Editor’s note: Karissa Huntington is the senior program manager for field operations at American Councils, where she has worked for eight years. She didn't start her career in international education, but hosting international students changed her path. She and her husband have hosted a total of 45 students, au pairs, and foster children from more than 20 countries. She thinks she’ll probably always host, and she thinks you should also consider hosting, even just once.
My interest in international exchange really started with my French horn.
When I was 15, I wanted to go on a band trip to Europe, but my parents didn’t really think that it was worth the price tag. My midwestern parents had never been abroad and didn’t see the value. If they had known the experience would spark a lifelong passion for international education I’m sure they would have paid. Instead, we compromised. I got a job, earned enough money to pay for half, and took my French horn across the ocean. The trip was amazing.
A few months later, when a large group of German high school students came to the US for a reciprocal visit, I learned to love hosting. Most of my classmates’ families offered to host one or two students for the weeklong program. My mom, in all her crazy, asked for eight. During that week those eight German boys experienced proper Midwestern hospitality. We went bowling (rave reviews), dunked Oreo cookies in milk (eh, so so) and took shelter during a tornado warning (everyone survived, but one poor kid was pulled out of the shower). It was so much fun. The language missteps, the joy they got from my mundane, learning about our differences and similarities—I loved it all.
The following year I befriended every exchange student in my high school. The year after that, my mom and I plotted to host a long-term exchange student. We just had one hurdle: my dad. It remains the only time in my life that my parents did not present a united front.
One morning my dad caught me on the way to the laundry room and asked me to help him convince my mom that it was a bad idea to host. At 17, I had no sympathy for his fears.
“Why would I do that? I want this, Dad,” I said.
Eventually, my dad agreed to a short hosting commitment through Rotary International. This particular program gives exchange students a chance to live with three host families throughout the year. Most importantly for my dad, we would be her last family and have six months to back out before she moved in. In the end, my dad enjoyed hosting the most. I think it helped that she laughed at all his dad jokes.
It was an important part of my high school experience to meet these international students to start thinking about the world outside of me and the world outside of the United States.
My senior year, instead of saving for college, I saved up for a month-long trip to South America to visit some of my best exchange friends. At 18, in the late 1990s, I flew alone into Medellin, Colombia. When a friend’s mom insisted I meet her cousin in Bogota, where I had several layovers throughout my trip, I thought the suggestion was silly. A week later, I found myself in a puddle of tears on the floor of the airport after missing a flight and had to call her in the middle of the night to come pick me up. It was a dangerous trip for her to come and get me. When I returned to the airport the next day, my bags were searched thoroughly for drugs due to my “suspicious” activity. It took many years to understand just how important it was to have a local looking out for me and how bad it could have been if I didn’t.
Fast-forward through college study abroad, graduation, getting married, and several years into a career. I had an opportunity to host several Turkish students attending the law school where I worked. Unsure how to act around Muslims in our home, my husband and I hid all our alcohol and pork. It turns out that neither measure was necessary. They didn’t mind that we had alcohol and thanked us for saving them from ordering pepperoni pizza, which isn’t made with pork in Turkey. We took them camping in South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. (While the trip got rave reviews overall, Mount Rushmore seemed a little strange to them—and me, honestly.) The experience reminded me how much I loved hosting exchange students and ultimately played a leading role in my decision change my career to international education.
I had been working at American Councils for a few years when our international student support team asked staff to consider becoming short-term hosts for a few high school students that hadn’t secured year-long host families yet. Naturally, I volunteered. They gave us two boys: one from Ukraine and one from Egypt. Of course, we ended up hosting one the whole year.
And that’s when we fell down the rabbit hole.
Our kids loved having these international visitors around. They liked looking at maps and asking where they were from; learning about cultures and traditions from around the world. So we decided to host au pairs through the State Department’s J1 visa program. When our kids outgrew that, we started hosting exchange students who attended a nearby English language school. Finally, because we had so much experience, we decided we were ready to host unaccompanied refugee minors and became certified foster parents. In the end, there are 45 visitors from more than 20 countries who claim us as their American family. And I’m sure we’re not done yet.
The Case for Becoming a Host Parent
A lot of people tell me I’m really “nice” for hosting so many students, but there are some pretty selfish reasons why I do it. I get a lot out of hosting and I feel like it’s my duty to point out the benefits.
Exchange students are happy and fun to be around. They are on the adventure of their lifetime. Unlike refugees, or your mother-in-law, they have chosen this experience. They are happy to meet you, stay at your house, eat your food, and spend time with you. You will forever play a supporting role in their big adventure. And just like all big, happy events in your life, the imperfect parts are forgotten and your exchange student will remember you fondly.
Exchange students want to hang out with you! Unlike your own kids, exchange students still want to impress you and listen to you. And they need your help. They have no shortage of enthusiasm, but they do lack street smarts – especially since the streets in America can be so different from what they know. It may not be an airport pickup in the middle of the night like my experience in Colombia, but it’s valuable to have someone to help get out of the monthly make-up subscription they got conned into, or simply to tell them when they need to catch a cab instead of walking home.
You get to be the storyteller. As a host, you get to guide the narrative of your student’s experience. My favorite thing to do is show them quirky or quintessential America: county fairs, demolition derbies, a fairy festival, Mount Rushmore, Disney World, the Ghostbusters’ firehouse in NYC (followed by a viewing of the movie, of course). I want to ensure that they understand America is incredibly diverse and not just what they see in the movies.
Hosting makes your everyday life more interesting. What these students lack in life experience they make up for in enthusiasm. My absolute favorite thing of all time is to go grocery shopping with someone who has just arrived. They all notice something different.
‘There’s a whole aisle full of Oreos?!’
‘Why are there so many kinds of toilet paper?’
It’s like seeing your own life through an Instagram filter and it intrinsically increases your fulfillment.
It’s so much cheaper and more accessible than traveling the world. While it would be nice to travel the world and show our kids new countries and cultures, taking three small children around the world is neither easy nor affordable. Through hosting though, my kids have friends and connections to people all around the world.