Traveling abroad can mean adventure, challenging life lessons, and the chance to kindle friendships across cultural barriers.
But it’s not the only way to have an international experience this summer.
The World Affairs Council is seeking hosts families for four State Department-sponsored youth programs, bringing students from Mexico, Zambia, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East to Seattle in the coming months.
Hosting a foreign student at home can be just as much of a opportunity as traveling yourself. Only rather than seeing a different culture with your own eyes, you get the even rarer chance to see your own culture through someone else’s.
By opening their doors to international students, many families have found that they have opened their minds in the process.
Emily and Marc Mora decided to host a Burmese student after their daughter heard about a program at school. The Moras were skeptical, since both parents worked regular schedules and their three kids were just as busy. Still, they went for it.
“They say the best gift is to give, and this really feels obvious when giving a student a place at your table and in your home,” says Emily Mora, who compares hosting to traveling together with the family.
Besides learning about their Burmese student’s culture, the Moras gained an appreciation for their own heritage and traditions, which they shared by involving their visitor in family activities like cooking and Christmas tree shopping. Educational and career opportunities, as well as social freedoms taken for granted in the United States, were also thrown into sharp relief.
When asked about her favorite hosting memory, Emily recalls the time their student invited two friends on the program over for dinner. “The three Burmese boys [sat] all in a row at our dinner table: one a Buddhist, one a Muslim, and one a Sikh, all of them laughing hysterically at the stories they were telling.”
She wholeheartedly encourages others to host: “We usually feel like we are too busy…but we continue to go for it and are always so glad that we did.”
In 2011 alone, over 17,000 foreign students visited Washington State, according to the Institute of International Education. That’s up 8.3% from the previous year.
Some programs seek long-term hosts. The University of Washington, for example, welcomed 4,233 students on semester and year-long programs in 2011. But even more common are groups of students on programs like the World Affiairs Council’s, whose visits last a few days to a few weeks.
Bennett Haselton has long been involved with volunteer organizations across the Eastside. But as an individual living by himself, he wasn’t sure if he qualified as a “host family.” He decided to apply anyway, and was assigned two students from Mexico last summer. The experience was so good that he has already signed up to host again, this time with students from the Middle East.
“I thought it would be fascinating to talk to students living in Iraq about what it was like living there during such a historic period of transformation,” Bennett explains, referencing the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) that he will host for.
He will also host students with the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). Both programs, sponsored by the State Department and administered by Seattle’s World Affairs Council, hand-pick outstanding student leaders from their home countries and bring them to the United States for leadership development training in hopes of laying the groundwork for long-term international cooperation.
The fact that Seattle was chosen as host will be monumental in connecting the Pacific Northwest to the world leaders of upcoming decades, and hosts like Bennett will have the chance to interact with these students on a personal level.
Last year Bennett went with his student guests to see Seattle icons most visitors would otherwise miss: the Fremont troll and Smith Tower were highlights. Along the way the boys talked about life in the border region of Mexico, providing insight that can be hard to come by through mainstream media outlets that shape most Americans’ perceptions of the country.
Bennett looks forward to welcoming new students into his home in the coming months, and like Emily, suggests that others do the same.
What potential hosts should know:
Many people mistake homestays for an unmanageable time commitment. But students generally spend the majority of their day participating in program activities, arriving home only in the evening. Hosts provide one bed per student, two to three meals per day, and involvement in family activities, all in a safe and welcoming environment. Most students are high-school- and college-aged, and maturity and English-speaking skills factor into their selection.
So while hosting is certainly a commitment to be taken seriously, with hosts serving as de facto representatives of their country and region, most people enjoy this role, and it is not a full-time job.
A number of programs, including World Affairs Council programs, require no more than a five-day commitment, and all of them are as exciting an opportunity for hosts as they are for the students. And with students of such a caliber that they have been chosen to represent their countries to the world, families could one day watch their visitors become major national and international leaders (here, a Washington Post article tells the story of the impression a three-day homestay in Iowa had on Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping, bringing him back to see his old hosts twenty-seven years later).
How to get involved:
Step One: check out program dates. This summer will bring four State Department-sponsored youth programs through Seattle. Decide what regions interest you and your family, and when you’ll be in town.
Youth in Action (Mexico) – July 20-August 4, 2012 (FULL)
Middle East Partnership Initiative – July 28-August 2, 2012
Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program – August 2-13, 2012
Youth Soccer Program (Zambia) – August 10-15, 2012
Step Two: Apply. An application can be filled out online and sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, or can be printed and mailed to:
Ms. Rachel Paris-Lambert
Program Officer, International Visitor Program
World Affairs Council
2200 Alaskan Way, Suite 450
Seattle, Washington 98121
Applications are due one week before the start of each program, which leaves time for a background check and brief home visit to be performed before students arrive.
Step Three: get excited! Students can’t wait to meet their hosts, and many say homestays are their favorite part of their programs. Hosts get to show their new friends the very best of the city we know and love, and still get that elusive taste of the international, without ever leaving home.