When foreign exchange students come to the U.S., they’re not the only people learning about a new culture.
The host families who open their homes to foreign children often find they learn as much about a new culture as the children do. So said Anita Deraney in Flowery Branch, who is a host parent to two teenage girls with her husband, Stephen Deraney.
“We host two, one from Switzerland and one from Italy,” Deraney said. “The things our family has learned have made this experience phenomenal, especially for my teenage girls.”
Deraney is host to 17-year-old Greta Botti from Milan, Italy, and 16-year-old Celine Egli from Lucerne, Switzerland. The girls currently attend Flowery Branch High School.
Botti came to the U.S. originally to live with a different host family, but due to complications needed another home. The Deraney family was already hosting Egli when Botti joined it in October.
Anita Deraney said they became host parents through the Council on International Educational Exchange.
“We were at church and somebody said there was a booth in the back if you were interested in hosting an exchange student,” she said.
The council is a more than 65-year-old exchange program that includes both study-abroad and teach-abroad opportunities, as well as internships, professional training, volunteer opportunities and more.
The exchange program requires parents to be suitable for hosting a foreign child. Parents must complete an application, a background check and sit for a home visit.
“They want to make sure you have room for them,” Deraney said. “So there has to be enough bathroom space in the home and there have to be enough beds in the home.”
Once parents are approved, they can go online and select the student they want to host.
“You can choose the student you want based on their preferred foods, their religion, their likes, dislikes, stuff like that,” she said.
Mary Tetloff, local coordinator for CIEE, said students come to the U.S. with insurance and their own spending money, minimizing the costs to host parents.
There are only a select number of foreign students allowed in each Hall County school, but Tetloff said the program also needs Gainesville residents willing to host students at Gainesville High School.
“We haven’t found any families,” she said. “We had a student in one of the Gainesville schools two years ago, but since we haven’t been able to get families and we are looking big-time.”
Deraney said Flowery Branch High has been incredibly accommodating. Botti was able to try out for the cheerleading squad — and made it — even though she wasn’t in the U.S. at the time of regular tryouts. Egli sang in the school choir and joined a nearby dance academy, something she wouldn’t have been able to do at home.
Both Botti and Egli said they’re grateful for the opportunity to live and learn in the U.S.
“Just having the American life and getting to know new people and friends,” Egli said. “We have a second family.”
Deraney said her daughter Abigail, who is a senior at Flowery Branch, has become close to Egli and Botti. Abigail is planning to spend two weeks in Switzerland with Egli and two weeks in Italy with Botti this summer.
Parents who are considering hosting a foreign student should do it, in Anita Deraney’s opinion. She said people are missing out on a one-of-a-kind way to learn about other cultures while helping a student.
Deraney said she was most surprised to learn about the differences in education between the U.S. and Switzerland or Italy. She said in Switzerland, children decide around age 11 or 12 if they want to do three more years of school and then enter the workforce, or do six more years of school and then go to college.
She said she couldn’t believe children are expected to make that kind of decision about their future at such a young age.
In Italy, teachers and testing are different from here as well, Botti said.
“The teachers don’t help you as much as they do here,” Botti said. “I really like school here.”
More than anything, Anita Deraney said she has loved watching the girls come out of their shells during the last few months.
“When they first came they didn’t know a lot of English, so we’re watching them just kind of transform into these amazing women who are only 16, 17 years old,” she said. “They’re so young and yet they’ve come to a foreign country all on their own. They are amazing.”
For more information, email Tetloff at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the local school system for their policies.
“I can’t even explain the joy in having them here and letting them go to school here,” Anita Deraney said.