RALEIGH — Vu from Vietnam got violently sick trying a marshmallow for the first time. Robert from Germany rapped in his native language and started dating a girl soon after arriving in America. David from Spain called his mother to make sure the dish he was painstakingly preparing for his new American friends was just right.
They all became like family to Ginger Cordes.
Cordes and her family have hosted 14 international exchange students over nearly a decade. They came from countries as far as Australia, China and Portugal, staying for a semester or a year. They came to attend school, learn English, and experience American culture.
“It’s an experience they’ll never forget, and you won’t either,” Cordes said.
Cordes and her husband already have plans to welcome two more exchange students this fall, from Montenegro and Berlin, Germany, through the International Student Exchange program. A similar program, International Experience – USA (iE-USA), is currently seeking Raleigh families to host students from other countries for the 2014-2015 school year.
“It gets harder every year to find host families,” Patti Barnette, a local iE-USA coordinator, said, noting that lack of time and funds were often cited as reasons for low participation. “But those that do [host] are forever grateful.”
Visiting students are in good company in Wake County schools, which will be enrolling 74 international exchange students this year, according to Lisa Luten, Director of Communications.
iE-USA is a non-profit organization certified by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, which ensures the program meets regulations for the safety and welfare of students and families. Host families for the public school program are what Regional Director Emily Rolin calls “complete volunteers,” meaning that they are not compensated, although they can claim a small monthly tax deduction. These hosts are responsible for giving the student a bed and three meals a day, along with reasonable transportation, including getting to school. Students pay a program fee, and are required to have their own health insurance and spending money, and generally pay for all personal expenses.
According to Rolin, a nine-time host mom herself, the cost of hosting an exchange student averages between $250 and $300 per month, though the amount varies widely among families.
“Some kids eat more, some kids are more involved in extracurricular activities,” she pointed out.
Cordes takes her exchange students on trips around the country, introducing them to the chaos of Times Square on New Year’s Eve and the raw natural beauty of Grandfather Mountain in the summer. Traveling with her “kids” is one of her favorite parts of the experience, she says, but it isn’t required of host families in the iE-USA program.
“It can get expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. We’re fortunate that we can do it,” Cordes said. “I’ve seen families that don’t have a lot of extra funds and they have just as good an experience.”
According to a press release from iE-USA, families are needed to host students ages 15-18 from countries including Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand. These students will be in Raleigh for either the fall semester or the full school year, and have undergone “an extensive application and orientation process in their home country prior to being accepted into iE-USA’s program,” the release said.
Although iE-USA, like other exchange programs, has had students who needed to be relocated to other host homes, Rolin says the number of these relocations has been “very low.”
Cordes says she has encountered a few conflicts here and there with students she has hosted, but that with an open mind and a willingness to communicate, her experience has been overwhelmingly positive. When she was diagnosed with cancer a few years back, get-well cards and care packages poured in from around the world.
“The kids were amazing and got me through it,” she said. “They were my support group.”
iE-USA local coordinators work with prospective host families to match them with exchange students who will fit into their family’s lifestyle. Coordinators stress the importance of the matching process in placing students with the right families and minimizing relocations. Applications for this year can be found online and are due by August 15.