When a Franklin woman invited a teenager from France to live with her family of five for the school year, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
But the experience of hosting a foreign exchange student ended up being an enriching one for their family, Franklin resident Sabrina Hickey said.
“I’m a people person,” she said. “I like to meet people and learn new traditions and cultures.”
Since then, Hickey has invited nearly a dozen students from countries ranging from Japan to Germany to Pakistan to stay with her family for nearly a year at a time.
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As the local community coordinator for Program of Academic Exchange, which allows students from other counties an opportunity to study in the U.S. for a semester or the whole school year, Hickey works to connect families in Johnson County with exchange students. This school year, a dozen students are staying in Johnson County, Hickey said.
The students, from countries including Japan, Romania, Indonesia, China and Kazakhstan, attend high school at Franklin, Greenwood, Center Grove and Indian Creek schools while staying with their host families throughout Johnson County.
Host families have the opportunity to introduce the students to American culture, including holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, events such as concerts and drag racing, or even Black Friday shopping. Students also have a chance to share their culture, making the traditional foods they enjoy eating at home or helping their host family take part in their own holidays, she said.
Last May, students from Muslim countries helped Hickey host a feast for Ramadan, a traditional Muslim holiday, she said. With the help of a student from Saudi Arabia and an Egyptian native who lives in Trafalgar, they prepared a meal to share with their neighbors and the other exchange students.
“We spent a whole day cooking traditional Saudi and Egyptian food and had so much that we invited a ton of neighbors to come eat,” Hickey said.
The holiday ended up being a lot like Thanksgiving, she said.
Host students are required to have spent at least three years studying English, though many have spent longer than that since the language is sometimes required by their schools. Regardless of the amount of experience they have had, being completely immersed in an English speaking country quickly helps them with their ability to communicate, Hickey said.
In some circumstances, language is less of a barrier because of the prior experiences host families have had. When Melissa Trahan first hosted a student last year, they chose someone from Germany, since their son has a grandmother in Germany, has visited the country many times and is familiar with the language.
Students who apply to come to the U.S. have to go through an interview process, pass a test on how fluent they are in English and have good grades, she said.
For families interested in hosting a student, Hickey will interview them and their kids, conduct a background check and make sure they are prepared to have another person live with their family three-quarters of a year. Families are allowed to host up to two students at a time.
The exchange students aren’t randomly assigned to families. Instead, host families can pick what country they want to host a student from and select a student that has similar interests to them and their kids, Hickey said.
One student that Hickey’s family hosted, who was from Ukraine, was involved with gymnastics, which was something her son was also doing at the time, she said. Hosting a French student also works well for her kids, who had attended a French immersion school in Ohio before the family moved to Indiana.
Michael Shirley, whose family is hosting a student from Japan this year, chose a student who had an interest in music. The student plays guitar, like Shirley, giving them an opportunity to play music together.
Once a host family is paired with a student, they’ll have time to get to know the student through Skype calls and text messages. Students typically arrive about a week before the fall semester starts, Hickey said. Students can stay for either a semester or the full school year, but most stay for the entire year, she said.
One common concern from families wanting to host is cost, Hickey said. However, all that a family needs to provide is a place to stay and three meals a day. Students who want to take trips throughout the state and the U.S. will also have opportunities to do so with fellow exchange students through the exchange program, she said.
While the students only stay for a school year, the connections often last much longer than that, Hickey said. She often keeps in touch with students she has hosted, sometimes exchanging gifts for Christmas or birthdays, she said.
If you are interested in hosting a foreign exchange student, here’s how can get involved:
Program for Academic Exchange
Local coordinator: Sabrina Hickey
For more information on their stories:
Shuhei Nakazato: http://www.dailyjournal.net/?p=574851&preview_id=574851&preview_nonce=410681683a&post_format=standard&preview=true