Different Worlds

Local families share global experience

The Allis family is having a movie night at their home in Holly Springs, and teens are showing up from all over the world.

They chat in excited English, but with the dialects of nations from Brazil to Sweden, France and China.

“I can’t imagine my house without an exchange student in it,” said Crystal Allis, whose family will host its 21st and 22nd foreign exchange students this fall. The students become part of the family, participating in daily activities, conversations and chores, and bonding with their host siblings.

Allis, husband Bob and children Ryan, 17, and Emily, 12, decide as a family each year whether or not to host. For the past seven years, the answer is “yes.”

“The kids loved the idea from the start,” Allis said. “I think people have a misperception of what it is to host, that you’re always taking the students places and doing expensive things. We try to do fun things that we think are a good experience, such as Washington, D.C., or Williamsburg, but what the kids come here for is to take part in typical American family life.

“I think hosting brings out the best in us as a family; it’s taught my kids to get along with people and embrace the differences. Seeing your world through the eyes of somebody who’s never seen it is very uplifting,” she said. “Take an exchange student to the grocery store and you’ll never see it the same way again. They’re astounded; they say, ‘You have a whole aisle of cereal?’”

Teens gathered for the movie night shared their own thoughts on the exchange experience, and attending high schools in Wake County, USA.

Isabel of Germany, said, “At school in Germany you can’t choose your classes, and you stay with the same people all day, and there are no school sports, only club sports. I ran cross country and played lacrosse here, and I’m taking a lacrosse stick home as a souvenir.
“I’ve enjoyed meeting people from different countries. This is an experience you never get in your life again.”

Brisa of Brazil became an exchange student at the urging of her Rotarian dad, and was pleased to discover that her host family mirrors her family at home: Two brothers and a love of music, plus a bonus “sister.”  

Brisa has enjoyed new experiences like prom and homecoming, but has a little trouble with Southern American foods like pork and potatoes.

Actually, it seems the only American food the students will miss is Reese’s peanut butter cups.

“It’s weird in America — nobody puts ketchup on their pizza,” Brisa joked, “and they cut their food with the side of the fork instead of using knives!”

Mark and Laura Gustafson of Raleigh are also repeat hosts for foreign exchange students.
“We really like the idea of this ‘expansion’ of our family,” said Mark. “It brings the world to our children and helps them realize it’s bigger than just us.”

“We’re very busy with Cub Scouts and camping and it gets a little hectic sometimes,” Laura added, “but the busier you are the better time the students have.”  

Allis agrees.

“I can’t imagine my house without an exchange student in it,” says host mom Crystal Allis, pictured with, from top, son Ryan, husband Bob, Norwegian exchange student Nora and daughter Emily.

“For many of these kids, the year spent in the U.S. doesn’t count toward their education at home and they have to repeat it,” she said. “That tells you how important it is to them to have this experience.”

Through her family’s hosting journey, Allis, a former school guidance counselor, has become a regional field manager for Education, Travel & Culture, a J-1 visa sponsor organization and nonprofit that provides inbound and outbound international exchange opportunities for high school students from 16 countries.

ETC places about 300 students each year, including 35 of the 64 exchange students living in Wake County this year; other organizations have placed the rest.

“I’m always astounded by the courage of these students,” Allis said. “My favorite day is when they arrive. It’s such an interesting experience — these kids literally leave everything they’ve ever known, get on a plane and fly six, eight or 12,000 miles to live with a family they don’t know at all.”

ETC continually seeks new host families, emphasizing the goals of fostering understanding of the values and attitudes of foreign cultures, while offering international students a window into American life and culture.

“We’ve hosted students from Germany, Thailand, Columbia, Spain, Sweden, South Korea and Norway, and keep in touch with all of them,” Allis said. “We incorporate the students’ traditions into our holidays, and have even visited some of them and their families in their home countries.”

Living with Wake County families this past school year were foreign exchange students, clockwise, Injun of South Korea, “Allen” of China, Brisa of Brazil and Aase Marie of Norway.

Nora, an exchange student from Norway who has lived with the Allises this year, said she tried to come to America without “expectations.”  

“At home we just have math by school grade; what is a freshman, or sophomore? Here there’s algebra, AFM, calculus and AP. And at home we take the bus or ride a bike, but here you have to ask to be driven.  

“But it’s worked out very well; I fit right into my host family,” she said. “This year has taught me how to work with people, and different aspects of my personality have been drawn out by this family. This experience has taught me about who I am, what I can choose, and has given me confidence.”

Left is host “sister” Emily Allis, whose family will welcome its 22nd exchange student this month.

Allis encourages other families to open their homes to international students.

“Altruistically, you help them have this experience,” she said. “Personally, watching them explore and grow so much, and expand their minds to include more than when they stepped on that plane, is fascinating.”

Education, Travel & Culture, edutrav.org

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