Jim Anderson’s Bloomington home looks a bit like a fraternity house right now — except instead of college students, it’s teenage exchange students from across the world.
He’s only hosting two current exchange students right now, but former students continue to return to the U.S. to visit him. Once they live with him for the 10 weeks of their exchange program, Anderson said, they become part of his “forever family.”
“It’s hard to put it into words,” he said. “It’s amazing the connections you make.”
Over the years, Anderson has hosted 11 students through PAX, or Program of Academic Exchange, a national exchange program with close ties to Bloomington. PAX has placed 24,000 students from 70 countries since it began about 30 years ago. Although it’s only one of several exchange programs that place students in the U.S., PAX places about 200 students in Indiana annually, senior regional director Pam Blackburn said.
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Many students are placed in Indiana every year because PAX considers it one of the most hospitable states, said Blackburn, who places students in Indiana and Illinois. This year, however, may be different.
Across the country, exchange programs are struggling to find enough host families to place students. It’s been tough since the pandemic hit, Blackburn said, but factors such as pandemic fatigue and inflation are making it worse.
As of late July, Blackburn had about 80 more students to place — she typically has less than 50 around that time of year, she said. The deadline to place students with families is Aug. 31.
“I’ve got a big challenge ahead of me,” Blackburn said. “These are the dreams of these kids, and I have all these faces looking at me like, ‘Where am I going to go?’”
What does it take to host an exchange student?
Some families that have hosted students in past years are opting out this year because they need a break, Blackburn said. She can understand why, but the process to become a host family is relatively simple.
Host families provide their exchange students three meals a day, a stationary bed, a place for their belongings and a place for them to study, which can just be the kitchen table. Hosts have to be at least 25 years old, clear a background check and a home interview and can’t be on any government subsidies.
The students attend public high schools, but host families don’t need to have kids of their own in public schools, or even have kids at all.
“We have families of every makeup,” Blackburn said. “We have single moms. We have parents that have never had children before. We’ve gotten families with four, five, six kids with super busy schedules and they have a bunk bed with an extra bed.”
Schools don’t have to accept exchange students, but Monroe County schools — especially Bloomington High School North and Bloomington High School South — are particularly welcoming, said Kristi Brown, who helps connect students to Monroe County schools. In fact, when schools first reopened in 2020, the Monroe County Community School Corp. high schools were among the few to accept students again.
The students and host families are accepted through the schools’ vice principals, Brown said. PAX usually places four to six students in each Bloomington high school every year. Schools get federal and state funding for each exchange student.
Why is it hard to find host families this year?
Despite the benefits of exchange programs, having an exchange student can put stress on their host family and the school itself. It’s hard to pinpoint the shortage of host families to one cause, Blackburn said.
“It’s the climate of our culture here right now, it’s the aftermath of COVID, it’s the high turnover in schools,” she said. “It’s a lot of factors.”
Teachers everywhere are under pressure as the nation’s teacher shortage worsens. On top of that, exchange students typically need help from English Language Learning teachers, as English isn’t typically their first language.
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Some schools that typically take a significant number of exchange students are taking fewer than previous years, Blackburn said, because they want time to readjust.
“For those first two years of COVID there were very few exchange students in the country, so schools got accustomed to having fewer students and want to take it slow now,” she said. “They don’t want 11 off the bat anymore, they want two or three.”
Host families are feeling the pressure, too. Caring for children in the U.S. is becoming increasingly difficult, Blackburn said, especially while inflation is raising the price of necessities such as gas, groceries and school supplies.
“It’s a big responsibility for a host family to take on a student,” Blackburn said, “and people don’t have the money they used to.”
Why are exchange programs beneficial?
Between Brown and Anderson, they’ve hosted 15 students over the years. Blackburn, who has been with PAX since its start, has hosted 35 students and now has “grandchildren” across the world.
Exchange programs benefit both students from abroad and local students, Blackburn said. Local students who may never have traveled outside of the country or even Indiana learn about world cultures and customs and feel more connected to global events.
“When tragic things happen, like what’s happened in Ukraine or a tsunami in Japan, it brings everything closer to home because you know people there,” Blackburn said. “Our students here get to learn that the world is not just Indiana.”
Exchange students learn about the U.S., receive a quality education and gain a second family, Blackburn said. Some students who participated in the program are now in politics in their home countries — some are even ambassadors to their countries, she said.
At its core, Anderson said, PAX teaches both the host families and exchange students how to care for each other. When Anderson lived with one of his first students, a boy from Somalia, he fought and negotiated to get the child braces before he returned to his home country, something the boy thought would never be possible.
“I remember driving home from the dentist, and he was crying and saying, ‘I can never repay you,'” Anderson said. “I said, ‘Yes, you can. Just pay it forward.'”
Reach reporter Christine Stephenson at [email protected]