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Cultural Exchange

Hosting foreign exchange students has allowed some Central Florida families to not only share what life is like in America but to broaden their own horizons as well.

Mark Weatherly was listening to the radio when he heard a commercial that seemed to be speaking directly to him. It was an ad seeking families interested in hosting exchange students or young people from other countries coming to the United States to experience the culture and study at American high schools.

The timing was kismet. Just the day before Weatherly had been on a flight from Europe chatting with a Polish family that had two sons of which one had been an exchange student and the other was just about to be. The conversation got him thinking about the possibility of being a host. And as a single dad to a 5-year-old, he figured it would be a positive experience for his son.

That was 20 years ago and looking back today, Weatherly says he’s glad he made the decision to open his home to exchange students because it allowed him to forge lifetime relationships with so many people that he would have never met otherwise. And it gave his son access to cultures unknown to many American children.

“[My son] grew up with exchange students and the expectation that people are different and speak different languages and come from different cultures,” he says. “I think he has a bigger view of the world than a lot of kids who didn’t have that opportunity.”

Lifetime Relationships
To date, Weatherly has hosted 38 young people from places all over the globe including South Korea, Sweden, France, Bulgaria, Latvia, Brazil and Australia. Having enjoyed the exchange of cultures, he’s continued to host students even as his son is now grown and out of the house.

Currently, he has two students living with him; one is from Norway and the other is from Spain.

Weatherly isn’t alone in this. Each year, scores of families welcome exchange students into their homes.

According to Susan Farris, Florida regional coordinator with EF High School Exchange Year, people choose to become hosts because they want to learn about other cultures just as much as foreigners seek to learn about America.

“The thing that unites all of our hosting families is their belief in the mission and power of cultural exchange, and that good things happen when people from different backgrounds come together in mutual understanding,” she says.

He keeps in touch with many of them. Weatherly visited the students he’s hosted in their home countries and they’ve also come back to America to visit him.

“I have students who are 37 years old now and I’ve got five grandkids through exchange students,” he says.

A number of companies arrange exchange experiences but the process for becoming a host is generally about the same: The host parent fills out an application and then an interview and a home visit are conducted to make sure it is a safe environment.

Additionally, these companies pay stipends to hosts families for them to fulfill certain daily requirements including providing meals and transportation.

Kristin Chapman has hosted five exchange students so far. They’ve come from such countries as Slovenia, China, Russia and Germany.

Chapman began hosting 12 years ago because she herself had done an exchange program in high school. She spent a year abroad in Australia as a sophomore and says the experience was life-changing. She still keeps in touch with her Australian friends and host family.

Chapman says one of the biggest misconceptions people have about hosting is that the students will be hard to understand. But for her, that hasn’t been the case at all.

“Their vocabulary may expand while they’re here,” she says. “But I’ve not had any exchange students that we weren’t able to communicate with.”

Although, one peculiar thing she has noticed is that students she’s hosted are generally not taught English cooking terms — words like chop, stir or mix. But those are easy to teach, she says, and students learn them while helping out with the cooking at home.

Weatherly agrees that most exchange students are proficient in English. In fact, it’s more often cultural differences that hinder a mutual understanding. He recalls a situation with one European student that at first threw him for a loop.

“In Bulgaria, when you mean yes, you shake your head from side to side,” he says. “And when you mean no, you nod your head up and down. So, it took us a couple days to figure that one out.”

American Life
Seventeen-year-old Anni Dittrich came to America from Germany in August 2018 and says she decided to do an exchange program because in some ways she felt stuck in her home country.

“I wanted to see different cultures,” she says. “And the best place for that is literally America because you have culture from all over the world together so you can see so many people.”

Dittrich is staying with Chapman at her home in Baldwin Park. Dittrich was originally living with a family in Ocoee but she says it didn’t work out because her first host mother had to work a lot. Youth For Understanding (YFU), the nonprofit organization that arranged Dittrich’s stay, stepped in and coordinated for her to move to another host family.

Dittrich says her favorite experience so far was playing on Ocoee High School’s girls soccer team, as goalie, during the winter.

“The girls were so together like a family,” she says. “I had so much fun.”

Sina Homann, a 15-year-old exchange student from Germany, says she also likes participating in sports in America. At Hagerty High School, she ran cross country in the fall and is now doing track and field.

“It’s great … the school spirit you have here,” she says. “I’m not used to it because in Germany there is not a school spirit like that.”

Homann says she wanted to come to the United States to see what it was really like.

“In Germany you see a lot of American influence,” she says. “So, you see a lot of movies. … You hear the music from here. … You kind of see glimpses of it everywhere you go but you just don’t know how it really is.”

When she found out she was going to Orlando, she was excited because she doesn’t like the cold weather of her home country. Her time in Florida has also led her to believe that the weather really does have a strong effect on temperament.

“In Germany the weather isn’t so good and my theory is because the weather is so much better here, people are so much happier here and nicer and more open,” she says.

Open to New Cultures
Cathy White, community engagement manager for YFU, says cultural exchange programs can be catalysts for positive global change.

“Those bonds of family and friendship can last for a lifetime and lead to an understanding and respect of other cultures,” she says.

When it comes to the exchange process, host families are, of course, able to select who comes to stay with them and many people do look to have a student from a certain country because they want to learn more about that place, often one connected to their own heritage. The most popular country YFU host families request students from is Germany, according to White.

Chapman suggest that new hosts be open to having children from all different places, though. “Because you never know what you’re going to learn from [someone’s] culture,” she says. “So, I would say, I would never try to be selective.”

Weatherly has advice for prospective hosts too. “Don’t treat [the exchange student] like a guest but treat them like a member of your family,” he says. “And the rewards are huge because you get out of it another member of your family.”

He’s already preparing for later this year when he’ll have two new students. One of the exchange students is coming from Japan, a country that Weatherly has never hosted someone from.

Chapman is also thinking about later this year. Specifically, this June when Dittrich will pack up and go back to her home country.

“I’m hoping that the experiences that we have with Anni now will carry on much longer than just this one year she’s here,” Chapman says. “And that she goes back with a very positive experience of Americans.”


This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s March 2019 issue.

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