8 Tips for Hosting an Exchange Student

by Kim Reiner / Feb 05, 2015 / 0 comments

Each year, students from all over the world come to the United States to learn English and experience our unique culture. Hosting one of these students in your home is an incredible opportunity for your family. My parents hosted six students for a year each, as well as countless short-term stints with summer programs from Japan. I've got brothers and sisters around the world now.

My parents, pictured with 5 of the 6 exchange students we hosted. 8 Tips for Hosting an Exchange Student

My parents pictured with five of the six students we hosted. The five joined my family on a cruise one year, most of them meeting each other for the first time on that trip. The students pictured are from Switzerland, Norway, Norway, Turkey and Quebec. Missing is one boy from Sweden.

I've been on the hosting side and the hosted side, so here are some tips to make the most of your hosting experience:

8 Tips for Hosting an Exchange Student


1. As a host parent, be more than an innkeeper.

My parents made it a point to welcome each student in our house as if they'd gained another child. My mom worried when one was homesick, my dad was on the sideline at their games. They let the students know they couild call them Mom and Dad only if they were comfortable with it. The boys were more inclined to call my parents Mom and Dad; the girls stuck with first names. No one was wrong.

Of course, it's a little different with college students. From experience, I lived with a Costa Rican mom during my junior year of college, and she treated me as her own - even sending me off to college classes with lunch each day. She kept tabs on where I was going each night, and she knew my friends. Others on the same program said they felt more like boarders; they had the luxury to come and go as they pleased, but they didn't have a connection with their families.


2. Expect siblings to be, well, siblings.

As a host sister, I had different relationships with the students as I matured. Like real siblings, I bonded much easier to some than others. I had jealousy issues with some, while I put others on a pedestal. Expect the kids in the household to have very strong, very real feelings about your exchange student. They're not all going to be BFFs.

There were fights in our house, especially when there were three teenage girls sharing a bathroom. No matter the arguments, over the course of a year, my sister and I always grew close to our exchange students.

From 8 Tips for Hosting an Exchange Student

My family hosted three exchange girls over the years and they were all very different and special in their own ways. We all got to hang out on a family vacation years after they lived with us. Pictured are my sister, Kelly, Catherine from Norway, Cat from Quebec, me, and Christin from Norway.

More than a decade later, some of those same foreign sisters that we fought with were bridesmaids in our weddings.

My brothers were married and out of the house before our first student arrived, so it was a different experience for them.

Growing up with international siblings. From 8 Tips for Hosting an Exchange Student

My nephews and nieces grew up with many foreign "aunts" and "uncles," including Martin, pictured here with my nephew, Jon.


3. Set ground rules.

At the very beginning, go over basic rules of the house. Not because the student is likely to be a wild child, but because there is a lot of new things being thrown at him or her, and it helps just to not have to guess how things are done. I'm talking rules like "We eat dinner together every night," "You're sharing a bathroom with two other people, so please limit your showers to less than 10 minutes."
After your student has settled in, go over curfew rules and expectations.

If you're hosting a college student, and even some high school students, understand that there could be push back from youth accustomed to independence. My parents dealt with it when we hosted our first student, an 18-year-old from Norway. They had to call the local program director for help. (And just to show you there were no hard feelings, my parents attended my Norwegian sister's wedding a few years ago).


4. Help with homesickness.

It's pretty much inevitable: The student you host will miss home. It's nothing against you and your hospitality. There's no place like home.
There are a few things I've seen help with homesickness. A quick fix is food. We hosted a few Japanese teens for two weeks a few summers, and a trip to an Asian food market helped battle homesickness. They bought familiar snacks and even asked to prepare a dinner for us, so we could try some of their favorite dishes.

Help your student find options to stay in touch with home that aren't as immediate as email, FaceTime, and a phone call. From experience, it doesn't really help. It made me miss everyone even more.

Suggest journaling or scrapbooking if he or she doesn't do it already.

The best cure was to have a social network of my own, beyond my host sibling's. Once friendships formed, I started to feel like I belonged. It takes time. Just let your student know, it takes time.


5. Give him or her space.

If you can swing it, it's great if your exchange student can have his or her own room, a place where he or she can retreat, regroup, and recharge. That's impossible for some households. Believe me, I know! I spent a year in Spain and my bed was a trundle that I had to pull out from under my host sister's bed each night. I hated it, actually; it felt temporary...but I also knew there was nowhere else to put me in their apartment. That's life.
If that's the case in your home, don't let that be an excuse for not hosting. Kids share rooms all the time. If you have a quiet space in your house, be sure to let your exchange student know it's open to him or her.

In Spain, my quiet space had to be outdoors - I often headed for a nearby park when I just needed some quiet. Don't take it personally if the student you're hosting needs to retreat often, or asks for time alone. Some days are overwhelming even for the most outgoing, adjusted teen.


6. Show an interest in their interests and friends.

This is so critical to bonding with your exchange student, knowing that their interests are important to them so you should make them important to you. It goes back to welcoming this person into your family, so treat him or her as you'd treat your own child.


7. Learn about their culture.

Some students are going to be eager to tell you about their home country, their customs, their traditions, their foods. Others aren't an open book, but it doesn't mean they don't want to talk about it. Ask questions. Ask if they'd like to cook or meal or teach you how to prepare something. Ask how to say something in their native language.

To this day, I remember how to say "I am Santa Claus, and my name is Kim," in Norwegian. I have no idea why I wanted to say that (the inner-workings of a 13-year-old...).


8. That matter of travel.

Not every host family travels much with their students, but if you have the means, plan something special. You don't have to plan an extensive trip and you don't have to go far, but please consider it. If you live in a small town, venture to a nearby city. If you live in a city, show your student what small town USA is like. Let them see many sides of America.

Taking a Swiss student to Minnesota! From 8 Tips for Hosting an Exchange Student

My family took our Swiss student, Simon, up to Minnesota during his year with us. What's more American than Mall of America?

My parents were not the norm in all the traveling they did with our exchange students, but it sure created lasting memories.

Exchange students in Disneyland. From 8 Tips for Hosting an Exchange Student

Cat, our student from Quebec, dreamed of going to Disneyland, so it was fun going with her the year she lived with our family.

I wanted that experience in Spain; I wanted to see the stuff out of travel magazines. I didn't get what I had hoped for (beaches, flamenco dancers, running of the bulls), but I got something better - a local perspective. My host family took me to their vacation home by the sea; my history class took a trip to Roman ruins; my best friend's family took me around the Basque Country on a whirlwind culinary tour; and my exchange program had planned trips for us. Each venture outside of my day to day life broadened my view of the diverse country.


I look forward to hosting an exchange student when my kids are little older. It was an immeasurable experience for me growing up.


Kim Reiner is the PR coordinator of a nonprofit in Omaha, Neb., and a mother of two beautiful kids. She's spent more than 2 years abroad, studying in Spain, Mexico, Costa Rica and Belgium. She dreams of traveling the world, but until then, she writes at OhMyOmaha.com, a parent's guide to her hometown.



All photos courtesy and copyright Kim Reiner