Eight things I’ve learned hosting a foreign exchange student

guilleAnother teenager came to live with us this week. Given the stories you hear from me about the one we already have, you might think I’m self-medicating. Hold off on the intervention, we know what we’re getting into.

And not second-hand either. When we told people we were going to host our first foreign exchange student, we were regaled with horror stories, similar to what happens when someone finds out you’re pregnant, and feels compelled to share the most hair-raising details from their own labor and delivery.

But we’ve yet to experience any horror, hosting through the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, and the student who just moved in is our fourth.

Forget about whether he’s a nice guy or whatever. All my mom wants to know is if he’s up for a little indentured servitude.

“Can he shovel sidewalks?”

Well, probably, but we don’t want to give the guy the wrong impression by putting him to work the minute he moves in. We’ll wait until week two.

In the meantime, I’m going to share my list of the

Awesome things I’ve learned putting up with someone else’s kid

jenny_thoma1. I’ve seen my kids’ future and I’m not (terribly) afraid. Our own kids were young when we started hosting. Our exchange students showed us that teenagers are capable of  responsibility, proper grooming, using manners, and passing themselves off as real humans in virtually every aspect.

2. I’ve gained perspective. High school in the US is unlike any other experience anywhere. Nobody else has homecoming week or marching bands. Those new to this phenomenon are flabbergasted when their peers hire singing telegrams to approach potential prom dates (or that there is prom), expertly fashion togas from bed sheets on demand, and allow their moods to spin on the performance of a football team.

3. I’ve learned how to text. This was bound to happen eventually. Using phones for actually talking is passé.

Henna.24. I’ve learned how to chill.  Having an extra kid around provides the opportunity to learn a little about coping and resilience. I can’t bail everybody out of everything. Your friend didn’t pick you up for school? Now’s the time to learn the city bus system. Yay, you.

5. No, I mean I’ve really learned how to chill.  Embarrassingly, I am a different parent when there’s another kid around. I’ve had to learn to take a deep breath when people here push my buttons, moderating my volume level and profanity lest I scare someone off.

6. I’ve helped foster world peace, and I didn’t have to lead a UN team to some war-torn country, dig wells in Nairobi or administer a polio vaccine in India to do it.  Peace is what happens when we walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Each of us, whether host or guest, has had the opportunity to examine ourselves and our way of life through someone else’s eyes, and we’re better for it.

7. I’ve put fear in perspective. Foreign exchange students are always on display, usually tripping over a non-native language. Kids as young as fifteen come to this country with a smattering of English, are immersed in high school, and live with a strange family whose mom may have a proclivity for yelling and swearing. They’ll worry (exponentially more so than if they were born here) whether people think they’re strange, stupid, standoffish, or awkward.

You’re freaking out about that presentation? The interview you’ve scheduled this week? The meeting where you’re delivering unpleasant news to your boss? Suck it up, cowboy.

What’s the worst that can happen? Human spontaneous combustion is super rare. And when is the last time you farted in public? Get out there and test your limits. I know an adolescent or two who do it every day.

saara8. I’ve learned the impact of attitude. Of the kids we’ve hosted, and the others I’ve met, none had listed Idaho as their preferred destination, or even necessarily knew where Idaho was on a map before coming here. The Rotary program doesn’t offer a choice any more specific than the possibility of a range of countries. Embracing the unexpected, and being determined to make the most of any situation, is the entire point.

Even if the unexpected includes learning what “cow tipping” is or the proper way to bake a russet.

… And this list could go on, but would get increasingly random, including things like discovering how tasty Finnish rye bread is, our growing display chotskies from around the world, or the drawer full of handmade ceramics somebody didn’t feel like packing for the trip home.

By the way, we’ve never advocated the “cow tipping” thing. That’s mean.


Pictured above are Guille from Argentina, Jenny from Switzerland, Henna from Finland, and Saara from Finland.


A vote for this blog is a vote for WORLD PEACE …. but, you know, NO PRESSURE.


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  1. I read all your columns – love them all. This one especially – my hunch is that any exchange student would love your home!

    1. Claudia, that means so much. Thank you! Sometimes we worry that our exchange students miss out because they don\’t experience the same things with us as they do with other families: trips, cabins in the mountains, etc. But if anyone has a hankering for pruning an apple tree with a machete, becoming an expert at Call of Duty, or the occasional food fight, we\’re the go to family.

    1. Thanks! Feeling very \”listy\” today. It\’s what happens when I\’m putting things off.

  2. Great lessons! We had a girl from Russia live with us when I was in junior high. It was…interesting. I don\’t remember too much abotu it, but its definitely a learning experience 🙂

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)

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    1. Hey Sarah,
      Our ultimate goal is to get our kids used to the idea that they\’ll go on exchange too, one day. One more way for us to put off paying for college another year. Oh, and it\’ll be good for \’em.