What would you say if someone asked you to take in a strange foreign teenager to live as part of your family for a year? Rudie Lion and Claudette Rowe think you should say yes, but they have a conflict of interest. Rowe and Lion are both in the business of finding host families to take in foreign students for Educatius International, an academic international study abroad program. Lion works in the Arlington area, and moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands and has since integrated into American society. Rowe works in Newton and is originally from Trinidad and Tobago.
It is common for international coordinators to also be host families, according to Rowe, if their situation allows it. An international coordinator is primarily responsible for identifying host families that are willing to take students into their homes. They conduct screenings, do background checks and determine whether a home is safe and appropriate for the exchange student. She also acts as a liaison between the host family, the exchange student and the school, with the primary objective of ensuring a positive experience for the exchange student.
Lion felt personally compelled to use his experience to help others find a smooth transition into our culture. He not only does this as an international coordinator, but also as a host family for exchange students. However, it is a big decision for a family to bring a complete stranger into their home. Lion, his wife Shira, and their children Elisha and Noah, held a family meeting to discuss the options, and included the entire family on the decision making process.
Their first student was a Jewish boy from France named Ruben Abbou. “We were standing at the airport for an hour with our welcome signs, jumping up and down and taking photos,” Lion recalled. They later brought Ruben on a camping trip with friends of the family. According to Lion, Elisha and Noah were vying for the attention of the new international addition to the family. But it’s not always fun and games.
According to Rowe, issues that normally arise in a host family result from lack of communication. The coordinator is there to help families get ahead of issues that are likely to arise by ensuring that the students and the host families understand what is needed to facilitate a smooth transition. Setting boundaries for the exchange students is of vital importance, according to both Rowe and Lion. They urge host families to not only create guidelines and rules for the process, but also to write down those expectations and create open lines of communication so that problems can be mitigated. The same rules that apply to the exchange students are those Lion sets for his children.
The Lion family expectations include being home for dinner, helping with dinner preparation, cleaning up one’s own plate, doing one’s own laundry, keeping food out of the bedroom, communicating their whereabouts, and being home by curfew. While these rules may seem rather average to an American, to an exchange student they could be entirely new. “The primary cultural difference, particularly with students from Europe, is that they are used to going out late,” says Lion. However, he says the students quickly adjust to this cultural difference.
Writing out the rules not only clearly communicates the expectations that the family has of the exchange student; it is also enlightening for the family. “The interesting thing about that is you realize as a family that you have a lot of unspoken rules,” says Lion. When you start writing them down, according to Lion, you begin to discover what your core family values are. “It’s a great exercise for a family and it also brings people closer,” Lion says.
Overall, hosting an exchange student is a learning process. “I’ve learned a lot about my family. Family rules and values that are unspoken, when you express them, you learn a lot about yourself and how you try to teach your children. I’ve learned about patience and humility,” said Lion.
Rowe also hosted an exchange student the first year she became a coordinator. According to her, the experience provided great insight into what a host family can expect when hosting a student. “When I’m interviewing perspective host families, I can bring my personal experience into play and address any concerns they may have and anticipate some of the things that might come up,” says Rowe.
The best part about this job, according to Rowe, is the opportunity to meet so many interesting young people who are willing to leave the comfort of their homes and families and come to the United States to get a different cultural experience. “When you’re around young people, especially these students, you certainly have a new fresh perspective on what life is about,” says Rowe.
Both Rowe and Lion urged that hosting an International Exchange student should be seen as an opportunity, rather than an inconvenience. Contrary to what many believe, it is not difficult or time consuming to host an exchange student, as they quickly integrate into your household and your rhythm of life. The students make friends and develop their own lifestyle in your community. Rowe emphasizes what she considers the most rewarding aspect of being a host parent, “you make connections with these students that can be lifelong relationships.”