Sheri is a shining example of a global citizen with an enthusiasm for intercultural exchange. A study abroad student herself, she made it a point to leave her small town and fuel her passion for attaining fluency in Spanish. Now as a parent, she aims to create a multicultural home where her children can welcome and celebrate differences. And, as a bilingual educator and academic, she sees, studies, and embodies the lifelong benefits of international exchange and full immersion language-learning.
Read all of Sheri’s insights on the impacts of studying abroad and hosting exchange students below.
Please tell us about how you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, or any other aspect that you would like to share.
My husband is Latino, from the Dominican Republic, and I’m black. I’m from Oklahoma. Our culture in our home is a mix of Latin America and the U.S. In our house, we have food and music from both cultural traditions.
How did you find out about hosting exchange students the first time?
I grew up in a really small town; the population was 1,200. Our neighbor hosted students and it was like “wow!” The town wasn’t really diverse. You were black, white, and native American or you were a mix of all three. My neighbor hosted a student from China and Spain, so that really was my first experience with international students.
What first inspired your family to host an exchange student?
Because I was from such a small town, I always had a desire to learn about other people from different places, so when I got to college, I had the opportunity to study abroad myself. And so, I studied around and went to Mexico and lived with a host family there. So, I got the experience of what it was like to be a student living with a host family and getting firsthand experience of learning the culture and listening to the music, everything. I ended up studying abroad a few more times in Venezuela and then the Dominican Republic, and I always lived with a host family. So [what inspired me to host] would be a mix of those experiences I had as a study abroad student myself, along with my initial [experience of exchange] through my neighbor.
What were your study abroad experiences like?
My very first one started when I went to the University of Oklahoma and I was working at a daycare part-time. One of the kids in my class was adopted from Paraguay and they were into international education. His mom worked at the study abroad office at the university and my major was Spanish, so I wanted to become fluent. She helped me get a travel scholarship for Mexico. I wanted to learn more and more about other countries and I never stopped!
That’s why we’ve hosted students from Spanish-speaking countries, because my husband is from the Dominican Republic and that’s where I met him, on one of my study abroad trips. And I actually went back to the Dominican Republic, lived there for almost 2 years, and taught English as a foreign language and 2nd grade at an elementary school.
Being a host parent allows me to give back and give students from other countries the opportunity to have some of the experiences that I had personally.
Was the journey of hosting an exchange student what you expected? Why or why not? What surprised you?
I was surprised, yes. Our first exchange student was a boy from Argentina named Nacho because our son always wanted a big brother. Nacho was a huge basketball fan so we thought he would be a good fit for our son. We have a great relationship with him now and talk to him often, but I wasn’t expecting the homesickness that he experienced. That was a bit of a challenge.
There were also differences in culture. In Argentina, they’re very social and kids stay out all night long with friends, and where we live there’s not a whole lot of that… It was a lot for him to get used to. That was a challenge we weren’t expecting.
How did you overcome those challenges?
With time! He did have a lot of support from his basketball coaches and from the community and AFS liaisons, and once he finally was able to get into basketball and meet people on the team, that made things better from him.
How was the first hosting experience different from the second?
It’s completely different. The student I have now, Martina, is so mature. She’s the oldest out of her two younger sisters who is the exact same age as my son, so she’s always been the nurturer and caretaker for her sisters since both of her parents are doctors and work a lot. Martina has not had any adjustment issues. She got here and made friends on the first day. She’s been open-minded and isn’t afraid to try anything.
It’s been interesting to learn about Argentina because we have the perspective of one student and then we have the perspective of another student. It’s just so different, their views of their country. We’ve learned a lot from both of them.
What do you enjoy about hosting? How has hosting impacted your family?
We just learn so much. With Nacho, I never realized the history of how Jews came to Argentina because his [ancestors] had left Poland because of the war and settled in Argentina. With Martina, her great-great-grandfather came from Syria and settled in Argentina. It’s interesting to learn the history of the country, the climate, the people, how different it is from the north to the south. My son who is twelve has had a really good experience having an older sister. My twin girls are almost four and they’re loving having a big sister. A lot of learning and opening our minds to things we didn’t really know or think about.
Through your experiences of hosting exchange students, did questions about race ever come up? If so, how did your family navigate them?
Martina said she was looking forward to the diversity of the U.S. because where she’s from in Argentina, you rarely see a black person. I wouldn’t say it came up as anything negative, it was just curiosity and wanting to learn more. With Martina, she said in the school that she was in, their history teacher told them that they were going to have the opportunity to suggest something they wanted to learn. So she said that they suggested they learn about civil rights in the U.S. like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and the class voted as a whole. So, we took a road trip to Florida and stopped in Mississippi and stopped in Alabama so she could see the USS Alabama and the other things and statues from the civil rights era. It was something Nacho and Martina were both interested in.
What advice would you give to someone who’s considering hosting for the first time?
For anybody who might be interested in hosting, it’s a great opportunity to learn about people and a culture firsthand. It’s also an opportunity to give your own children a sense of the world. It helps to understand that differences aren’t a bad thing, they add to the greatness we all have. It’s not taking anything away from anybody; it’s additive. If you’re thinking about it, just go for it. I think you’ll grow as a person. I hate to be like Nike but, just do it! [laughs]
I think a lot of times, people are just afraid of the unknown. To host a kid is a big responsibility, and a lot of people may think hosting a kid will be a big burden on our finances because they will be feeding and housing another person, but for me, I’ve learned to make big meals like chicken and dumplings or soup or spaghetti. For people who think finances get in the way, it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s not a big difference, if that’s something that’s holding people back.
Why is cultural exchange important?
It gives us all a chance to learn and grow from each other because you can read in a book all day or get on the internet all day but experiencing it firsthand is more meaningful. I go back to my own kids and trying to make them open-minded. It also helps when working with people who are different from you.
Since you also studied abroad, why is that important from an exchange student’s perspective?
I feel like each of us is blessed with a talent, and once you discover what it is, you have to do whatever you need to do to practice and make it better. So, for me, my talent was language and I always loved Spanish. But if you’ve only taken Spanish foreign language in high school, you’re not going to really learn to speak Spanish well.
For me, I wanted to be fluent and I wasn’t getting it here in the U.S. So I had the opportunity to go abroad and live with a family. As an exchange student, I spent hours with my host mothers just talking and practicing and making mistakes and listening for how they would say it correctly and learn by that [full immersion].
I’m actually working on my dissertation for my Ed.D. in Educational Leadership at Texas A&M University-Commerce, which is about this specific thing in learning a language. Because that is the goals a lot of students have—learning a language by living in the environment where that language is spoken. I’m doing research on host families and how much they contribute to a student learning the language and integrating into American culture and society. It’s a burning passion of mine! When I began this degree almost 10 years ago, my career goal was to be the Director of a University Study Abroad Office/Office of International Relations.
I also studied abroad because I wanted to see how different people live. Every time I went somewhere, I was looking for a new experience. I was personally enriched by studying abroad and I am grateful to those experiences because they are part of why I have the job that I have now, the Director of Bilingual and ESL for our school district. Without those experiences, I wouldn’t be in my current career position.
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Hosting an exchange student is a transformative experience for host families and exchange students alike. We challenge you to be as passionate, curious, and open-hearted as Sheri as you discover new cultures, whether through hosting or studying abroad.
In case you missed our other recent posts for Black History Month, check out our Interview with AFS Alumna, Amanda Sawyer (U.S. to Spain, 2018-19) and our Advice & Resources for Black Students Abroad that our Students of Color Exchange group created and compiled.
If you would like personalized advice or have any experiences you would like to share with us, reach out to us in the Students of Color Exchange group at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you.