All about hosting a foreign exchange student

When I first started thinking about hosting an exchange student last spring, I searched and searched for information and resources. And while I did find some great blogs and forums I was still starving for more information.

I’m at the halfway mark of my first year hosting and while I’m in no way an expert host parent (How could you be? Every kid is different!) I thought I’d share a little bit about my experience.

First – if you have ever thought it would be neat to host, but think you can’t because {fill in the blank} – definitely look into it further!  I am a single mother of 2 that works full time and hosting works for us. I have seen it work for big families, small families, single parent families, families with little babies and more.  The main requirements are a bed of their own, a place to study, reasonable transportation and 3 meals a day. They have their own funds for extracurricular activities, toiletries and clothing, outing with friends and other necessities.

These students are usually 15-17 years old and are required to have decent skills at English and good grades at home.  The overseas partner will take a lot of time interviewing and making sure the students have the right mindset for a year away from their natural family.  My student says it was mindboggling how many questions she had to answer during the interview process.

My student is a full year student and she will stay with us for the whole year – no trips home. Nope, not even for Christmas.  The only exceptions might be a death in the family or perhaps an illness that is easier/cheaper to treat at home than in the US.  With that in mind one of the most important parts to a good year is making sure you embrace your student as part of the family and encourage them to do the same.  The more they can participate in even mundane things like grocery shopping or your company picnic, the more they will be able to immerse themselves in their experience and benefit from it.

Speaking of family  – you definitely don’t treat family like guests, right?  Don’t treat your exchange student like one, either. Your student will settle in better if you help them understand what their chores are and how things work in your house, what foods they can help themselves to.  I talked with one student recently who was so glad that her host parents gave her chores, because it made her feel like part of the family.  I took F to a family reunion just a few days after she arrived – yikes!

At the same time – these ARE teenagers. Be prepared to parent them just like you would your own kids.  You’ll have to remind them about stuff, counsel them about friends, sign school papers and monitor grades, and be ready with a big hug if they get homesick.

I was lucky enough to skype with my host daughter for several months before she came. When she got here we felt like we knew her already (my boys skyped too, of course).  Now I call her my “daughter from another mother” and don’t even want to think about her going home.   I know Ian will cry for a good week at least.  We watch Buffy and Vampire Diaries together, and this weekend we all started knitting projects.  She loves my cooking and I’m compiling a cookbook for her to take home.  We have inside jokes and can not only talk about anything but also enjoy a comfortable silence.

The benefits for the students are clear – they are able to improve their English schools, learn another culture, and experience US high school life.  When F started school she was not only in love with football games and pep rallies, but also the cafeteria, lockers and heaven help me, cross country.  F has been amazed by how much volunteer work is necessary here – helping to pack Christmas food boxes at a local assistance organization was a real eye opener for her.  She has also learned Southern English, and can almost say y’all correctly.

The benefits to host families are less publicized but just as wonderful. We have learned about other cultures as well – how Swiss francs compare to USD, how to count to 10 in German, how school and holidays and meals are different in Switzerland.  But even more – we have learned that the world is a big place and most people are both very much like us and very much unlike us.  I already see my boys (and me) becoming more open minded and understanding of others.  Hopefully, we will never be the people that talk LOUDER to people for whom English is a second language.  I think we have learned how to understand when people need a little extra clarification.  This does not, however, stop my sweet boys from yelling “OMG, don’t you speak English??” when F says something a bit off track from standard English. We’re getting there, though!!!  (She just rolls her eyes at them, by the way, because she is truly a big sister).

My boys are already adamant that we again host next year – I am 99% sure that we will.  I have a few things that need to be sorted out first, but we love the experience and can’t wait to meet our next student/family member.  We know we already have a family for life in Switzerland and look forward to visiting in a few years.  Who will be next, and what will we learn?

Fitbit and Cosleeping

Yes, there’s a connection here.

I bought a Fitbit Flex a few weeks ago as an early birthday present for myself.  I liked the idea of tracking steps as motivation to be more active and I loved, loved, loved the idea of tracking sleep.

I’ve never been a good sleeper, and once I had kids things any hope of decent sleep went out the window!  I am a huge fan of safe cosleeping and the family bed.  Cosleeping helped maximize my sleep when the kids were small.  Not having to get out of bed to tend to them meant I would get more rest for work the next day. However as the  children grew I was getting less sleep for work the next day – I’d wake up clinging for dear life to the edge of my king size bed as small people kicked me relentlessly in the ribcage.

I’m especially glad that my younger son coslept as long as he did, because his proximity helped me realize that he was suffering from sleep apnea.  That’s a story for another day, but he’s past that, thankfully, and it’s definitely past time for him to sleep in his own bed.

I knew I wasn’t getting quality sleep, but to see it in black and white – well, blue and bright pink on my Fitbit dashboard – was really eye-opening.  Some nights I would not get more than one hour at a time before tossing and turning restlessly.

I don’t regret a single moment of cosleeping.  It was the best choice I could have made for our particular situation. I would do it again in a heartbeat, but everything has a season and my little guy is ready for this change.

Friday night Ian slept in his own bed for the first time ever – he was excited to try it although he woke at 12:30 and asked to come to my bed.  Progress!  Last night he was glad to cuddle up in his bed again, and this time he slept all night!  I still woke earlier than I prefer (thanks, time change) but was happy to see a stretch of completely uninterrupted sleep on my log for the night.

I’ll continue to watch my sleep logs because I’m trying to figure out what habits lead to better sleep for me. I know that food and drinks before bed, TV vs. a book, and even the time you go to bed can affect your sleep for the night.

And yes, the Fitbit is encouraging me to be much more active.  I try to find opportunities for more steps – I park far from the building, go talk to coworkers instead of IM, and any other small changes that will get me closer to my 10,000 steps for the day.