Every fall, Ryan and Thomas Carron-Smith expand their family. They welcome a new “child” or two, who live with them for nine months as part of a foreign exchange program. The students attend Clawson High School as seniors and participate in sports, musical events, art programs or anything else they might want to experience while living in America. The Carron-Smiths get to fill the role of “parent.” It’s been a part of their life for a decade and they love it.
“We found something we’re good at, and we like offering our home to the youth who want to study here,” says Ryan, as he sits at the kitchen table of his Clawson home with the two exchange students he and Tom welcomed this year: Manex San Sebastian from Spain and Krispin Wolter from Luxembourg.
Ryan and Tom are not alone. According to Melanie French, executive director at Connecticut-based Academic Year in America, Michigan families host more foreign exchange students than anywhere else in the country. The experience, she says, can allow families to expand their cultural horizons, foster a favorable impression of the United States throughout the world and, perhaps most importantly, make a connection that can last for life.
“Serving as a host family is one of the most wonderful experiences you can have. We are helping them out but also helping ourselves. We get to learn about new cultures from them and live vicariously through them,” says Ryan.
Nearly 10 years ago, Ryan and Tom were working at the Observer and Eccentric newspapers when Academic Year in America, or AYA, placed an ad in the publication looking for host families. Ryan was an exchange student in Germany during high school and knew the impact of the opportunity to study abroad. After discussing it at length, they decided to welcome a student into their home.
Ferndale resident Lisa Grace and her husband, Michael, took a less-planned approach. They decided to take a student after the original host family had to opt out, which jeopardized the student’s ability to come to the U.S. It was the first time they had hosted a student. As parents of eight grown children, they thought it would be interesting to have a teenager under their roof again.
According to French with AYA, prospective families complete an application, receive a home visit and interview from a local representative and then go through a criminal background check before being approved as a suitable home for an exchange student.
The concept for the host families is simple: Provide the student with somewhere to live and treat them as a part of the family. The students are expected to be included in family activities and holiday celebrations.
“All of the students are expected to have a bedroom, which they can share with a same-sex ‘sibling’ who is of appropriate age,” says French. She added that the host family provides food, transportation and supervision. Students come with their own spending money as well as provide their own health insurance. “They are children. They do need parental guidance and supervision, and while we do encourage independence, they need ‘parents’ here.”
The right fit
Selecting a student to house for nearly a year is an important part of the process. French explains that through AYA, once families successfully complete the application process, they are given access to a website containing the information for students looking for hosts in America.
The student profiles include nationality, hobbies, interests, current family life and goals. Once a family selects a student, their interview answers and contact information are sent to the students so they may begin corresponding as soon as possible.
Ryan and Tom Carron-Smith look at interests and hobbies, but they also consider the student’s nationality.
“We have been doing this for 10 years, and each year we like to try and host a student from a different country,” says Tom. They also consider age. Students are no longer able to participate in the program after 18 years old. Ryan and Tom say they feel so strongly about the benefits of studying abroad that they have selected older students in order for them to have the experience before aging out of the program.
Lisa Grace didn’t have the opportunity to select her student. Since she was offering up her home to a student last minute, he arrived at her house one week after school had begun.
Still, they had no problem bonding over mutual interests, like a love of movies and an affinity for the Redford Theatre in Detroit.
“It’s like having a niece or nephew living in the house for nine months,” says Grace.
Living with complete strangers who often don’t have the same native language can often come with challenges.
“All of the students in our program are required to have studied English for at least three years. They come here with adequate English skills,” says French. “For those who struggle, it usually takes about three months for them to adjust, and then they do fine.”
French says students also participate in a pre-departure meeting before leaving their home country to help them understand what to expect when they arrive in the United States.
The Grace’s exchange student, Giacomo Ruá, who is from Rome, has studied English all of his life. While he had a strong grasp of the language, he says his accent initially made it difficult for people to understand him, but he learned the American slang and speed quickly and he was able to communicate with his peers.
Aside from the language barrier, there are other things they have to learn about each other. Manex hails from the Basque Country in Spain. This was the first year AYA was working with an agency in Spain, so the Carron-Smiths jumped at the opportunity to have a Spanish student in their home.
“We arrived at the airport to pick him up and we had the Spanish flag. We didn’t know that the Basque area has its own flag and identity,” Ryan says. “We felt bad, but it’s one of those situations where you learn more about each other’s cultures.”
They have run in to other situations as well – most often things they couldn’t prepare for in advance.
“We had a student from Brazil who asked right away, ‘How much water can I use?’ because the area he was from had a limited water supply,” Tom says. They explained to the student that water was readily available here, though they later had to explain to him that multiple showers per day was unnecessary.
Lisa Grace says that the rules set by the exchange facilitators she used helped set a foundation for what is and is not permissable. “There can be no drug use, no alcohol – even if they are able to drink in their home countries – and no dating,” Lisa says. “The organization encourages the families to have strict rules at home to keep the students safe.”
The AYA program also provides students, host families and schools with local support to help navigate their new roles.
“Every student has a local coordinator who interviews and vets the host family, secures the high school enrollment and keeps in touch with the student on a monthly basis,” says French.
There are things host families can do to help their students become familiar with the area and adjust to their new living arrangement. In order to help the students acclimate, the Carron-Smiths have them arrive in Michigan as early as possible, which is typically early August.
“At first we just drive around the neighborhood. We want them to learn where we live because we want them to take the opportunity to explore on their own later on,” says Tom.
They also take the students to downtown Detroit, the Detroit Zoo, Frankenmuth and other areas of interest. Before school gets underway, they set up a time for the students to meet with any sports coaches, teachers and the school counselors, so the students have input on their classes for the year.
Not all students have the luxury of being able to come early, but French says it’s still important to show the students around the area and expose them to America. French says families often tell her they visit local landmarks with the exchange students that they might otherwise not visit.
“This is a form of public diplomacy. The U.S. Department of State really cares about how this program runs,” says French. “We’re changing stereotypes. The students have an idea of what they think America and Americans are all about, but after coming and staying with host families for a few months, they often find Americans are far friendlier and more patriotic than they thought.”
For Tom and Ryan Carron-Smith’s exchange students, life in America couldn’t be any different than home. Both of the young men were active in their home countries, but they were able to try out different activities here as well. Krispin, who played table tennis and was in the symphonic band in Luxembourg, was a rookie on the Clawson baseball team this year. He also tried soccer and was named the team’s most improved player at the end-of-season banquet. He also used his musical skills in the Clawson High School marching band, something they don’t have in Luxembourg.
Manex, who was used to surfing at home, played soccer, basketball and participated in the school’s production of Shrek the Musical.
“It is highly encouraged to our students that they participate in extracurricular activities, church youth groups or community service. We encourage them to be active in the community,” says French. “We find that many of our students really like the school spirit. It’s something they often don’t have at home.”
Ryan Carron-Smith says that the Internet and social media have definitely affected the students’ ability to surrender to their time and experience in the States. As a result, he and husband Tom limit the students’ time on the Internet connecting with those back home, which is something Academic Year in America encourages of the host families.
“We suggest limiting the amount of contact home and encourage the students to have their independent experience here without sharing it back home every day,” says French. “However, there are families that embrace the connectedness and they are online and sharing pictures as well. We do also like to see host parents connecting with the parents.”
French’s parents hosted an exchange student while she was in grade school. To this day, French and the Brazilian former exchange student are still in touch. “There are bonds that last a lifetime,” says French.
With a year of hosting under their belt, the Graces say it wasn’t just a rewarding experience for them and their student, Giacomo, but their grandchildren and friends also enjoyed spending time with someone from another country.
For those considering hosting an exchange student, there is still time to match with one for the 2015-16 school year. French says for AYA, the approval process can be completed in as little as two weeks. At that point, families can move ahead and select a student.
All of the students say they enjoyed their exchange experiences and will miss a lot about America – their host families most of all, but a close second would be U.S. junk food. For Manex and Krispin, that includes Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Slurpees and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Giacomo says he will miss Wendy’s and coney dogs.
But it isn’t just the food he’ll miss when he returns to Rome, he’ll also miss the “really good” water and the neighborhood.
“I think I grew up a lot this year,” he says. “It’s been a good year for me. I’ve been able to organize and think about where I am going in life.”
After a decade of hosting students, Tom Carron-Smith affectionately refers to his former housemates as his “sons” and “daughters” and proudly boasts of their accomplishments and successes in life. He hopes one day to have a large reunion of all of their former students, but for now, they all connect online.
“If they come back and connect with us after their year here, we know we’ve done something right,” says Tom. “If you really, really want to make a difference to someone, become a host family.”
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski