As an international traveler and a person with many international friends, I’ve always enjoyed the experience of meeting, relating to and communicating with people from other cultures. I often find that we have many similarities and connections.
When my friend Stacey Greeley shared about her experience hosting an international exchange student, I was intrigued. Stacey was a host parent for two high school exchange students through a program called Young Life Amicus, which has brought 50-65 international students to the U.S. each year for 35 years.
In the fall of 2013, I began to consider volunteering to be a host parent of a high school international exchange student. I asked Stacey some questions, and she connected me with her local Amicus representative, Sheryl Peterson.
I emailed and met with Sheryl to discuss my questions. As we talked, I was fairly certain I wanted to be a host parent. But I also knew it would be a major life change for me, particularly as a single woman with no children. It took time for me to think about and process my decision.
LEAPING INTO BEING A HOST PARENT
I decided to apply to become a host parent through Amicus. The application process included an application, references, a house visit and a background check. Before long, Sheryl sent me exchange students’ applications to review and choose my top choices. Each student had unique talents, gifts and interests. After much review and thought, I sent her my top choices.
I soon learned that I would be hosting one of my choices, a 16-year-old student from Poland named Olga ‘Ola’ Jader. One of about 20 high school exchange students in Rochester, Ola would be attending John Marshall High School. During the months before Ola arrived, I busied myself preparing her room—my guest bedroom. I cleaned out drawers and closets, fixed a sink and cleaned the carpet.
Before I knew it, it was the day Ola would arrive: August 21, 2014. I drove to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and waited for her arrival. Since we had emailed and video chatted during the summer, I recognized her immediately and greeted her with a big smile and a hug.
PROVIDING AMERICAN EXPERIENCES
Ola was a great fit as an exchange student for my family. She was helpful, became friends with my pets, liked to have new experiences and travel and could spend hours reading, just like me. I drove her around my neighborhood. She said it was “very American.” In the first few weeks, we visited places such as Caribou Coffee, Cold Stone Creamery and the Mall of America. I enjoyed taking her to a variety of places, explaining the American culture and learning about her Polish history and culture.
In late summer, we visited the Minnesota State Fair. Ola tasted fair food such as deep-fried Reese’s peanut butter cups, jalapeno poppers and a chocolate malt. At the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, we passed people hawking pickles or turtles and calling out in exaggerated British accents. In the fall, we visited Lake City, along the shore of Lake Pepin. Around Halloween, Ola carved her first pumpkin at a pumpkin-carving party at my house.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, I hosted a Thanksgiving dinner party with friends. We had turkey, pumpkin and apple pie, rice pudding and more. I began dinner by describing that to me, Thanksgiving was about remembering to be grateful. I asked everyone to say something they were grateful for. When it was Ola’s turn, she said, “I’m grateful for Alison.”
While I enjoyed these experiences and events, I particularly liked sharing these experiences with Ola, many of which were unique, new experiences to her.
GRATEFUL FOR THE OPPORTUNITY
Being a host parent of a high school exchange student has been a big commitment and responsibility. It hasn’t been easy, and sometimes everyday concerns like planning dinners, organizing schedules and figuring out transportation have been challenging.
However, it has also been a positive, life-changing experience for me, and I have grown through being a host parent this year. I have enjoyed sharing my home and life with Ola, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be Ola’s host parent this year.
Alison Rentschler is a writer and editor living in Rochester, Minnesota.