As a host parent, welcoming an international student is an exciting and unique experience. Doubts and nerves are understandable, especially if this is your first time opening your home to an international student. However, this experience can be very rewarding for both your family and your exchange student as you share language, lifestyle and culture.
Based on our experience helping schools to organize more than 250 school exchanges, we’ve compiled a list of tips and advice from former host parents on how you to prepare and welcome your exchange student.
1. Making your exchange student feel at home
In the beginning, your exchange student will need some time to adjust to their new environment. Adequately welcoming your exchange student into your home will create a more comfortable and relaxed experience:
Orientation and Expectations: Start by giving your student a tour of your home and showing your student where to keep his/her things. Communicate with your student information about your typical daily routine and meal times. Treat your guest as you would any member of your family and discuss rules and expectations about how your household works (curfew, morning shower schedules, laundry, tidiness, among others). Keep in mind that the cultural norms in their country may be different from yours, so you may have to explain things more than once or clarify to make sure you are all on the same page. These conversations — learning about family life in the US vs. their country — are the essence of the exchange process and what this experience is all about!
Personal Space: Make sure the student has a clean and comfortable personal space during their stay that has access to Internet and is accurately climatized. The first few days, your exchange student will most likely be more tired than normal as they adjust to listening and speaking in English all day (and recover from jet lag). Providing them with their own personal space will allow them to recharge as well as have a bit of privacy. Parent Elizabeth F. reminds host parents, “Let the student have down time because the whole experience can be exhausting for them.”
Food and meals: Food and meal time is a huge part of sharing your culture with your exchange student. On the student’s first night, try to eat together as a family so your exchange student can interact with all of you. Don’t feel pressure to cook something super extravagant, just try to incorporate some typical dishes alongside some of your family favorites. If you don’t cook, take your exchange student out to some of your favorite restaurants in your area!
On the first day, review with your exchange student the dietary restrictions they wrote on their profile form and ask them about the foods they like to eat. Parent Gina M. suggests bringing “the student to the grocery store to buy the foods that they like.” Your student will also enjoy getting the experience of shopping in an American supermarket.
2. Integrating your exchange student into your family and culture
Communication is the key to making your exchange student feel comfortable and a part of your family. Speaking slowly, being open, and including all family members in the process will go a long way in ensuring your exchange student feels welcome and at home.
Family Introductions: Introduce your exchange student to every member of the family on their first day. Write down family member names on a note card, so your exchange student can see how each name is written — names can be especially tricky for non-native speakers!
Speech adjustment: Be accomodating and patient when speaking to your student. Speak slowly and clearly (English is not their native language!). Also, your exchange will need to time to process information in order to respond to you, so don’t worry if you have any awkward silences. Parent Natalie C. advises, “Be okay with some awkward dinner conversations. Sometimes communications were tricky. But just be patient. They improved over the two weeks.”
Open Communication: Being sincere, honest and open-minded will help you in navigating through any cross-cultural communication challenges. Your exchange student may not understand things like why certain house rules are put into place or why Americans do something in a particular way. Just be honest and ensure them they can ask you whatever, whenever. Parent Michele D. recommends to, “Keep an open mind and be friendly while also giving your exchange student some space. You will have to initiate most conversations, but it is great to learn about other cultures!”
3. Providing the best cultural experience for your student
Any activites you may do as family with your exchange student will be different for them, even if they seem very “normal” to you. Parent Amy S. states, “be ready and open to explore local experiences and every day routines. It’s a busy time with extra driving and activities but well worth it,” Here are some activities to do with your student on the weekend:
- Tour your neighborhood
- Local events (religious service, 5k run/walk, flea market, farmer’s market)
- Nearby cultural sites (sculpture garden, historical monuments, art galleries)
- Natural area hike
- Apple picking in a local orchard
- Pumpkin patch
- College or professional sports game
- Amusement park
- Eat out (Sunday brunch at a diner for example)
- Local shops and boutiques