By Erica Thomas, managing editor
TRUSSVILLE — Each year, schools across the nation welcome foreign exchange students to allow them to learn about the American culture and ways of life. But behind the scenes, it takes loving families to host those exchange students to make their American dream come true.
Dale Higgins, an exchange coordinator with EF High School Exchange, works to connect families with students abroad. The company promotes global awareness through student exchange and has been doing so for over 40 years. EF (Education First) serves in over 50 countries.
Higgins said Hewitt-Trussville High School has an exchange student right now from Italy.
“The school is wonderful and the principal there is just so nice,” said Higgins.
The program only allowed for a half-year program this year, because of coronavirus, but for the 2021-22 school year, full-year programs will be available again.
“Generally speaking, most of our students want that full-year experience,” Higgins said. “Honestly, it’s really the best because Fall is the main part of the school year when there’s football, the games, the pep rallies, and all of those things that are associated with that time of year. There are fall festivals and a lot of fun things you can do with the students during that time of the year.”
Now is the time Higgins is looking for local host families.
“This is a placing season and we still have kids out there that are looking for wonderful host families,” Higgins said.
Although the students benefit from the exchange program, Higgins said families do as well.
“It is an exchange,” Higgins explained. “The student is exchanging cultural differences with a host family and as the host family, you are sharing your country’s culture.”
Even the things we as Americans do on a regular basis can impact students for a lifetime.
“Thanksgiving is cultural here,” said Higgins. “They have always heard about Thanksgiving, but they have never experienced it. Also, when it comes to language, they want to improve their language and they pick up on our dialect. I have seen students go home using words like, ‘y’all’ or saying, ‘fixing to do something.’ These things blow their minds and it’s just wonderful.”
Higgins said being an exchange student also gives children in other countries the opportunity to do more than hit the books.
“Their schools are just academic,” he said. “You go to school, you go to class, you come home. Here, you do that but then the school has competitive sports and that’s part of the school and you’re playing against another school. That is so interesting for these kids.”
He himself has hosted 11 foreign exchange students. Higgins said there is a family for every student and a student for every family.
“Getting to live with an American family and becoming their family is a part of that experience,” Higgins said. “Those kids become part of your family. Several have come back to visit me. Even parents come to visit during the school year and it opens up the door for travel when you have someone you can go visit.”
For those who are interested in global travel, hosting a student is a way to gain a family abroad, said Higgins.
“When you know a student and you’ve hosted a student and you go there, you do things like sightseeing, but they take you out and show you how it really is there, you get to experience their food and their friends,” Higgins said. “There is so much advantage to hosting an exchange student. It’s about having that heart for exchanging and making a kid’s dream come true.”
Students and families are vetted and go through what Higgins called an “extreme process” to match with the right family.
“The kids that come are coming from families that can afford to send them here for a year,” said Higgins. “What the beauty is about this program, is you as the host family gets to choose the student that you want.”
Families are also interviewed and matched with students that meet certain criteria based on hobbies and interests, but the assistance from EF High School Exchange doesn’t stop there.
“We really help these families through this process,” said Higgins.
Students come with health insurance and money to pay for clothing, cell phones, extracurricular activities and more.
The company also conducts monthly contact with host families during the process.
For more information on the process and hosting a foreign exchange student, go to https://efexchangeyear.org/guide/. You can contact Dale Higgins at (205) 531-5689 or email him at [email protected]