Hosting has been a lot of fun and a really rewarding experience for all of us!

Do you wonder what it is like to host an international student? Wonder no more; Greenheart recently connected with one of our host moms, and winner of Greenheart Celebrates Photo Contest, Jennifer (Kansas), and in the following lines, she shares how her hosting experience has been. Jennifer’s family is hosting Greenheart’s Italian exchange student Gabriele.

Let’s find out what Jennifer had to say!

Why did you decide to host?  If this is not your first hosting experience, why do you continue to host?

Our family had talked about the idea of hosting well before we decided to.  It sounded like a great opportunity to share our culture with someone new and also learn about theirs.  We met Wilma, our local coordinator, at a high school open house a few years ago.  She was at a booth promoting Greenheart exchange with a girl from Spain standing right near the door.  They asked our family just as we were leaving if we’d ever thought about hosting.  We had, so we stopped to chat.  In talking with the girl from Spain, it was wonderful to see her enthusiasm.  She was having an amazing time in the US and described some things coming up with her host family that she was really excited about.  We knew our family could offer a student a great experience, too, not by doing anything fancy but just by inviting them into our American lives.  Wilma gave me her business card and followed up, but that next year just wasn’t right for us.  We had one child going off to college.  We moved to a new home outside the city.  Transportation would have been challenging.  We decided that hosting that year wouldn’t have been fair to a potential exchange student as we couldn’t have given ourselves fully to the experience.  Wilma didn’t give up, though, and contacted us again the next year.  Our college student was settled in her second year.  We had completed our move.  And our youngest was able to drive and help with transportation.  It was time.  Wilma sent us the profiles of some students she thought might be a good fit.  One in particular stood out and we decided to go for it.  I’m so glad we did and we are happily hosting him now!  Gabriele has been wonderful for our family and the cultural exchange has been even better than I imagined. 

Gabriele with host siblings in Kansas City – Nelson Art Museum

What part of life in the USA do you hope to share with your exchange student(s)?

All of it!  Greenheart makes it clear at the outset that is your exchange student’s job to adjust to the host family’s life, not the other way around.  We include our student in every aspect from boring things like errands and the weekly grocery run to exciting things like holidays or family adventures and everything in-between.  He soaks it all in!  I remember one evening not long after his arrival when the family was sitting around in the living room enjoying a TV show together.  The kids were on their phones and our exchange student started smiling at something he saw.  We asked about it and he explained that he had just watched a Tik Tok video describing the surreal feeling of “What it’s like when you’re an exchange student.  Sitting on an American sofa.  In America.  Next to a real American family.”  Which is exactly what he was doing at the moment.  Something our family saw as ordinary was a pretty cool thing for him.  Everything is new – and likely different – to an exchange student.  It is fun to see everyday life through our student’s eyes and has helped me realize that I should not take my everyday life for granted.

Gabriele’s Birthday gift from home

What’s it like getting the exchange student situated and comfortable in your home and the school/community? 

The first few days can be challenging.  If your student arrives just a few days in advance of school starting there may be many things to do in a short amount of time.  Your weary traveler will be tired and may take a bit to adjust to the local time.  Be understanding, but also do what you can to help get them on a schedule.  They will thank you for this later.  Give them a tour of your home and an overview of house rules.  Write down important things so that your student can refer back to them later.  Realize that they may initially feel like a guest and may be uncomfortable asking for items they need or inquiring where things are located.  Anticipate this and ask them if there are things they need and then show them where those items are kept.  Make snacks available and encourage them to help themselves.  If you invite your exchange student to help you at mealtime they will learn where food items are in the panty and cabinets and soon will become comfortable helping themselves on their own.  Ask them to teach you how to make one of their favorite meals from home.  Drive them around your neighborhood and to places in your area that you go frequently so that things become familiar.  At school, take them around the building or campus and help them find their classes before school starts.  If possible, introduce them to teachers and/or other students they may see at school before their first day so they have familiar and friendly faces greeting them.  Understand that all the newness and complete immersion in English can be overwhelming and exhausting so try and space things out if you can.  Ask them if they are doing OK.  Remember to have some fun and relaxation while they are getting settled.

Gabriele and host siblings making bead crafts on Thanksgiving break

Have there been any tough moments of culture shock so far?  What’s happened and how are you dealing with it?

One moment of culture shock that we experienced was during back-to-school shopping with our two kids (high school and college aged) and our exchange student within days of his arrival.  Our exchange student was excited for his first trip to Walmart, which can be a culture shock even to those of us that live here!  Our family was eager to get him set up with essentials for a solid start at his new school and we arrived to find the shelves nearly overflowing with options.  Our student had arrived in the US with two spiral notebooks and some basic writing utensils.  This was actually more than I expected but not enough to get him through the first semester at American high school.  We pointed out the spiral notebooks, suggesting one for each subject was ideal.  We showed him binders and folders for staying organized – again suggesting one per subject – as well as the various types of writing utensils and other basic needs.  As we shopped, our own kids were casually filling the cart but I couldn’t get our exchange student to pick up anything.  He was very polite and said he was fine with what he had.  I worried that he was a bit overwhelmed.  Knowing that we couldn’t send him to school unprepared, I gave him two pieces of information that ended up changing the game.  First, I told him that our family’s approach to hosting was to treat him like one of our own.  We were buying school supplies for our own kids so of course we were buying his, too.  He was one of us now.  Second, I got out the currency converter on my phone and told him the price of the notebooks in Euros.  This was a currency he could relate to.  Almost immediately I saw relief wash over him.  He now understood that not only were the supplies inexpensive, but also that it was all taken care of.  He may have initially been overwhelmed by the options, but when we started suggesting so many items he had become more worried about his potential cost.  The culture shock tables were then turned on us as he shared the price of the notebooks he brought from home.  They were quite expensive by American standards.  Together we calculated that we could buy 21 notebooks at Walmart’s back-to-school sale for what he spent on one at home.  Simple communication saved the day!  And to my delight, he started adding things to the cart!

Black Friday shopping!

If you have children, will you encourage them to go on a cultural exchange program one day? Why do you think exchange programs are important?

Our youngest child is a high school junior who will spend his senior year at home.  It is too bad we didn’t expose ourselves to the goodness of a cultural exchange program earlier, otherwise, yes, we would have encouraged it!  Our college student is open to the idea of participating in a university exchange program, partially due to the great experience we’ve had with Greenheart and our exchange student.  I admire our exchange student’s family for letting him have this amazing experience abroad.  He is such a great young man and I can’t possibly imagine how much they miss him.  But exchange programs are important for many reasons, including seeing the perspective of others and how they live, and understanding how people in other parts of the world may be different but we all have something in common, too, and something valuable to contribute to society.  His family has already realized the benefits of the cultural exchange and has given him a great gift by providing him this opportunity.  Now we are learning the benefits, too.

At Christ of the Ozarks in Arkansas
With host family at Pentatonix concert!

Do you have any tips for welcoming exchange students and getting them acclimated to the USA?

We made a “Welcome to the US!” poster and the whole family came to the airport to greet our student at his arrival.  Our local coordinator also came and brought a small US flag for him.  It is important for your exchange student to know that you are excited for them.  At home, we personalized his room with some new bedding and a few small knick-knacks for the shelves that we thought he would like.  We knew he was into theater and acting, so we printed out some simple theater-related quotes in pretty fonts and colors and put them in frames on the wall.  Easily replaced if he wanted to change them later, but they made the room look less barren for his arrival.  Also, we coordinated with his parents beforehand and requested a few pictures of family and friends which we framed for his nightstand.  We provided a few treats and local food gift cards in his room as well as a supply of command strips for hanging up his own décor.  We tried to decorate enough to make the space warm, inviting and personal, but not so much that he couldn’t add anything of his own.  It doesn’t have to cost much to be thoughtful.  Within a few days of his arrival our older kids took him to the drive-in theater to see the new Barbie movie with some other friends who he would likely encounter at school.  It was nice that he was introduced to some other students before classes started.

Thanksgiving dinner with host mom’s family

For people who are considering hosting an exchange student, how would you describe the experience?  Any suggestions?

It’s amazing.  Hosting is an opportunity to give an exchange student an experience of American life and culture.  We have done so many American things such as go to a play and a concert, travel together, celebrate holidays, cook and bake in the kitchen and so much more.  But hosting is also an opportunity to learn about an exchange student’s culture.  What I didn’t expect is to gain so much.  We have learned so much about our student’s family, his culture, and his life back home.  We’ve found that the more we give of ourselves the more we receive back.  Being a host family has been a blessing and I would encourage anyone to experience it.

Thanksgiving day dinner with host family

What was the hardest thing about hosting an exchange student? Will you stay in touch with your exchange student?

It probably sounds a little cheesy, but I think the hardest thing will be saying goodbye when he returns home.  Our student has been delightful – fun, easygoing, up for anything – and it has been an absolute pleasure hosting him.  He has been a great fit with our family.  We will most definitely stay in touch.  Our family has a group chat where we often share silly pictures of our beloved cat, Milo.  We’ve promised to continue sending these even when he’s returned home.  I have already enjoyed having regular connections with his mom via WhatsApp.  We have their address for our Christmas card list.  Also, we have talked about maybe visiting his country in the next few years.  I have wanted to go there long before we ever hosted.  The way we see it now, hosting isn’t just a temporary relationship – it’s like gaining a new family member that just happens to live somewhere else in the world. 

Pentatonix concert

What was the best thing about hosting an exchange student?

I think one of the best things so far has been experiencing our student’s enthusiasm and desire to make the most of this exchange program.  I think it takes great bravery to leave your family at such a young age, travel to a place you have never been where there is no one you know, and take up residence and life experiences with people who you have never met.  And to commit to this for an entire school year!  I think with the encouragement of his family and the prior experiences of his sister who was also an exchange student, our student understands the positive impact that a program like this can have.  He says yes to everything from trying new foods to having new experiences to making new friends and more.  He has wholeheartedly embraced his opportunity and it is wonderful to see!

With host dad’s family at Christmas
Lunch at In-N-Out with host family

What country was your exchange student from?  Did they change your perceptions of that country?  If so, describe how.

Our exchange student is from Italy.  Italy is a place that I have wanted to visit for years, even before hosting.  I envision that the architecture and countryside are even more stunning in person than in pictures.  I perceive the people as being warm and friendly.  I have only personally known one other person from Italy and he fit with my expectation.  Our student and his family have all been wonderful to get to know and reinforce even more my positive perceptions of Italy.  Before his departure to the US, our student visited Rome and took pictures of the city for the purpose of sharing them with us.  How thoughtful!  Not to mention the pictures were lovely!  His mom helps us learn to make more authentic Italian food by making short videos at home of her cooking pasta dishes so we can duplicate the steps.  She cooks in Italian and our exchange student translates.  At Christmastime his family sent a lovely gift to us of chocolates and ornaments and knitted wool slippers that were handmade by our student’s grandmother.  So lovely!  I want to visit Italy even more now, not only to see the beautiful landscape but also to meet such kind and warm people.

Teaching host family to make carbonara
Thanksgiving day fun with host family

Tell us about your local coordinator who worked with you to get your exchange student. What interactions did you/your family and exchange student have with him/her through the school year?

Wilma has been wonderful.  She has been coordinating for a long time and it shows, since she is very good at what she does.  It is easy to tell that coordinating is not just a job for her, but a passion.  Wilma has checked in via phone on a monthly basis to catch up, see how things were going, and hear about our latest adventures.  She was incredibly responsive if I ever reached out to her with a question or need.  She organized the host family meeting before our student’s arrival where she provided a wealth of information and tips for a successful experience.  She is very supportive.  There is no need to worry when you have a great local coordinator like Wilma!

Enjoying AZ hike and sunset

Thank you, Jennifer and family for sharing your amazing hosting journey with us, and inspiring future host families! Thank you for creating so many wonderful memories for your family and Gabriele!

Greenheart Exchange has been a sponsor of the J-1 Exchange Visitor visa since 1985. In our first year, we helped seven Spanish students find host families and attend high school in the U.S. Now, we welcome hundreds of participants each year who live with American families and study in high schools all across America.

Are you interested in hosting an international high school student like Gabriele, and share the U.S. culture? Visit to learn more.