The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, my family housed our first exchange student. At the time, Caro, a bubbly soccer player with an infectious smile, was a junior in high school from Bully, a small French city. She came to Midland, Mich., where my family lives, through the Rotary Club Exchange, which provides high school students with the opportunity to spend a year abroad with three or four different host families to better understand local culture.
As British expats in the United States, my family provides a unique perspective for exchange students. The students come to the United States to learn the American way of life, but staying with a British family changes the experience. As Caro’s last family in her rotation, she was well accustomed to the American way of life by the time she moved in. Her English was basically fluent and she had a good group of friends at school. I was moving home from my first year in college, happy that I’d be coming home to something — or more like someone — new and exciting. The idea of having a new person living in our house was cool. I looked forward to the opportunity to interact with Caro and share with her my life experiences and opinions. Caro was someone else to hang out with, talk to and practice French with. I was excited to have the entire summer to get to know her.
As the months went by, Caro and I got close, and the experience became so much more. It slowly became more normal to see her hanging out at my house, and she became another person to hang out with when things at the house were slow. She told me about her life, I told her about mine and we got to know the nuances of each other’s cultures, backgrounds and families. I learned about the French school system, and how when Caro went back to France, she would have to take the bac, a standardized French exam that determines what you can study at college. I told her about college at the University of Michigan, where we can — and often do — change our majors and programs in a matter of days. We taught each other swear words in our respective languages and laughed about it like children for hours. We even planned times to visit each other in the future, or meet wherever in the world we may end up.
With all good things, Caro’s stay came to an end and it came the time to say goodbye. Even after a few short months, we had bonded and created a deep friendship. It made me sad to say goodbye to her, as I felt like she was becoming a part of our family. Though she was two years younger than me, she felt like a sister and someone I would see every morning, pouring cereal into her bowl or, after dinner, doing work at the kitchen table.
After Caro left, my sister, Maddy, departed for her trip to France. She was participating in the same program as Caro and would spend a year abroad in Rochefort, France. Having Caro stay with us was a good opportunity for Maddy to see cultural exchange from the other side. Maddy was 16 years old when she went abroad going, and going abroad during junior year of high school is frightening. She could see the different emotions Caro might go through, how Caro would adjust to our culture. And, luckily, Maddy and Caro got to meet up across the world in Caro’s hometown.
The house was lonely with my brother the only child left at home. I visited often to keep my mom company, as the house went from six people to three in only a few weeks. It wasn’t long until my parents made up their minds: We would have another exchange student as soon as possible.
When Maddy came back this last summer, a new exchange student shortly followed. This time: a 16-year-old German boy named Lukas. When I went home for Fall Break, I met him for the first time and we had the opportunity to hang out and get to know each other.
Though Lukas is in the same program Caro was in, the experience has been totally different for my family. As each person has different interests, motivations and aspirations, Lukas and Caro could not be more opposite. Lukas is a 6-foot-7-inch analytical, musically talented performer and the perfect contender for our high school’s basketball team. Having never played basketball before, I found it comical that in the four days I was home, Lukas was outside practicing every day and learning a very stereotypical “American sport” to satisfy the Dow High coaches that saw a very, very tall kid join the school in September.
I am so thankful that my family hosts exchange students because I get this invaluable opportunity to be a big sister to someone new. Accepting a new person into your home, and your status quo, can be really difficult. When it goes right, the experience is so rewarding and fun. Saying goodbye to Caro was one of my saddest goodbyes, and I’m sure Lukas' goodbye will be equally sad.
In the future, I encourage anyone and their families to host an exchange student because the experience is invaluable. It’s not like travelling to another country and experiencing the culture firsthand; rather, it’s watching someone else grow within your own culture. I saw Caro perfect her English, play for her high school soccer team and travel all over the country. Similarly, I see Lukas dedicating himself to basketball, playing in our high school band and even carving a pumpkin for the first time. It’s so fun to watch someone observe, ask questions and soak up everything you take for granted each day.