Sharing Your Heart and HomeDec 01, 2015 ● By Wendi Cartwright
Imagine being a high school student in Argentina, Italy or Romania, and having the opportunity to visit a city such as ours. Being placed with a local family and given the chance to learn about a different culture, attend an American high school, participate in sports and expand your English skills are opportunities that only happen once in a lifetime. High school students from all across the world are looking to participate in these life-altering experiences, in a city just like Frisco.
In 1980, the Educational Resource Development Trust (ERDT), a nonprofit educational foundation, was designated by the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program to sponsor a Teenager High School Exchange Program. Today, more than 30 years later, the SHARE! High School Exchange Program now places between 550 and 700 international students a year with American host families so they can attend local high schools. The ERDT/SHARE! organization is a well-established and well-respected student exchange program that takes pride in their very personal approach. It is a medium-sized organization, large enough to provide stability and variety, but small enough to maintain a personal touch.
The goal of SHARE! is to provide experiences for people of different cultures to come together so that they can learn about other points of view and ways of life. The organization believes that cross-cultural understanding is fundamental to developing tolerance and friendships around the world. The programs are designed to provide cultural experiences that foster goodwill through positive people-to-people experiences.
In the SHARE! program, each student is matched with a suitable host family and attends the local high school in the district in which the family lives. The students come to America from around the globe, including countries such as Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Romania, Russia (and many of the former Soviet states), Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela. Students, between ages 15 and 18, are carefully screened in their home countries to ensure that they are academically prepared, as well as proficient in English.
SHARE! exchange students live with a host family and attend high school for a full, 10-month academic year or for a five-month semester program. All students arrive approximately one week before school begins and must return to their home countries at the end of the program, which is usually seven to 10 days after the last day of school. The full academic year students arrive in late August and depart in June. The students participating in the five-month fall semester program arrive in late August and depart in January. The five-month spring semester students arrive mid-January and depart in June. If your family decides to host a student but the high school in your area starts early or your family will be on vacation, special arrangements can be made for the arrival date of your student.
These students arrive with medical insurance and ample pocket money to cover personal expenses. All of the participating students are required to provide detailed personal and academic information as part of the exchange student application, which includes recommendations, an English proficiency test, school transcripts from the three most recent years (with English translations) and medical/dental reports. SHARE! students are prepared to make real contributions to their school, community and host family. They are to be considered family and community members. The students expect to participate as active members of the family household, as well as share their own country’s culture, politics and recipes with the family, the high school and other interested community organizations.
Once you know a little bit about SHARE! and the students who participate, you can explore what it takes to become a host family. The exchange program coordinators carefully screen host families without consideration of race, religion, national origin or profession, selecting families that are truly interested in sharing a cross-cultural experience. “The most important fact to know,” says Yvette Coffman, the southwest regional director of SHARE!, “is that all kinds of families can participate. From traditional families and single parents, to adults with no children or same-sex couples, it does not matter. We are very diverse. The host family simply must want to provide a safe and caring environment for the students.”
A couple of things to remember when considering becoming a host family are that English must be the language spoken in the home and families need not have a teenager in the home to qualify to participate. The most important quality in a host family is the genuine desire to open their home to an international high school exchange student and to treat the student as they would a member of their own family. All SHARE! host families believe in the importance of cross-cultural exchange and are eager to learn about other countries and cultures, as well as to share their American way of life with their student.
Qualities that are sought after in a host family include friendliness, warmth, a good sense of humor, flexibility and financial and emotional stability. The family must also have the means to provide room and board for the student over the period of their stay. The socio-economic or educational level of the family is not as important as the family’s willingness to share and learn with their exchange student. In matching host families with students, many factors are taken into consideration. Among these factors are the compatibility of interests and personalities (as indicated in interviews with the families and letters from the students) and the ages of host family members.
Besides a willingness to share their hearts and home, host families are only obligated to provide room and board for the student. All SHARE! host families are volunteers and do not receive payment for hosting. By eliminating any monetary incentives for hosting, SHARE! ensures that all motivation for hosting a student comes from the heart. The IRS allows each family to deduct $50 for each month the exchange student lives with them. Exchange students bring their own spending money and are expected to pay for souvenirs, school supplies, clothing, snacks outside of the home, entertainment and personal items. Each exchange student is also covered with medical/accident insurance.
Welcoming a foreign exchange student into your home not only enriches your life, but it also benefits your family and the visiting student. It does require a time commitment, but the benefits can alter the way everyone approaches life in the future.
The exchange students who participate in SHARE! expect to be treated as a member of your family. They have made the decision to leave behind their own family and friends for five to 10 months to have the experience of living with an American family and attending an American high school. The international students are as diverse as the families who host them. Some are outgoing and gregarious while others are quiet and shy. Like most teenagers around the world, they are curious and inquisitive. They have come to the U.S. to discover what our way of life is all about. They have also come as ambassadors from their countries to share their way of life with you. Your exchange student will expect you to communicate with them about your values, and in turn, they will expect you to listen when they tell you about the way of life of their country.
The bonds that are created through this experience last a lifetime. Some families get so much joy from hosting that they welcome students each year into their home. For example, one family is traveling to their former student’s home country to attend their wedding, many years after hosting them as a high school student. The meaningful relationships continue long after the unique program is over!
A student coming to stay with a family in Frisco would be afforded many beneficial opportunities. Being able to experience the small town feel in a larger city is not something every destination can offer. Add to that the family-friendly neighborhoods, access to world-class sporting events and top-notch schools that are focused on turning out the best of the best. We have the excellent opportunity to share Frisco with the world. “Frisco is an amazing town and represents what America is all about,” says Ms. Coffman. “An exchange student who gets to experience a Frisco school and live in Frisco is pretty lucky.” Students are allowed a one-time visa to participate in the exchange program, so coming to America and experiencing our culture is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.
A local Frisco family is currently participating in the exchange program. James and Amy Donohue and their 15-year-old daughter, Chloe, have recently welcomed Emma into their home. Emma is a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who will share the Donohue’s home for the full 10-month school program. As they were reviewing potential matches for their family, they were drawn to Emma because of her stated desire to maintain a healthy lifestyle, something that is important to the Donohue family. Emma is active in the cross-country program at school and is really enjoying her time here in Frisco.
Emma is the second student to share the Donohue’s home in the last two years, but the first student through the SHARE! program. Mrs. Donohue says, “I am impressed with the SHARE! program. They are good at setting guidelines for the student and the family to follow, as well as being a wonderful support system. They check in with them frequently to make sure everything is going well.” Mrs. Donohue also stresses that an important step in helping create a smooth transition for both parties is forming a relationship between the student and their family before the student actually moves in, as well as setting expectations from the beginning.
If you would like more information about sharing your heart and home with a foreign exchange student, please contact the local program coordinator, Donna Miller, at 214-348-7256. You can also call the ERDT/SHARE! national office at 1-800-321-3738. The program coordinator in Frisco can arrange to visit you in your home at a convenient time for your family. This is your chance to learn about other cultures and share yours with a student who has expressed interest in all that our great city, and country, has to offer.