When strangers become family: Host families open hearts and homes to students from around the world

July 28, 2018 10:00:37 PM

India Yarborough - [email protected]


Six years in a row, New Hope resident Lynn Pope and her family welcomed strangers into their home. 


It started in 2008 when they became host family to an international student from Germany -- somewhat hesitantly, as they didn't know how a newcomer would alter their family dynamic.  


"Once we had the student here for several weeks, she just became part of the family," Pope said. 


For the Popes' children Abbey, then 13, and her younger brother Nathan, 16-year-old Chrissy Lokaj became a big sister figure. 


"Once I got used to it," Abbey said, "it was kind of like having (another) sibling, but one who had maybe a different way of doing things and a different approach to living." 


More students from Norway, Denmark and Belgium followed.  


"It just really gives you a whole new perspective," Lynn said. "Most of us can't travel to another county, but you can have another country travel to you." 




Looking for hosts 


Over the past 10 years, the Popes have hosted six European students, all of whom came to the U.S. through International Cultural Exchange Services, a nonprofit youth exchange organization. 


According to a Lowndes County-based ICES representative, the nonprofit sends nearly 50 international students to Mississippi each year. Five to 10 of those students usually end up in the Golden Triangle. 


Families must apply to host an exchange student through ICES or other organizations accredited by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, the body which oversees international exchange programs. 


CSIET vets all exchange organizations listed on its website. To become accredited, an organization must comply with nine CSIET standards, including a record of financial accountability and adherence to government regulations. 


ASSE International Student Exchange Programs -- established in 1976 as the American Scandinavian Student Exchange by the Swedish Government -- is one of the largest CSIET-certified organizations, said Rebecca Watson, the program's southern regional director. 


It also has a presence in the Golden Triangle. Watson said her office sent around 230 students to Mississippi for the 2017-18 school year. Several of those students ended up in Columbus or Starkville, she said, though ASSE does not have exact local numbers. 


Students placed in Mississippi through ICES and ASSE are usually classified as "J-1" students, Watson said. That means they're scholarship eligible and attend public schools tuition-free while in the U.S. They're students who want to study in the States, but they don't get to choose where they end up. 


"Our students have to be open to being placed anywhere in the U.S.," Watson said. 


To host, she said, a family must complete an online application. After ASSE reviews the application, a local representative meets with family members at their house for an interview and home inspection. The in-person meeting is followed by references and background checks. 


"Once we go through that, we work with the local high school to find out who's in charge of the exchange students and ask for acceptance to the high school," Watson said. 


Watson and local recruiters work to pair exchange students with potential host families that might be a good fit. Most families, she added, are recruited through word-of-mouth. They're eventually paired with a student based on mutual interests. 


"Maybe there's a country or a language they want to learn more about," Watson said. "We kind of let them drive it a bit. ...We bring over so many students that there's always a student that matches with a family's interests." 




Learning to bond 


Like the Popes, potential host families may worry about their ability to bond with students coming from other countries.  


"The first week or two is a little odd," Lynn said, "but once you get in the schedule of school...they have something to do." 


The key, she said, is treating the exchange student as "one of your own." 


"If our family wasn't perfect, that was okay," she said. "We still had disagreements just like a real family. Our house is not beautiful or fancy or large, but we just said, 'Here we are. This is us.'" 


Lynn said the students had to adjust to life in Mississippi. 


"We had various pronunciation flubs from them, which they laughed about and took in stride," she remembered. "'Witamins' instead of 'vitamins.' And they learned a whole new dialect from being in the South. Most students left saying 'y'all, yes ma'am, no ma'am.'" 


But the Popes adjusted some too. 


"(A) custom from our Danish girl was that when you cut the birthday cake, you are supposed to scream," Lynn said. "So we did a lot of screaming that year." 


Abbey said her experiences with the girls her family hosted gave her a greater appreciation for how other people live. But they also helped her realize the great things her hometown has to offer. 


"You really had to think, 'Oh what can we show them?'" Abbey said. 


She remembers taking Norwegian student Pernille Slettestoel, who returned for a visit to Mississippi years after the Popes first hosted her, to Lake Lowndes. 


"We took our kayaks and got out there super, super early," Abbey said. "I didn't really know how it was going to go until we started to kayak. The sunrise -- it was probably one of the most beautiful things that I have seen. It was cool to know we have that in Columbus. 


"I think it's neat," Abbey continued, "because when you're from somewhere else and you get to connect with someone local who can show you the small, hidden parts of where they're from, that makes it a really magical experience." 


Abbey hopes to one day host an exchange student of her own. 


"If I'm in a stable place where I'm able to do that, definitely," she said.