Becoming a host family

So we, Harald and Hester, will be a host family for an exchange student. That’s not something we decided overnight. The source of this idea seems to be an exchange a lifetime ago.

Hester in Scotland

Hester in Scotland

Hester went on an exchange to Scotland fifteen some odd years ago. This was a short summer program of six weeks and did not involve going to school or anything like that. She stayed with five  different families in the central part of Scotland. Having the experience of families inviting you, a total stranger, into their home and showing you the surroundings from a very local point of view was extraordinary.

Somehow the idea of sharing your home with young people looking for an international adventure stuck. It slumbered for quite a while, but a couple of years ago it emerged again when, you know, you’ve become older, things have settled a bit, stuff like that. This time though from the host family point of view.

So we looked the organisation that Hester had gone to Scotland with up on the world wide web. This must’ve been somewhere during the winter of 2011/2012, and we found they were still very active, offering all kinds of programs, including a High School Holland program. That’s what we were looking for.

Logo exchange organisationAt first we just read through the information on their website and looked at the profiles of students that were looking for a host family that following year. We were curious about which countries the students were from, what you could conclude from the short descriptions about their lives, hobbies, families, how they saw themselves. When we would check the profiles again some weeks later, we’d see who had been paired with a family already and who had not. We tried to predict who would be placed soon based on their description or if this seemed, for example, related to the country they came from. We couldn’t predict anything 😉 and got more curious about everything going on behind these webpages.

Obviously we had not only looked at this website, but we had also discussed inviting an exchange student into our home over many a cup of coffee. At this point though, it must have been around May 2012, we decided there were too many other things going on in our life to actually go for being a host family that coming August. It was somewhere in the autumn of 2012 that we decided to look into all this again.

Our personal considerations when we thought about the idea of being a host family for an exchange student were the following. This was before we’d spoken to the exchange organisation in detail about the program.

Upsides we had thought up:

  • give a young person a chance to follow a dream;
  • experience another culture, language and way of thinking without having to travel;
  • give this experience to your own children;
  • teach your native language to a person that chose this program for learning about another language and culture;Green Tunnel
  • enrich your local social life through school and other student activities.

Downsides and/or uncertainties:

  • have a total stranger live with us for a couple of months while we’re used to living
    with just the two of us;
  • extra cost of living for an (almost) adult for a longer period of time;
  • the responsibilities for this person and their stuff;
  • what if… the student does not want to do anything once here?
  • what if… the student wants to do everything that is not allowed?
  • what if… the student is not motivated at all to do schoolwork?
  • what if… the student turns out to hate our country/culture?
  • what if… we don’t like each other at all?
  • what if… it doesn’t work out between the student and the kids?
  • what if… the student doesn’t embrace the experience and wants to contact their home all the time?
  • what if… the student doesn’t want us as a host family?
  • how do we communicate if the student hardly knows Dutch and English?
  • what about our personal work/travel plans?
  • probably at least 10 other things we didn’t have the answers to yet.

Summing all that up you might think “Why would you do something like this?!”.

Still we weren’t discouraged enough to just give up on this idea 😉 We contacted the exchange organisation. They provided us with lots of written information, answered many of our questions patiently through numerous phone calls, chats and e-mails. Quite a number of the downsides we’d come up with were eliminated after just a couple of  conversations with them.

We found out that financially all we have to provide is a roof over the student’s head and food. School, insurance, trips, but also stuff like toiletries, clothing, school lunches, anything extra will be taken care of by the organisation or the students themselves. As a host family you can choose to pay for certain extras, but you don’t have to. Also the exchange organisation will always take final responsibility for the students.

When it comes to the behavior of the students (being motivated at school or not, wanting to embrace the experience or not et cetera) the exchange organisation is very clear also. There are quite a number of rules that the students (and their parents) know of and agreed to when entering the High School Holland program. School results must be good. Rules at school and at home must be obeyed. Students are not allowed to smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs. Students are very much discouraged to have lots of contact with people at home to prevent homesickness as much as possible. For this same reason it’s not allowed to have friends or family from home over during the exchange. And there are (serious) consequences for the students if they do not stick to the rules of the program.

So next round of questions. What if there’s no “click” between the student and host family? Or at some point there’s a conflict? Or the host family is new at this and could use some help or tips? For all and any of such cases there’s a local exchange organisation representative available 24/7. This is the same person that “approves” the host family after a personal visit at our home. He or she also arranges the school and leads the introduction week with the students once they’ve arrived in the Netherlands. This person, called a Volunteer Cultural Exchange (VCE), can always be contacted during the program in case of issues or questions and will negotiate a transfer to a different host family if there are no other options left.

On we go. What if our preferred student doesn’t want us as a host family? The answer to this question was easy, because students do not really have a choice when it comes to their host families. The only exception that might be made is if a student objects to same sex host parents or to a one parent household. There are many students in the program every year and often not (immediately) as many host families available, so there’s no room for being picky on their side 😉

By this time we were quite convinced the list of downsides and uncertainties was by no means outweighing the upsides anymore. We’d discussed the idea with more members of our family and some friends and they were mostly or very positive overall. We realized that answers to questions such as “What will it be like with a third person in the house?” and “How do we communicate with someone who doesn’t speak Dutch (or English in some cases)?” could only be found during an actual exchange. We did read some stories about how other host families managed all this, but at this point we didn’t even know from which country we’d have a student. So we concluded this would have to be one of these things you’ll figure out once the situation presents itself.

Winter tree

We checked the list of students on the website of the exchange organisation often and even had some ideas on preferences for a girl or a boy, which country the student would be from, how long the exchange would have to be and so on. This was getting somewhere!

Still we didn’t feel like taking the final step and subscribe as a host family. This was due to some work related travel plans at first and the before mentioned rather unexpected plan to move house during the winter of 2012/2013.

Then came last spring, March 2013. We had moved house, were settled pretty much and we decided we were ready to contact the exchange organisation and finally go for it! Obviously we already knew the High School Holland crew and they knew us. So when we contacted them the actual subscription for becoming a host family didn’t take that long.

Officially we had to be accepted as a host family, so an appointment was made with the VCE. Before that we had to fill out some forms with our basic information, a description of ourselves, our family, expectations and stuff like that. We also had to provide two references, family members not allowed.

During the VCE’s visit we talked about the forms, the program in general, her role during an exchange, which school we preferred and she answered any questions we still had. After this meeting the VCE would contact our references. A few days later the organisation let us know we were officially accepted as a host family. Yay!

The next step was finding a student that we thought matched with us, our lives, interests and exchange wishes. The exchange organisation website already had a number of students on it that would start their semester or school year in August 2013, but we were told still a lot more had yet to be officially accepted. Lots of paperwork has to be done for and with these students, much of that depending on the country they’re from. There are also quite strict language requirements. If they’re not proficient enough in English, they’re not accepted to participate in the program.

So it was early spring and there were only a handful of students on the High School Holland website yet. We’d already seen a girl that fit our “wish list”, but shouldn’t we wait until there were more student profiles disclosed?

Passport photo Zoé

Our wish list at this point looked something like this:

  • a girl;
  • an older student;
  • a period of 1 school semester (August – December);
  • a student from Belgium or another country not too different culturally from the Netherlands;
  • not the super-sporty type student.

It probably won’t be a surprise it was Zoé’s profile that had already been published and she matched all of our wishes. As we were now officially approved as a host family, we were allowed to see the complete files of students. So we requested to see Zoé’s file and received it through e-mail. This was very elaborate and included forms with basic information but also detailed descriptions of her family, hobbies, interests, school results, a medical certificate, a motivation letter from Zoé herself and a letter from her parents.

After reading Zoé’s complete file and talking to the exchange organisation about what they already knew about other student profiles that were not yet published on the website, we decided to look no further. We felt we might regret it if we waited longer and Zoé would be matched with another family. We had a good feeling about what we thought we could conclude from all the information we’d gathered about her.

So we were ready for the next episode. Finding a school that accepts an exchange student for a longer period of time is essential for the High School Holland program. No school, no exchange, it’s simple as that. But Dutch schools only get  government funding for students that are enrolled for an entire school year. So only schools that can see an exchange as “paying back” through the practical experience for the school and its student are likely to be open to the idea of hosting an exchange student.bikes_at_school

During our meeting with the VCE earlier we already talked about a local school we had in mind for our exchange student. It’s a very internationally oriented school, they even have a four year bilingual program at the level preparing for university. They also have all kinds of charity events, which by that time we knew would be something that would appeal to Zoé a lot. So the next step was contacting this school and finding out if they’d be interested in hosting an exchange student for one semester. All this was done by the VCE. We had good hopes because of the international character of this school and we weren’t disappointed. Zoé’s school results and overall profile appealed to them and she was accepted. Yay again!

At this point, somewhere at the end of April 2013, the exchange organisation contacted Zoé to let her know the exchange was final and who her host family would be. Our contact information was shared with her and she could decide how to contact us for the first time. She did through e-mail and since then we’ve mailed quite a few times already. Sinterklaas cupcakes

So there you go.
– Host family, check.
– Exchange student, check.
– School, check.
– Shared contact information, check.
– First e-mail contact, check.

And now. We wait.
It’s July and Zoé’s off to some other adventures abroad first before she comes to the Netherlands. She’ll be here in about 7 weeks. We’re looking forward to it!

This was our story about how we became a host family. Of course this is only the beginning as it’s not until we’ll actually have an exchange student at home, that we’ll be able to share the real host family life experiences. And that’s what the rest of this blog will be about 🙂

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