You’d be forgiven if you thought Andrea Polakova was the daughter of Mitzi and Scott Gaskins.
Known as “Andy,” the 17-year-old from Prague, Czech Republic, has a rapport with the Gaskinses one would call familial.
There’s good-natured ribbing between Scott and Polakova.
“You were nicer to me in the first two weeks,” Polokova said to Scott.
They’re competitive, too. Scott bested her on the tennis court, and Polokova wants another shot.
She fits right in with Danilo, Kellen and Luke, the Gaskinses three adopted sons.
“She’s like one of my kids,” Scott said.
“You just can’t claim me on your taxes,” Polakova added.
One can tell it’s not the first time they’ve had that back and forth.
Polokova has been with Gaskinses since September, an exchange student through Foreign Links Around the Globe (FLAG).
It’s Mitzi’s and Scott’s first time hosting.
Jennifer Ogle, a friend of Mitzi and Scott and local coordinator for FLAG, had approached them about hosting once before, but they did not have an extra bedroom. Host families are required to provide three meals a day and a bed or bedroom.
Then, one day, the Gaskinses decided to add the room necessary to host.
“We just wanted to do it,” Mitzi said. “It was seriously a spur-of-the-moment decision.”
A coordinator like Ogle interviews prospective host families. The process, which includes a background check, can be rigorous.
Host families and exchange students can look at profiles of one another online to see if they’d be the right fit.
FLAG places students from more than 50 countries with host families. The organization typically finds homes in the area for about 60 exchange students.
Polakova’s older brother studied in Britain. A fan of traveling herself, Polakova wanted an opportunity to do the same thing, but go farther from home.
She landed in rural Indiana, where she’s gotten a taste of Midwestern life — like playing multiple high school sports.
Softball was a brand new experience.
“I had never even touched a bat before,” she said.
However, the hand-eye coordination from tennis made for a slightly easier transition.
Despite being from a city of 1.3 million people, Polakova said her class at Western was much larger than her class back home. She said there are only 25 students per grade at the school she attends in Prague.
Even more different is the style of teaching. Polakova said she’s used to lecture-based classes back home. Teachers at Western are more personable, and projects and group work are more common.
Teachers offering real-life examples featuring their own lives isn’t something one would experience at school in Prague, Polakova said.
“You get to know the teachers better, too,” she said.
Ogle, who has hosted students with her husband, said hosting can bring an international view to one’s home.
Polakova shared some Czech meals with the Gaskinses while experiencing the wide range of American options.
Polakova said food in America isn’t as healthy, and the portions are bigger, but she certainly found some favorites in Panera and McAlister’s Deli — admittedly because they are healthier options.
Her favorite junk food? Keebler Fudge Stripes cookies.
Scott said Polakova set a good example for the rest of the family. Her entire time as a student in America has been an experience of trying new things.
“I think she’s definitely gave us the confidence to try stuff like that,” Scott said.
Polakova said living in America has helped her be more accepting. She said acceptance seems more common in the states compared to back home.
“I think when I get back, I can teach people to be more accepting,” she said.
Polakova will return home at the end of this month.
It’ll likely be a bittersweet moment. Polakova is ready to see her family, but she’s not ready to say goodbye.
“I’m stuck in this weird situation where I have a life in the Czech Republic and a life in Indiana,” she said. “I can’t be in two places at the same time.”
“You’ll forget about us in two weeks (after your leave),” Scott interjected.
There is sincerity and love behind the quips.
“It’s been good, but it’ll be tough to do it (host) again right away,” Scott said.
FLAG isn’t the only organization looking for host families.
International Experience is working with Kokomo and Taylor high schools to place students for the upcoming school year.
Similar to FLAG, hosting a student, or students, is open to anyone who passes a background check. Students are also vetted.
Students typically spend about 10 months — the length of a school year — with a host family.
International Experience is open to families with children, empty nesters, retired couples or anyone who wants to have a positive influence on a child’s life, said local coordinator Mary Lupacchino
David and Susan Peebles live south of Wabash. This is their third year hosting with International Experience. They hosted Stine Borchert and Maria Quiros this past school year.
“We had four kids, our home is empty, why not fill it up?” Susan said. “It keeps us going, and it’s fun to meet families from around the world.”
Borchert, originally from Berlin, was already well-traveled, having seen parts of Europe and Africa. The United States was on the list of the 16-year-old.
“I love to travel,” Borchert said. “I don’t want to spend my whole life in Germany.”
Quiros, 18, wanted to study in the states ever since she visited New York City and Philadelphia with her family. She is from Madrid.
Both got their opportunity though International Experience.
Borchert and Quiros attended Southwood Junior-Senior High School in Wabash — quite the difference coming from cities of millions of people.
However, Borchert said multiple aspects of small-town living made her feel more connected to her community.
Sports is just one example. Borchert played volleyball, basketball and softball.
International Experience requires students maintain good grades and be involved in extracurricular activities.
Joining the teams helped her get to know her classmates quicker and easier.
“I felt more connected to the people in the school,” Borchert said.
Quiros also played basketball, and she played tennis in the spring.
“It’s like part of a family,” she said. “They include you in everything.”
Church was another.
The Peebles attend church every Sunday. Susan said the girls weren’t thrilled about getting up early on Sundays but eventually warmed up to it. The exchange students were welcomed into the church community.
“That’s one of the few ways to get involved,” Susan said.
That personal connection extends to teachers, too. Both Bochert and Quiros said one of the main differences with school in the states is that teachers take a genuine interest in the success of their students.
Borchert said teachers at Southwood are more apt to have personal conversations with students compared to her teachers in Germany. She also said teachers are more understanding.
For example, if a student is sick and unable to study for a test, teachers are likely to allow them to take it later. Borchert said it’s not something granted to students in Germany.
“They don’t want you to fail,” Quiros added. “Here, I feel everyone is supporting you.”
Students and prospective host families both complete online profiles that each can browse through. They include interests, what they’re looking for, what they’re not and other preferences.
Exchange students can request their own bedroom, for example, Lupacchino said.
This helps pair students with the appropriate hosts. The best pairings become like family.
Borchert and Quiros have shared their favorite recipes with the Peebles and vice versa. The girls have also experienced farming and riding in the tractor with David.
Both returned home following the end of the school year, but with technology, it’s never really “goodbye.”
Susan said they’re still in touch with previous students and their families.
“(The best part is) getting to know them on a personal level,” David said. “We learn about them more than anything else.”
David and Susan will host another student from Spain next school year.
“It’s a really great experience for everyone,” Susan said. “It’s not scary to welcome people into your home. It’s fun. It’s fun to share your life with people.”
Those interested can visit https://ie-usa.org/ for more information about hosting.