students and my two daughters on a beach vacation, both exchange students pitched in for the house we rented and were happy to do it. In fact, we talked ahead of time about what each could contribute and then rented a house that fit all our budgets. I couldn’t have paid for the house for the larger family on my own, but we really wanted to do a family vacation so we just openly talked about the money and how it would work. Just be open and upfront about what they will pay for before doing something. If we were going to a high school basketball game I would tell the student before we left the house, “make sure to bring money with you for your ticket or snack”, or I would say, “hey, tonight I will be buying your ticket so you can save some money to go out with friends this week.” We just dealt with it all up front so there was never any awkwardness confusion for either of us. Even now in the beginning of communication with the girl I will be hosting in August, I email the cost of cheer uniform, volleyball team shirt, and such so she is prepared for most of the initial costs she will incur when she arrives. Communication is really important in finances.
You have hosted a single placement (just one student) as well as a double placement (two students at the same time) – which do you prefer?
Personally I like both situations. When I hosted two, my family felt so much bigger, not financially, but in depth. Lots more conversation, more personalities, more laughter. I love hosting just one student as well. You definitely get to know them faster since your time isn’t divided and they were able to have their own room. When I hosted two, the girls shared a room. The said they loved it though! I think I will host two again in 2018-19.
Did you feel supported while hosting your students?
International Experience offers so many ways to get help and support while you are hosting but the most immediate and accessible help comes from the local coordinator. My local coordinator is a young woman named Liane. Liane helps me from day one. She makes sure my application is done completely and accurately. Then she helps me choose a student whose is suited to my family based on our interests and hobbies. She doesn’t get frustrated no matter how many times I ask to see one more profile of a student or how many times I call or email her with the questions. Liane has been at the airport to meet each student when they arrive so the student has a face to match the name. Liane contacts me and the student at least once a month, to check in and see how things are going. This past year I contacted her several times at the beginning of the school year because I knew my exchange daughter was really struggling with homesickness and I couldn’t seem to help. Liane called and visited the student and really pulled her out of the depression she was in. By the way, Liane is amazingly encouraging and good at her job. While I am new to some of the emotions and feelings a student may be going through, Liane has worked for IE for years and knows the struggles these kids face and knows how to help them and the family make it through. All I have ever had to do was call IE or Liane and they helped me through anything I needed help with from changing flights, to the student not engaging, Dr visits to staying with us longer. IE wants this to be a positive experience for both student and family and they go the extra mile to make sure it is.
Let’s talk about commitment. What commitment did you make when you said “yes” to hosting?
Hosting a student is a commitment to love a child, plus three meals and a bed. Mostly it is a commitment to be a parent to someone else child but to treat them as though they are your own. It is to get annoyed, frustrated and then to get over it and love them anyway. It is a commitment to protect the student while they are here but to let them make choices and mistakes along the way. It’s a commitment to be open to learn new things and to teach about those things you value and hold dear. It’s a committee to listen and to share your life with a person who comes to you as a stranger but leaves as a member of your family. It’s not about giving the student everything like trips, events and entertainment. It’s about giving them another place to call home.