Hear from our new EF Regional Coordinator Jason and his wife Jenny about their first experience hosting two exchange students at the same time:
How we came to double host two students in the first place
In February of 2018 my wife and I sat down to look at student applications for the upcoming school year with our first daughter, Sabela, an exchange student from Spain. We thought it would be fun to have the current student help us find the next year's student, so we watched several application videos and read through written applications as well. One of the applications that Jenny and I both looked at several times was Shirin from Germany. We both liked her a lot, but we were not sure how well an athletic hip-hop dancer would fit in with our family. Rather, how well our family would suit her. However, when Sabela watched her video she said, "That's the one, right there." Jenny and I were not completely sold ourselves, but Sabela felt that she would be perfect, so we listened to her advice and that is how we chose our next daughter.
Two months later in April, Jenny saw an application for a Thai girl named Amy who she felt would be a great addition to our student group. We did not have a family for her yet, so we assigned ourselves as her Welcome Family while we looked for an ideal host family for her. As international exchange coordinators, or IECs, our job is to find host families, help them to choose the perfect students for their families, and then support both the student and the host family throughout the year. As a Welcome Family, we were willing to host Amy ourselves for up to three months while we continued to look for her permanent host family.
Another two months passed by before we found Amy a great family. However, before they could complete their application, complications arose in their lives and they were suddenly unable to host. Disappointed, we resumed our search and found another great fit for her. But once again unforeseen complications arose and that family had to back out as well. Now disheartened, Jenny and I asked questions of ourselves and each other. Questions like: Two great families, and they both fell through? What is going on here? Where do we look for another family? Who do we ask now? Who have we not talked to? Where does this girl belong!?
Shirin had been asking for updates on Amy for a couple of weeks, to know if we had found Amy a home yet, or if she would end up having a sister after all. With Shirin's promptings and our own disappointments in finding her a family, Jenny and I talked about the possibility of hosting both girls for the full year. We had not seriously considered double hosting yet. It seemed like quite a lot to take on when we were so new to being parents and to hosting exchange students. We talked, we talked some more, we slept on it, and then we talked again before making a decision. Where did this girl belong? She belonged with us! We decided to ask Amy if she had time for a quick Skype call, which she did, and on that call we told her that we had decided to be her permanent host family for the entire year and welcomed her to the family.
A typical day of double hosting
Double hosting on a day to day basis was basically the same as hosting just one student. Everyone would wake up and get ready for the day, I would either offer to cook eggs for breakfast or the girls would fix cereal for themselves, and then I would drop them off at school on my way to work. The girls typically rode the bus home from school, then Shirin would call her friends to chat while Amy would watch an episode or two of television with Jenny. Then the girls would work on their homework until it was time for dinner, and everyone would pitch in to clear away dinner and dishes. After dinner the girls would return to homework, go out with friends, or we would sit down to watch a show or have a long conversation.
Shirin was on the junior varsity drill team, so throughout the football season she had performances at games on most Thursday nights, and during basketball season it was both Tuesdays and Thursdays. On performance nights, Amy would come with us to watch Shirin perform and then we would usually grab dinner on the way back home or warm up some left-overs. Students really love football season here in Texas, so during the season we went to watch all of the Varsity home games. During the first few games the girls sat with me so that I could explain the game, rules, penalties, and scoring system. After the first few games we would go together, they would go off to sit with friends during the game, and then we would reconnect and talk about the game on the drive back home. Jenny is not much of a sports fan, so she would have me text her during half-time so that she could bake brownies for us to have when we got back home - a tradition we started with our first daughter.
The girls both enjoyed shopping, and they had similar taste in stores if not styles, so most of our shopping was done together as a family. If one of them wanted to go shopping, the other usually wanted to go along as well. If one of them wanted to go out to eat, the other was usually happy to go to the same place. We had our girls plan a dinner once each week. It was up to them whether that meant that we cooked, they cooked, or we went out to eat together.
These are generalizations, of course, but I maintain a personal blog where I give a weekly recap of our experiences in hosting. If you want to get a better, more detailed idea of the day to day experience of hosting then you can click here to read about our adventures.
Struggles of double hosting
Shirin and Amy are very different from one another. They both enjoy art and they have some similarities in musical interest, but otherwise they are two very different people. Shirin is into dancing, Amy is into crafting. Shirin loves roller coasters and hates horror movies, Amy hates roller coasters and loves horror movies. Shirin hates natural heights, Amy likes to see what lies over the edge of the cliff. Their differences are what caused my personal hesitation in hosting both girls when the idea first came up; it took some convincing for me to agree that they had enough in common that they would get along for an entire year.
The girls have different personalities and come from different cultures, so they had different things that they struggled with throughout the year. Amy comes from a culture where the young people respect those who are older than them, even if only by a single year, and they defer to those elders in nearly all things. That was something we did not fully understand until late in the year, so we spent a lot of time attributing aspects of Amy's personality to her being shy when it was actually her culture. What we saw was that if Shirin wanted to do something, Amy would rarely object or offer other options even if she would actually prefer to do something else. This applied to anything from choosing what to have for dinner to where to go shopping, or what activities we would do on a given night to places we would go or things we would see on vacations. It was a part of Thai culture that we were not aware of until we really got into the second semester.
Since Shirin was much more vocal about things she wanted to see or do, there were times where it almost seemed like this was Shirin's exchange experience and Amy was just kind of tagging along for the ride. Once we figured out what was actually going on, we had to talk to Amy a few times before she really started to exert herself. It was not a struggle that caused problems in the home or family, but it was a struggle that may have held Amy back a bit in terms of fully enjoying her entire exchange year as much as she could have if she had been more vocal earlier in the year.
Shirin turned 17 during her exchange year, while Amy turned 15 just before she came. Getting your driver's license in Germany is significantly more expensive there than it is here in America, so Shirin had asked us about getting her Texas driver's license even before she had left Germany. If she got a license here, then she could pay only a small fee to take a test and then transfer her license to Germany. We decided to do parent-taught driver's education for Shirin during the second semester, and I was her instructor. The result was that I bonded more with Shirin than I did with Amy because we had somewhere around forty hours of one on one time in the car while I was teaching her how to drive. That of course meant that Jenny had that same amount of one on one time with Amy at home, so she started to bond more with Amy. The struggle here was that relationships became imbalanced. We were giving the girls different amounts of our time, not as a family, but individually. If you look at one on one time, I had more time with Shirin, and Jenny had more time with Amy, than Jenny and I had with each other, or than we had with the opposite girl.
Benefits of double hosting
One of the perks of hosting a student in the first place is that you get to learn so many things about them and where they come from. Even if you already know things about their home country, or think you do, there are still unique things that you will learn with every student. Since you cannot double host two students from the same country (or who speak the same primary language), double hosting always has the added benefit of getting to learn about two cultures at once. Since the students come from different places, they are usually just as curious and eager to learn about each other's cultures as you are and they will even think to ask questions that you would not because they are already aware of differences in their own culture that you may not think of.
In our case, we actually had three cultures to learn about this year because Shirin's father is German but her mother is Persian, and Shirin was raised with influences from both cultures. She shared much of the German school system and way of living with us, but when it came to food she often preferred sharing things from the Persian kitchen. Amy did not feel like she was very skilled in Thai cooking, but she still cooked for us on several occasions, and every time it tasted amazing. If she considers herself to not be a good cook, and it was still that good, then I cannot wait to get to Thailand and try the real thing. To get into the details of the cultures themselves would require posts of their own, but here is just a very quick list of the different cultural topics that we discussed: families, education, relationships/dating, social etiquette, politics, religion, stereotypes, styles of government, what our respective cultures could learn from one another, and what it means to have pride for your country.
While European cultures are different from American, we do still have a lot in common with them as well. America and Asia, however, are quite different. Having both European and Asian daughters provided a number of opportunities for us to learn and grow this year. Seeing other perspectives and learning about a culture that is so different from your own allows you to reflect on everything in your own life. You start to realize the value in things that you have taken for granted your whole life. You start to appreciate the relationships you have more, or perhaps appreciate them in a different way. You see that these differences that we have between our cultures can seem so big, yet at the end of the day we are so very similar. Something as insignificant as "eeny meeny miny moe" - the words differ, but the concept exists in all three of our cultures.
Little things become precious memories. Shirin arrived in Texas nearly three weeks before Amy did, and Shirin is an only child in her German family. When Amy arrived, Shirin took it on herself to teach Amy how to do things around the house. Things like showing her how to work the washing machine and clothes dryer. She jumped at the opportunity to be a big sister for the first time. It was a benefit for both of the girls, and witnessing that was a benefit for us. A list of some of my favorite small things: watching the girls conspire together when they had a secret or were plotting a prank, having them conspire with us for surprises for someone else in the family, watching (or helping) them try to scare each other throughout the year, and the magical sound of random bursts of laughter coming from down the hallway.
I asked the girls what they thought of when it came to benefits of having a double placement sister and Shirin replied, "So definitely the first day of school! To have someone to sit with in the morning when you don’t know anyone yet. Also learning about another culture, and just to have someone who struggles with the same things, who understands you."
Something we have heard from other couples who have double hosted, is that if you are considering being a host family but are worried that your family is "too boring" or you feel like your family is on the go a lot, then having two students can alleviate that stress for you as they will help to entertain one another. I can tell you that no family is too boring to host a student in the first place, but if you refuse to believe otherwise, then double hosting can fix that particular issue for you.
A year in review
Our experience with our first daughter, Sabela, was amazing. We fell in love with exchange because of the experience that we had with her. Hosting two daughters the following year, even if it was unintended to start with, proved to be just as strong of a blessing, but also an even more fulfilling and rewarding experience. Having the girls share their cultures and their exchange experience with us, and also sharing those things with each other, just made everything that much more rewarding.
Having no children of our own, there are many things about parenting that we have had to learn along the way. Hosting our first daughter, we had no experience at all so we flew by the seat of our pants and made the best of it. This time around we had some experience going into it, but this was our first time juggling two teenagers at once. We certainly made some mistakes along the way, but we talked about them, we learned from them, and now we are that much better prepared for our future students.
By the time we had fallen in love with hosting, which was honestly almost immediate, we already knew that we would eventually want to try out double hosting. We might not have planned on doing it the year that we did, but we had such a wonderful experience with double hosting Shirin and Amy that we intend to double host as often as possible in the years to come. We will probably host a single student again as well, but we love hosting students and we love growing our global family.
Want to learn more about hosting an exchange student in your own home? Click here.