Late summer is an exciting time for a group of teens who will arrive at the airport ready to begin a ten-month journey of discovery. Through AFS-USA, foreign exchange students from Israel, Bulgaria, Nigeria, France, Germany, Italy, China and more will live with Chicagoland host families, attend local schools and become part of the fabric of a new culture.
“These host families are so excited to meet their students and to welcome them into their homes. It’s a really fun thing to be a part of,” says Kelly Fitzgerald, regional field specialist with AFS-USA.
A nonprofit organization, AFS-USA is a partner in the AFS global network that facilitates cultural exchange for students in 45 countries. AFS-USA hosts students from more than 90 countries across the globe.
The best part? There are still students looking to be placed in host families in Chicagoland. Families who have hosted an AFS student often share how rewarding and interesting it is to have a teenager from another country as part of their family. For some families, it’s even a life-changing experience.
Here, we share five benefits for your family — and especially your kids — when you host an AFS foreign exchange student.
You can embody diversity and inclusion right at home
Parents who recognize the value of raising their children to embrace diversity often wonder how to make this happen.
When families step up to host an AFS student, they are doing so because they want to share their lives and their culture with a young person who is just as excited about discovering America. The AFS year is a community-based experience that focuses on the foreign exchange student being part of a family, not a guest, while attending local schools and contributing to the community. It’s not a travel program and host families are not compensated for hosting a student, Fitzgerald says.
“Host families commit to providing a bed for their AFS student and students can share a room with a host sibling of the same gender who is relatively close in age. Families also provide three meals a day and a place for the student to study,” she explains. Students come with their own spending money for any extra activities they want to participate in.
The most satisfying experiences happen when students and host families recognize that they are members of the same family — with all the responsibilities and privileges involved.
“Host families should not be shy about asking their student to do their share of the household chores, just like their own children would,” Fitzgerald says. “They empty the dishwasher, keep their rooms clean and help prepare meals, just like their host siblings.”
Explore your own culture and the culture of others
Students come from diverse backgrounds and a wide variety of home countries, which means that host families can choose to explore their own ancestral heritage by learning what life is truly like in Italy, Germany, Argentina, Norway or Tunisia, for example.
“AFS students are excited to share what it’s like to be a teenager in their own countries. Hosting a student is a great way to break down stereotypes and learn about life in other parts of the world,” Fitzgerald says.
Students come with their own interests and passions, and they can ignite interest in your own kids, too. Some play tennis, soccer or the viola. Others are into traditional Indonesian dancing. Each has unique ways of celebrating holidays and they are all encouraged to participate fully in extracurricular activities and sports at their schools — and they always bring a different perspective to the classroom, too.
“We don’t necessarily discourage people from selecting a student from France because they want to practice their French, but our students are not au pairs or live-in language tutors,” Fitzgerald explains. “They chose to come to the U.S. to learn English, so we want them to speak English as must as possible, too.”
Some families find joy in sharing their own family traditions and American way of life with their student. “This is an opportunity for families to teach their own children about their culture in a way they might not otherwise. It’s nice to have a reason to connect with your roots,” Fitzgerald says. “I was an AFS student in Thailand and my family took the opportunity of hosting me to teach their own kids, my host siblings, about traditional aspects of Thai culture like making coconut milk from scratch or making decorations for festivals out of banana leaves instead of plastic. They wouldn’t have taken the extra time to do that if I wasn’t there.”
Maybe you were considering skipping apple picking this year, but having an AFS student could give you the motivation to share that annual family tradition. “It’s a great reason to explore your own culture through a new perspective,” Fitzgerald says.
Spark interest in future study abroad opportunities
Travel is a great way to expand your life experiences, and living and studying abroad for a school year offers even more growth for your kids than vacation travel.
When you host an AFS student, don’t be surprised if your own kids put having an AFS experience of their own on their wish list. AFS offers a variety of opportunities for teens, or your child may become interested in taking a gap year abroad or even studying at a foreign university.
But if you don’t have kids who are teenagers, you can still become an AFS host family. It’s a common myth that families need to have teens of the same age in order to host an AFS student, Fitzgerald says. In fact, families of all types — empty nesters, LGBT couples, single adults without children and families with toddlers and elementary school students are all a great fit for an AFS host family.
Support a future world leader
In addition to traditional programs, through the U.S. Department of State, AFS-USA supports students who have received special scholarships to study in the U.S. And, in turn, American students can earn scholarships to study in other countries. Sponsored programs that bring foreign students into the U.S. include the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES), the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) and the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX). One program that allows students to study abroad is the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y).
What’s critical about these programs is that they are highly competitive and available to the students who show the most interest and promise for high future achievement.
To date, according to a Senate appropriations letter, “there are more than one million alumni of State Department exchange programs, including hundreds of world leaders, 105 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 84 Nobel Laureates. According to the State Department, more than 570 current or former heads of government, 64 representatives to the United Nations, and 31 heads of international organizations have been on a State Department exchange program.“
“Your AFS student might be just a teenager when they come to you, but you never know who they’ll become when they go home. It is exciting to be part of their journey,” Fitzgerald says. “Imagine being the host family for one of these students and know that you played a role in their lives during their most formative years.”
AFS is proud to facilitate these programs that offer exceptional opportunities to kids, some of whom wouldn’t otherwise have this chance to explore beyond their local community, Fitzgerald says.
Create relationships that last a lifetime
Hosting a foreign exchange student can open your family in whole new ways. The student can integrate into your family, celebrate holidays with you just like your kids and get to know grandparents and other extended family. They learn and share and enrich your lives just as much as you enrich theirs.
Even though a student lives in your home for less than a year, they become a true member of your family — and you can remain connected for the rest of your lives.
It’s not uncommon for host families to travel to their former AFS student’s home country to visit and spend time together. As host siblings grow up, they know they have an AFS brother or sister to stay connected with and to visit.
“Why not consider becoming a host family and sharing your part of the world with a student from across the globe?” Fitzgerald says. “You will be surprised at the impact on your family and your community that this action can have. It’s a really great experience.”