Parenting is challenging enough when you’re dealing with your own children.
But what if you’re dealing with a child from another country who has come to live with you for weeks or even an entire school year?
It’s a challenge taken on by parents of families hosting foreign-exchange students. The experience can be demanding but also vastly rewarding.
Wendy and Ray Quesnel, who both work at Fayetteville Academy, hosted several foreign exchange students over the years. They stopped after their youngest child went off to college. But the couple still have lots of interaction with exchange students since there are usually several enrolled at any one time at Fayetteville Academy where Ray is head of school and Wendy is an upper-school math instructor.
Wendy talked to CityView Family about the joys and challenges of hosting – and parenting – a foreign-exchange student.
How many exchange students has your family hosted over the years?
We’ve had six exchange students who’ve lived with us anywhere from a month to a whole school year.
How did your family get involved in hosting exchange students?
It was in 2003-2004. We lived in Winston-Salem then. I was a teacher and my husband was an administrator at the same school. He became involved with the placement agency that sent most of the exchange students to our school and he ended up going to Germany for orientation for the kids. We had kind of thought about being a host family. While he was there, he met a boy who needed a host family and suddenly we were doing it. Sometimes you need that shove. (Laughs.)
How was that first experience?
Our kids were younger then and we had never had a teenager in the house before. So that was different. But he was so easygoing that it really worked out. He stayed with us that whole school year, which was his junior year. He moved in with another family for his senior year because they had older kids.
Were there surprises?
We had to quickly turn a bedroom into a livable space. We realized he didn’t have a car, of course, so we had to take him places. We had to decide whether and how to set a curfew and what kind of food we needed to have for a teenage boy. It all worked out.
Where were your other exchange students from?
We had two girls from France. They were sisters who came at different times and each stayed with us for a month. We had another boy from Germany who stayed temporarily. A girl from Austria stayed with us for six months. And a boy from Montenegro stayed for a year. We stopped because my son graduated from high school and we no longer had children in the house though that’s not required. We also got to know a number of other exchange students at the school.
What was it like?
You have to be open to the experience. We just love kids and we loved to have them. I think when they come here, as strangers, it’s hard for them. They need relationships. We wanted to provide that support for them. We would keep in touch with their parents. I thought about being a mom and dropping my 16-year-old off at the airport to go away for a year. I think that would be very stressful.
Was it tough to parent a stranger from another country?
We worked with this wonderful agency which was so helpful in preparing us. They told us the exchange student is not a guest; you have to treat them like members of the family. It was hard at first. But none of the kids we hosted were kids that I felt I had to nag to do things. They were really helpful and were really appreciative of being able to stay with us.
Have you stayed in touch?
They’re adults now and building their own lives but we have kept up, more with some than others. We went to France this past summer and stayed with the family of the sisters who’d stayed with us. We have stayed with the family of our German exchange student too. You just make a really good bond with the kids. I don’t do Facebook but my husband does and he knows what they’re all doing.
Were there difficulties?
The language barrier at first is hard. They come with varying degrees of language proficiency so communication and getting used to what it’s like to go to an American school is a challenge for them, along with making friends. They’re coming to a new family, a new culture, a new school and a new language. But they’re motivated kids to have done this in the first place. And the other students have always been really good at helping them. There were some occasions of homesickness but they got through it.
What were some of the advantages of having exchange students at your school and in the community as a whole?
I think for our American students, it’s really really good to be not thinking that everything is America. Just learning what a typical school day is for someone from Germany is enlightening. I think it’s good to open their eyes that the world isn’t just here in America; there’s lots going on out there.