Host a Foreign Exchange Student. You Will Not Regret It If You Live.
- Category: Dad's Dirt Roads: A Blog
- on Tue Apr 16, 2013
- by Mark Stephens on Tue Apr 16, 2013 - (25) Comments
On July 25, 2010 we used a half a roll of clear tape to fashion an absurd sign on four pieces of 8.5"x11" paper and Sharpie'd across it a giant "WELCOME ANIA" then sat around Terminal 2 at Sky Harbor Airport to wait for a flight to arrive from Washington D.C. that was delivering us a 15-year-old girl. That flight from D.C. was just a connection from Munich, which was just another connection from Kiev, and she'd gotten to Kiev on a five-hour train ride from her hometown. This hand made sign, and a small compressed-for-web head shot photograph were the only items we had that could connect us with Ania. So we stood there with that sign and waited.
It didn't take long. When we saw the young girl, her pale face, wide eyes and singular brown braid of hair displayed it all. She looked half frightened, thrilled and in disbelief all at once. We knew that was Ania. She knew it was us, and started laughing.
On the car ride home, we drove through Tempe over the lake, which was actually empty at the time because the dam had recently burst and released nearly every drop of water back into the typically dry Salt River bed. I told her the story about the empty lake. She smiled. And it was obvious she had no idea what I'd said. When we asked her about her family, or her plane ride, or anything at all, neither Brooke nor I understood her. Oh sure, she spoke English. It was just adorned with her Ukrainian accent, she'd never spoken English with native English speakers, and I was thinking, "Oh boy. The next 10 months are going to be long."
We chose to host Ania for countless reasons, most of them impossible to relate through language, but these are the primary two:
- She was brought in by a U.S. Department of State program called FLEX - Future Leaders Exchange. Competition to get into the FLEX program is nothing short of intense. FLEX receives approximately 40,000 applicants, only from former Soviet countries, and accepts just 1,200. To be accepted, those 1,200 students had to demonstrate English ability, personality, social skills, academic achievement, and leadership potential over a process of three rounds that takes months to complete. Only very exceptional students make it through - Ania was one of them.
- She had to write an essay to potential host parents as part of her application, and in her's she talked about a particularly proud moment in her life when she hiked to the top of a lofty peak in the Crimean Mountains above the Black Sea. She wrote about her two-week camping trips in the Crimeans with a group of family and friends. They'd pack their gear, ride a train across the country for a day, pile into a boat that took them to the shoreline where the Crimeans meet the Black Sea, and from there they'd haul their stuff uphill, set up camp, and hang out.
So, here we had a motivated, achieving kid who'd probably like to take some cool trips, which is a big part of how our family spends time. It wouldn't have been a deal breaker; we would have been plenty happy putting aside camping and traveling for a year to do this. But instead, it looked like we had a perfect package.
We went for it.
Two weeks after Ania arrived, she turned 16. Imagine that. Thousands of miles separated from her mother, her father, her brother, she turned 16 and it was on our shoulders to make it special and we hardly knew the girl. Our extended families marshaled all the energy and support imaginable to throw her a big party just two weeks after she came. I don't think I can express how that moves me, nor do I have much of a clue as to what that did to Ania. But when you're in charge of someone's well-being, my God, you want them to feel special.
She and I went to her school's first home football game of the season together. She painted her left cheek with the mascot's paw print. Then, during her Fall Break, we packed the truck with our camping gear, bikes, an awesome menu of meals, and took her to Grand Canyon. She was so thrilled to see it that she stood at the first overlook we saw and cried.
It wasn't always easy or full of fun surprises. High school kids will do revolting things to one another at times, especially to the ones who speak with an accent and come from different cultures. I can remember just two instances when she came home from school hurt or bummed because of some degrading thing another kid said to her. I never quite knew how to handle that. Call the school? Find out who the offending student's parents are and have a discussion?
Nevertheless, all of these experiences add up to where we are today. Our friends thought we had essentially gone nuts for willfully bringing a 16-year-old girl into our house. They weren't too far off. St. Exupery's story of a little prince and a fox does more to explain it than I can:
"To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world." Said the fox.
"I am beginning to understand," said the little prince. "There is a flower. I think that she has tamed me . . ."
This past Tuesday morning, after 10 months with us, we had to say goodbye to Ania. Yes, the last week or two at AdventureParents.com has been devoid of frequent and fresh content because, as you can imagine, the air in our house had been weighed down with the heavy emotions that come with knowing a good thing is coming to an end. Brooke and I being just 29 and 34 when she arrived had no business parenting a high school aged kid. But we had a very special one, and if it wasn't for Ania being Ania, we likely would have failed miserably.
In turn, I think you're due some relief from reading this whole thing. So, please, if you'll be so kind to humor me, here are the highlights from our almost-year with Ania from Ukraine who came to live in our house, became our family, and help us grow into better people. This "adventure parents" gig isn't all about pointless adventuring with no aim other than recreation. No. It's really about growing into better people, raising kids who can go beyond tolerating different cultures and lifestyles but actually appreciating and loving them.