WETHERSFIELD - Qinyi, an exchange student from China, had grown up immersed in American culture-she already has eight years of English under her belt and recalls consuming a multitude of U.S. media-she has just never been here.
This summer, she got the chance not only to visit, but to live the American lifestyle for three weeks with a family in Wethersfield.
“I learned things about the U.S. through media all the time,” Qinyi said. “And that made me very curious about this country-especially the most well-known city of this country, New York City. It all resulted from curiosity.”
Qinyi got to go to New York City, and even further-she and a fellow exchange student took a trip with their host family to Niagra Falls.
“Twelve hours were spent driving, which were really worth the gorgeous view of the world-famous waterfalls,” Qinyi said.
Every year, 100-200 students from China to Spain-and everywhere in between-share similar experiences through Connecticut’s Educational Home Stay Program, a nonprofit under the Education First parent company.
The visitors take classes-mostly to learn English-during the day at the Two Rivers Magnet School in East Hartford, and spend evenings with their host families. But the Home Stay Program also chaperones trips.
“We’ll take them bowling, we take them to the beach-things that are a little bit more interesting on the cultural end,” said Sarah Gutierrez, Site Director of the Home Stay program. “It’s nice for the families because of course they work during the day. We try to create a situation where families have to shell out the least amount of money for these kids.”
That’s important, because as a nonprofit, the organization is unable to compensate host families for the costs of the meals and rides they provide the exchange students, Gutierrez said. This creates another challenge for the program: finding enough households to participate every year.
“We don’t get a lot of applicants,” she said. “There are a lot of companies that pay, and it’s actually hard for us to find people because of the competition we have.”
The program, on the other hand, doesn’t have a problem finding students.
“Every year it changes based on who wants to come here,” Gutierrez said. “Every year we have to look for 70-120 host families. Most families can only afford one student, so when we have 100-200 students coming, we need to find at least 100 families.”
For Home Stay, the process starts takes from the fall through the spring. They canvass school and church events, as well as local farmer’s markets. There are a few especially loyal families-about 20-who participate in the program every year, but it can be difficult to find new hosts with vacations and other summer events tying people up, Gutierrez said.
Beth Foran is one of the yearly regulars. Her family, the Wethersfield residents that took in Qinyi and Dune, a French student, has been doing this for the past three summers.
“It’s an experience for our kids,” Foran said. “They already know kids from France, Russia, Hong Kong, Italy, and Spain. I wish more high school families would do this, because they [the exchange students] want to meet teenagers when they come over.”
All of the students speak some English, although proficiency levels vary, according to Gutierrez.
For Dune, the three weeks spent with the Foran’s was an opportunity to step out of her comfort zone not only from a language standpoint, but culturally as well.
“At the beginning, it was pretty hard to leave my French habits, my family, and my friends, and to be alone with people you don’t know, and in addition, who don’t understand your language at all,” Dune said. “But very quickly, I felt comfortable.”
While the experience helps the visitors to become immersed in U.S. culture, it also works the other way around, in that host parents and their kids have a chance to learn a foreign language, Gutierrez said.
“That’s very valuable to both the student and the family,” Gutierrez said. “I’ve seen so much cultural awareness with the families-whether they’re [the exchange student’s] coming from Europe or Asia.”
And that’s not to downplay the personal touch the experience has, Gutierrez said.
“They develop life-long relationships,” she said. “I have a family that has a lifelong relationship with a student from Spain. They have gone to visit each other. She has become like a second daughter.”