Confessions of a Rotary Host mother.
I didn’t know what to expect when we got our first host daughter, Giulia, from Italy in 2008. What I did know was that our own daughter Mercedes was having a spectacular time herself on exchange. I couldn’t get over how grateful I was when her host family treated her so well. My basic rule of thumb was therefore to try to act with a host daughter as I would like my own children treated. That didn’t include giving Giulia everything she wanted or agreeing to change the rules of the house. It just meant being understanding she was feeling a little lost and trying to be sympathetic and reassuring when necessary (even when it really wasn’t necessary!).
But the overwhelming reaction is one of matching the student’s enthusiasm for a new place and new cultural experiences and new personal relationships. We have now hosted several students, usually for a few months each. They have all had very different personalities. Some are shy, particularly at first. Some are very outgoing from the beginning. They still all share a sweetness and a desire to learn and to be helpful – and, of course, like all teenagers, to have fun.
My husband and I both work which is not ideal in some ways in terms of trying to juggle time with kids. And sometimes dinners can be a haphazard experience in terms of synchronising timing. But I like to think it encourages a degree of independence from the students, particularly in terms of realising it is up to them to know what to do and in relying on public transport at times. In general, I was pretty relaxed about the students going out with friends on the weekends. My instinct is always to say yes – but. I wanted to know where they were at all times and usually to check with another mother that all was going as planned if it was a party. Obviously the longer a student is in Australia, the more familiar they are with life and getting around.
I never had a problem with anyone wanting to stay out too late or behave in any way that was inappropriate. But I also made it plain what I expected – whether it was leaving my children alone at times so they could study for HSC (ever hopeful) or saying if I thought a particular event was one too many or too difficult for us.
That can also mean explaining nicely but firmly if what they want puts too much stress on your own family or is too difficult for you. It can mean listening to their woes and suggesting practical alternatives. But mostly it means just showing a sense of humour so they are not intimated but appreciate their own needs must meld in with those of a new family.
The advent of mobile phones has made it much easier. It does mean, of course, sometimes waiting up to pick students up at night. That is easier when you are well used to this necessity as a result of your own school aged children although it is clearly not essential to have siblings in the house.
I have also encouraged them to have friends over whenever they want on weekends. It makes them feel more at home and they are very responsible about it. Friends (at least of the same sex) are quite used to sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor in our students’ rooms. They are keen to impress their friends and to show off their new lives, their mementos of their home country and how they have adapted. The giggles are infectious. Often these can include other exchange students. At times, the house can seem like a mini version of United Nations and it opens up the minds of all the host family.
Our own children have been delighted to have host brothers and sisters. They learn a lot, including about their own culture by understanding the comparisons. They sometimes do things together like going to the beach, particularly at the beginning, on small family holidays But exchange students tend to quickly develop their own friendship circles and it is more often that the connections are deepened at home, sitting around and chatting. Just as our own children do with one another.
The students are never just there for a few months, either. The advent of email and Facebook means they are constantly giving you updates and inquiring after everyone when they leave. Many times, despite the distances, they will return for a visit after leaving Australia. We have just had our Finnish exchange student, Ilona, return with all her family for a holiday. We had a big dinner with her and family along with our current Italian student, Marta and her mother who was also visiting. It is a very warm and fulfilling experience. They become a part of your family with all its idiosyncrasies and they love and respect them. The host families have the privilege as well as the responsibility of making their students feel welcome into the heart of their family lives, in a way that visitors or friends can never be. They in turn know they will always have a deep personal connection with the student families if ever they visit the students in their home countries.
Hosting also made us understand the benefits of the larger Rotary family more generally and all the wonderful opportunities it offers to help others and to help yourselves by that connection.
There is always a Rotarian willing to assist with advice or practical support whenever it is necessary. There is a great structure of support for both families and students.
One other exchange student who came to visit from the US after meeting my son in France said that Rotary exchange made the world grow smaller. It does that – and it makes our hearts grow larger. I would recommend the experience to everyone.
Jennifer Hewett, Sydney, February, 2011