Butler family promotes the joys of hosting foreign exchange students, seeks more hosts

It didn’t take long for Kathryn Smail and her family to decide to be a host family for a high school foreign exchange student — four days, in fact. And before long, they were taking in one student after another.

Now the Smails, who live in Butler, are spreading the word to families in the region — open your home to a student from abroad.

It started in 2017, when a Facebook ad from International Cultural Exchange Services (ICES) caught Smail’s eye. Her interest piqued, she looked in to becoming a host family for foreign exchange students.

Four days later, the family’s first student was chosen. They had just a month to get to know their student before she came to the United States.

“That is how much they need families,” Smail said.

The Smails went on to host two more students. Then, in 2019, Kathryn Smail became a local coordinator for the program.

Her family’s positive experiences are why she encourages families in the area to consider hosting high school students from around the world.

Smail has two daughters, and the first two students the family hosted were also girls. Smail was able to experience what it was like having a son, though, when the family decided last year to host Matteo Setti, a 17-year-old from Gorgonzola, a small town in Northern Italy.

Matteo said he was looking forward to a fresh start and getting out of his comfort zone, attending Butler Senior High School for the 2021-22 school year.

“I had some highs and lows, but my stay here has been really good, and I am grateful that I chose to do this experience,” Matteo said.

The first month was filled with the excitement of being in a new environment. After a second month passed, Matteo became homesick and had to learn how to live independently without his Italian family. He took it in stride.

“For a teenager, it helps and changes your perspective. It helps growing up and developing more skills,” he said.

Smail said people have asked how she was comfortable letting strangers live in her home.

“I don’t think people realize it is so cool because they are scared to do it,” she said.

Smail said host families have the option to host for a semester (five months) or for a year (10 months). They must go through a background check before looking at applications from students. Once the process is completed and the family’s school district approves it, the family can begin getting to know their exchange student.

Smail said the sooner families apply, the sooner they will be able to become acquainted with their exchange students before they arrived for the next school year.

“That gives them up to six months to start forming a relationship with students,” Smail said. “By that time, they are no stranger getting off of that plane.”

Exchange students are required to be vaccinated before traveling unless they have a waiver, which is rare, Smail said.

Smail welcomes questions via email ([email protected]) from any family interested in hosting a foreign exchange student.

The International Cultural Exchange Services website (icesusa.org) has more information.

Tanisha Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tanisha at 412-480-7306, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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