For most of us, this is a week to celebrate America, whether you have considered yourself American for a year or for a lifetime. Multiculturalism is one of the many things that makes our nation unique, yet with some exceptions, East Bay neighborhoods are not exactly hotbeds of cultural diversity. But we do have a thriving community of international students who are living with local host families for periods of time ranging from a half to full academic year.
Juan is one such student, a 17 year-old Argentinian who arrived in January to stay with the family of Ann and Rob Kelley in Portsmouth, and attend Portsmouth High School. It has been a whirlwind experience for all, beginning with Juan's Rhode Island assignment. "I had never heard of Rhode Island before," he joked. I'm still not really sure where I am."
For Ann, a mother of four high school and college-aged kids, a full house is nothing new. Neither is hosting a new experience for the Kelleys, and it is one they keep returning to because the rewards are so great. Families who host international exchange students find that it is not at all unusual for lifelong friendships to be formed, and maintained throughout the years. In fact, Ann has recently taken on the role of area coordinator for the East Bay for Cultural Homestay International (CHI), a more than 30-year old program that finds and matches host families for exchange students from every corner of the globe.
The process is remarkably secure. CHI partners with agencies in the students' home countries. "Students go through a huge vetting process," says Ann, and Juan agrees. "I had a huge pile of papers to fill out," indicating a stack roughly the size of a ream. From students' family history to their grades and medical history, no stone is left unturned. The process is pretty foolproof—according to Ann, the exchange students she has hosted and interacted with through the program are overwhelmingly polite and accomplished. "They really are a cut above," says Ann. And host families can choose everything from gender to nationality to English proficiency in their students. Host families likewise go through a strict screening process.
For hosts, it's a minimal financial investment. Students arrive with spending money for incidentals and school lunches, as well as comprehensive medical coverage; host families provide family meals at breakfast and dinner, and a bed. About 40% of CHI students hail from Europe, with Asia and South America accounting for most of the remainder.
The bond between Ann and Juan is palpable, but like many things, it appears to have been forged with the aid of a little heat, as Juan took his time adjusting to life in Portsmouth. "We worked hard at this," Ann admits, "but it was well worth it. It's not going to be easy to say goodbye."
It has been a process watching Juan develop and transform from a kid who was kind of resistant to change to one who does not want to go home just yet. And getting to know someone, bringing them into your family, is an intensely rewarding experience."
For his part, Juan is not returning to Argentina as the same young man who arrived at the Kelleys in January. "You have to keep an open mind," he says. "Don't come expecting home. It is up to you to change to fit in here. If I had to do it again I would stay longer, because I would have had more time, after I adjusted, to just enjoy.
"My work here is done," said Ann, smiling.
If you are interested in serving as a host family, or just want more information on CHI, please contact Ann Kelley at 401/619-2372; firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit CHI at www.chinet.org.