Exchange programs seek Vermont families to host international students after pandemic lull

Stowe residents Mirjam and Michael McCormack will be host family to a German exchange student this fall. This family photo was taken on their 17th wedding anniversary last year after a hike up Spruce Peak in Stowe. Pictured from left are their children Ella, 14; Jacob, 15; Skyler, 9; and Brookie, 12 at that time. Courtesy photo

Mirjam McCormack came to Utah as an exchange student from Slovakia when she was 17.

A high school senior at the time, McCormack missed her family but said she had a unique experience with her host family, who welcomed her, stood by her through the challenges and even helped her apply to college.

McCormack, who now lives in Stowe and has four children of her own, has stayed in touch with her host family all these years. “We still call them our Utah cousins when we visit them and the kids have a wonderful connection,” she wrote in an email. 

This fall, McCormack is looking forward to welcoming an international exchange student — Johannes, a 16-year-old high school junior in Germany — into her home and family.

“Our children know my story and are very excited to meet another brave student that is willing to leave his/her own family to meet us and have a Vermont experience with us. They are excited to have a ‘new sibling,’” McCormack said.

But the waiting list for students seeking host families is long, said Meghan Fahey, northeast coordinator for International Experience, one of many organizations that facilitate such exchanges in Vermont.

The lingering effects of Covid-19 lockdowns, and the ongoing impact of the pandemic, is straining the system, she said.

“We have a significantly larger number of students this year who were put on hold, whose paperwork got a stay because of Covid, so we are doubling down, tripling down,” Fahey said. “And some have been waiting a year and a half or two years to come here.”

This year, International Experience has 80 students to place before Aug. 31, with at least 10 specifically requesting the Northeast. 

They include 14-year-old Anton from Spain, who is interested in golf, hiking, sailing and watching TV shows like “Friends”; Marie, a 14-year-old German, who enjoys volleyball, cheerleading, pets and wants to “get to know real American life;” and Kaan, a 14-year-old from Switzerland, who likes to cook, draw, swim and whose father participated in the exchange program, according to bios shared by Fahey.

“I hope this experience will change my life,” Kaan wrote in his bio.

Students usually come with their own health insurance and money for school and personal expenses. The organizations help facilitate the formalities such as visa, travel, liability issues and provide other support.

The host families do not get paid but have access to benefits — for instance their high school-age children qualify for year-long immersion programs in Spain and Germany through International Experience, usually the following summer, Fahey said.

Like many other sectors, exchange programs took a hit during the pandemic when travel stalled. Fahey said they had no placements in 2019 and only two last year. Now, as more international students sign up to participate, Fahey said they are scrambling to find volunteer families to host them.

According to annual data provided by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, visiting exchange student numbers dropped in 2020 across New England but seem to be bouncing back up since last year. In Vermont, 21 high school exchange students were placed in 2020 — a significant drop from the 96 students placed in 2019. But the number climbed last year with 92 students placed across the state. No data is available yet for 2022.

At least three local placement agencies told VTDigger they are having a hard time finding host families this year.

“It is correct that we are all in this business struggling these days. But finding loving close families is never easy,” said Milos Prokic, chief operating officer of International Student Exchange in New York, which placed 10 students in Vermont last year.

“Of course we would like it to be more because it is a great state and I think that kids that love skiing and winter sports and all that would love to spend some time in Vermont,” he said.

Asking someone to take a teenager in for a semester or year is always a tough ask, Prokic said. Throw in concerns propelled by the pandemic — such as international travel, complex paperwork, inflation, financial struggles and no pay incentives — and it’s no surprise that host families are in short supply this year. 

Host families are largely volunteers who share their home and family life with an exchange student for five to 10 months (a semester or a school year). They run the gamut of traditional and non-traditional families, empty nesters, single parents, single people, same-sex couples or retirees. As long as the host family is willing to provide a loving home, a guest or shared bedroom with a host sibling of similar age and gender, meals and local transportation, they are welcome to apply.

“No family is too big or too small, too boring or too busy,” Fahey said. “I always like to emphasize that we are a relationship-focused organization because we think that by creating these connections across the globe, we can make the world a better place.”

Exchange student Oscar from Germany with his South Burlington host family (L-R) Mia 12, Ella, 9 and parents Debbie and Jan Denkmann skiing in Bolton in February. Contributed photo.

Oscar, a 17-year-old exchange student from Germany last academic year, had a bucket list of things he wanted to experience in the U.S. — such as trying a root beer float. He didn’t quite like the float, but he was able to check it off the list thanks to his host family.

Deborah and Jan Denkmann of South Burlington, who just returned from a trip to Germany, said they loved having Oscar. “He seemed to fit in with us right away,” Deborah wrote via email. Their three children enjoyed having a “big brother” around and miss him now that he’s back in Germany, she said. 

The returns are rich which is one of the reasons why people fall in love with the program, Prokic said. The costs are “not zero” but nor are they “huge” or “impossible,” he said, encouraging families to sign up.

“People have been doing it for years and the benefits are pretty much infinite — from your kids going to visit those kids that are coming from abroad, your family gaining another family member for life, all kinds of learnings that occur and the satisfaction of sharing cultures,” he said.

McCormack, of Stowe, still recalls her experience as an exchange student fondly.

“My Utah family stood by me the entire time and their house was always full of love and open to me,” she said. “I gained a family in the U.S. and although my whole family is still in Europe, I don’t feel like a complete stranger in the U.S. because of them.”

Her family is looking forward to meeting Johannes, who she hopes will be interested in some of the many activities her children enjoy — soccer, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, skiing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, swimming and more. 

“We love children and we hope to add this one, at least as a friend, for life,” she said.

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