Host a Foreign Exchange Student. You Will Not Regret It If You Live.

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ania 001

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

    Comments   

     
    Jennifer
    +6 / 0
    # Jennifer 2011-05-20 17:06
    Awesome! Just awesome! As the mother of a 12y, I say practice all you can on somebody else's kids before your's hit the teens!
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    Stephanie
    +9 / 0
    # Stephanie 2011-05-20 20:49
    When I was in high school my family hosted two students from France. One was for the summer, the second was for the school year. It was hard sometimes, but it was also so much fun and it's probably what opened me to the world of foreign travel and living. I think being close to my age, plus my studying French, helped ease both girls into the social scene at school. That was nearly 20 years ago and I'm still in touch with one of them.
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    Ania
    +10 / 0
    # Ania 2011-05-22 04:08
    On July 23, 2010, I had to say goodbye to my dad and my little brother, than to my mom... I remember standing on the balcony of the hotel room in Kiev and watch them walking away, my heart itching badly, and tears flowing from my eyes... I couldn't believe that I was actually doing that, leaving my loving parents, my friends, my home, my country... Leaving to go to the United States of America for the whole academic year, leaving to live with the family of strangers, that I knew nothing about except for very basics...

    But I did it, I left Ukraine on July 24, with a group of 10 other FLEX students, left towards new and unknown "half frightened, thrilled and in disbelief all at once". ANd there they were, Brooke, Mark and Chloe, people from the photographs. REAL! They held a pretty bright orange sign "Welcome Ania", and they looked like they didn't believe that they were waiting there for a teenager to willingly take home for a year :)
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    Ania
    +10 / 0
    # Ania 2011-05-22 04:12
    They were nervous as well as I was, so it made it easier... Everything was really nice, and I almost relaxed... to the moment they started speaking! I felt like they were speaking entirely different language than I did! Although I have learned English since I was 7.

    On the car ride home I didn't know what to say, where to look and even how to breathe... I was in panic, and I said to the reflection of the girl with WIDE-opened eyes in the mirror when we got home, "I have no clue how I'm gonna survive here for the next entire 10 months!".

    I could not understand why I was picked neither for FLEX, nor for this family; I didn't feel any special to deserve it... And as the time was passing by, I began to consider myself more and more lucky!
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    Ania
    +11 / 0
    # Ania 2011-05-22 04:14
    I turned 16 two weeks after I arrived to the U.S. I didn't care that much that I was not at home for that, because I already liked my host family by then. But of course I didn't expect it to be as special as it was!!! There is no way that I could expect the family that barely knew me, to make my birthday that awesome! No doubt I loved the party and I loved the presents, but what was the most touching for me, is that everyone gave up any potential plans for the day, and they came to spend that day with me: parents, grandparents, uncle and friends of the family! And they didn't treat me as a stranger, but as a member of the Stephens!

    I decided that Americans are SO COOL when I got to know that Brooke was reading Twilight, and Mark was listening to Linkin Park, and my little Chloe was making friends right away without any efforts being 3 =D
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    Ania
    +10 / 0
    # Ania 2011-05-22 04:18
    In October I got to see the Grand Canoyn. I was standing on it's edge looking at the mysterious beauty... I couldn't help myself not to cry! Cry from the happiness! I've dreamed about that moment since I was 6, and it's never seemed possible to come true... Grand Canyon... for some it's "just another hole in the ground", while for me it's the best place in the world, it's a fullfilled dream, and the beginning of the new journey, it's a very special moment, shared with my Stephens family, and a very special experience, given to me by them!

    Of course, teenagers are being teenagers everywhere, and they always need to find someone whom they consider to be weaker... It was not the best American experience of mine to be picked on because I speak differently... It did hurt... a lot... It pushed me away from school, but I don't regret that though, as it pushed me closer towards the family!
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    Ania
    +9 / 0
    # Ania 2011-05-22 04:23
    Like that, some more fun things than the others from moment to moment and from day to day, the "looooooong 10 months" came to an end... I still cannot believe that my American life is over... But I believe that it's over only for now, it's gonna have another start one day... And I can assure you, my Stephens, that YOU ARE STUCK in my thoughts for as long as my heart is beating!!!
    I wanna end with MY favorite quote from the Little Prince, saying,

    Quote:
    "In one of those stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend...I shall not leave you."
    LOVE YOU!
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    Ania
    +9 / 0
    # Ania 2011-05-22 04:32
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    Mark Stephens
    +3 / 0
    # Mark Stephens 2011-05-24 12:52
    that was awesome, Ania.
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    Ania
    +6 / 0
    # Ania 2011-05-25 03:43
    Thank you for this article!! It's really cool! And it means a lot to me!!! =^)
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    Frank Ledwell
    +12 / 0
    # Frank Ledwell 2011-05-23 12:41
    Mark, of all the items I have read of yours this has to be the most touching and enjoyable of them all! I had no idea you and Brooke hosted Ania but she, and you, were both fortunate indeed.

    Ania, I hope your stay in the U.S. was a good one as it sure seems like it was unforgettable. Cheers!
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    Mark Stephens
    0 / 0
    # Mark Stephens 2011-05-24 12:53
    Thanks, Frank. I'm surprised you didn't know about this little chapter. I guess we talked about other things last time I saw you.
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    Brian DeArmon
    +8 / 0
    # Brian DeArmon 2011-05-28 07:53
    Mark, Brook, & Ania -- Your efforts to cross cultural boundaries by living and breathing on the other side is inspiring. In your own way, you have brought the world a little closer together - and we're all better for it.

    Ania, it was a pleasure meeting you last year in Swansea. Hopefully our paths will cross again some day.
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    Alvin
    +4 / 0
    # Alvin 2011-05-28 08:31
    Great article Mark! Good for you and Brooke to do this and good for Ania taking the adventure.
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    NicoleXchange
    +5 / 0
    # NicoleXchange 2011-08-02 12:32
    I'm so touched to have come across this post on Twitter of all places.

    The next school year is just around the corner and it isn't too late to host a FLEX student again- or have a neighbor or friend host for the first time. :)

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience.
    apps.americancouncils.org/.../
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    Mark
    +2 / 0
    # Mark 2011-08-02 20:50
    Thanks for checking it out, Nicole.
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    NicoleXchange
    +3 / 0
    # NicoleXchange 2011-08-03 07:48
    Great photos, too!
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    Michelle
    +2 / 0
    # Michelle 2013-12-27 20:06
    I just stumbled onto this and have tears in my eyes as I remember our former exchange students! We've been hosting for seven years now, and we've had a couple of really special girls. One of my German daughters will be a daughter to me forever. It's not just ten months... it's a lifetime, in some cases! We're currently hosting two young ladies, from Thailand and from France. This experience is not for the faint of heart, that's for sure! :)
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