Lakelanders open their homes and hearts to students from around the globe

photography by Daniel Barcelo and Philip Pietri

Adventure, new cultures and languages, educational opportunities, lasting friendships — there are many reasons students choose to travel abroad each year. But traveling to exotic new lands doesn’t always mean leaving the United States. For over a million international students each year, it means leaving their homes in China, India, South Korea, South America, and Europe to travel to the U.S. through student exchange programs.
One such program is EF Education First’s Educational Homestay Program, a nonprofit program that has arranged travel for over 140,000 students since 1979. Through this program, both international students and host families benefit from experiencing a culture very different from their own.
Since 2011, Lakelanders have been opening their hearts and homes to students from Spain and China through Education First’s program, and during the past five years, more than 388 international students have called Lakeland their home for a short period of time. Every year, program director Kelli Chestnut and program leader Terri Cullins find host families for Chinese and Spanish students who leave the comfort and familiarity of their homes to study English and experience American culture first-hand. And, while many of the program’s students will make memories that will last a lifetime, Cullins is quick to point out that the experience is memorable for students and host families alike.
“These are special moments in their lives. And it’s very rewarding for the host parents,” says Cullins. “Hosting gives parents the opportunity to expose their own children to another culture in a fun, unexpected way. And just like we’re excited to share our culture, the students are eager to share theirs.”
Some families, she explains, get a kick out of sharing their favorite holidays with their exchange student and might host a traditional Thanksgiving dinner or July 4th backyard barbeque. Still, other families are happy to just spend time doing the things they normally do. Either way, the exchange students love it all. America’s particular flavor of family oriented culture is somewhat different than other countries. As a result, what may seem like
a routine, everyday experience is often new and interesting to them.
Hosting a foreign exchange student can leave a lasting impact on the children of the host
family as well. Quite often they develop close bonds and lasting friendships with the host
student, and later on may even plan a trip to visit that exchange student in his or her home
In their own words, here’s what some children and teenagers of host families had to say
about the experience:
Carli Spivey, age 11
“My Chinese exchange students had a great impact on my life. They have taught me a little bit of their culture, as I shared a little bit of mine. When they arrived, there was an excited mood in the air, as each family awaits the arrival of their new family members they have learned so
much about. Once they arrive, everyone’s excited as they welcome theirstudents with a small meal.
After we spend a few weeks together, the kids sadly have to leave. It’s not quite as exciting as the arrival, but at least the kids can have a rest after their adventure in America. They probably have participated in many tiring activities such as the park or shopping. You never know, your kid may come back to America, so make sure they always feel welcome back in your family, because the memories of your kid will forever lie within you.”
CJ Burek, age 16
“Hosting Andy and Frank (my Chinese exchange students) was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. They came over and stayed here for two weeks, and we had a blast. We did a numerous amount of fun activities such as taking them to Disney, Putt-Putt golfing, and
also taking them to a Chinese restaurant to see if they would like our impression of their culture’s food. The best part of the entire experience was definitely the bond that we created over the course of the visit. They came over to the U.S. looking to learn about our culture, but we learned a lot about theirs. If I could do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever been a part of.”
Deanna Dumond, age 16
“Patri, Julia, and Marina, are much more than girls we hosted from Spain; they have become my best friends. Hosting teens from around the world has opened my eyes to many different traditions and customs, as well as the lives these kids have. My family is fortunate enough to show these students the wonders of our great country. I have a very active family, and going to sporting events, the beach, and even the fair is something we do all the time. The girls we have had just want to do everything we do; it’s a part of the reason they come. Immersion means they are inserted into your family and go along with your normal schedule. Through this process I have been able to hang out with and get to know some amazing girls, especially since we share a room! I still keep in touch and have even planned a trip to go and see each one of them. It is always a great experience to meet new people, and by hosting a student you can make a difference in your life as well as others.”
Sarah White, age 14
“Hosting a student from another country is life-changing and eyeopening in ways I did not expect. I never thought that I would be given the opportunity to have someone from another country be a part of my family and learn what I do throughout a normal day in America.
While they are here, they go to school in the morning and then you pick them up in the evening time. We spent quite a lot of time getting to know each other, and it was a very neat experience to be able to hear how different yet similar our lives really were. We liked to do a lot of the same things like read, watch movies, horseback ride, and many others.
I have to say one of my favorite things to do was that I was given the opportunity to be able to help with field trips and many other activities that took place with the group. They went to places like the beach, the mall, and during this time I got to meet other students who were here as well.
When students arrive, it seems like you’re all one family. I met a lot of people and learned a lot about the culture of China that I had no idea was even a part of their culture. Myself and Paula, who was my exchange student, still talk to this day, and I can honestly say any time I see an email from her, it feels like we’re just best friends who have known each other forever and just don’t live near each other. It’s very hard to say goodbye, but the time we spent together and the relationship that was made is truly something that can’t ever be taken away! It was an experience I loved, and I will continue to host because it is one thing that makes every summer the best summer.”
Josiah Chestnut, age 13
“My family has hosted 11 junior Chinese students over the past five years. I was eight when we had our first host student, Mark. We had so much fun together. Mark still calls our family at least two times a year but always at Thanksgiving. We share our Thanksgiving traditions, including a Thanksgiving meal with Mark while he was here in July. One of my favorite students was Henry. He was so very funny and he loved playing Wii with myself and my brother. We taught him how to ride the Ripstik. I email several of the boys we have hosted and share pictures. I am always excited to meet the next group of kids from China.”
Stella Samaan, age 10
“What I love best about hosting Chinese students is that we do exciting activities and have fun together. I enjoy camping, kayaking, and swimming with our Chinese students. It is pretty funny to watch a person who doesn’t know what s’mores are construct and eat one for
the first time! Learning about the Chinese culture through sharing of games and food is quite interesting. Through Google translate and animated charades we are able to communicate quite well. We have hosted twice and want to continue to host.”
• This EF Program is ideal for working families. During the Program, EF students are under the supervision of EF staff from 8:00 a.m to 5:30 p.m. (M-F) attending English language classes in the mornings and participating in a variety of organized educational activities and field trips during the afternoons.
• Host families are asked to provide a bed, meals, and to drop off/pick up their EF student(s) in mornings and late afternoons.
• High school students will earn 30 community service hours by hosting a student in their home.
• For more information, please contact EF Educational Homestay program leader Terri Cullins at