I’ll never forget when our family went to the airport to pick up our very first exchange student. We had volunteered to host Virginie, a girl from France. I’ll be honest. I don’t remember a whole lot about this girl. The main thing I remember is it being apparent she didn’t live with siblings at her natural home because she would buy soda from the grocery store and tape a piece of paper to it with her name on it! We laughed then, and we laugh about it now. We were a family of four children who were born within five years of each other. Any treats like soda did not last long at our house. That summer—and Virginie—began many many years of exchange student experiences for my family growing up.
I do not remember what prompted our first time being a host family. I asked my mother, and she simply said that a lady from church called the house to ask if we would take a student over the summer. My dad answered the phone and said sure. My family went on to host summer students for the next nine years. The year I moved out of the house to go to college, they hosted a girl from Russia for ten months. Anna attended school with my sister who was the same age. That was almost 20 years ago, and Anna spent Christmas with my family three years ago. We had two sisters from Spain who came for seven summers in a row. I have fond memories of sleeping on the floor those summers! My sister and I gave up our beds and slept between Mayte and Carmen on the floor. At that age, it was a like a sleepover every night for us!
When my daughter was around 10 years old, she and a friend were looking at one of their school textbooks. Her friend noticed a picture of a young girl from France and said, “She looks so normal.” That was when I knew it was time for my own family to host. So many of our youth—heck, even our adults—are clueless about other cultures and norms in other countries. We hosted a young girl from France that next summer. That was around six years ago, and Maite (ironically the same name as our former girl from Spain) has since visited two more times and is hoping to do an internship near our home in the next year. Maite and other exchange students wish to come to America for many reasons. We try to show them our own culture and let them experience as much as they can. Maite knew of country music stars, so she was thrilled to experience the Country Music Capital here in Nashville.
Families are so different all over the world, and hosting brought that right into our own home for us. Maite said that at home she attends school from 8-5 and then spends her evenings practicing gymnastics until 10pm. My daughter was shocked at this! I’ll never forget when Maria from Sweden asked why she couldn’t spend the night with her friend from school—who was a BOY! When we hosted a girl from Germany for ten months, I knew we would grow close to her. What I didn’t know was that Johanna’s parents were divorced, and she did not have a relationship with her mother at all. She wept as she boarded the plane to return home because she said she felt like she had a real family for the first time. She also headed back to Germany with a pair of cowboy boots, which—when she arrived in America—she swore she would never, ever wear! Johanna loved her experience here in America. A piece of my heart now lives in Spain, Germany, France, and Russia!
Most Nashville area schools welcome exchange students. Educators know the importance of cultural awareness and welcome the diversity. Some private schools even give scholarships for exchange students in order to allow them access to their campuses.