Today, she still speaks to Lulu at least once a week. In fact, Emily and her family are planning to reunite with Lulu this December in Italy. Even after an exchange year is complete, the #AFSEffect continues!
How did you find out about AFS?
I grew up in Canada and we didn’t have the AFS program there, but I always liked the idea of being a host student. When I moved to Florida, my husband’s aunt had been hosting AFS students. She adores AFS. We had met a couple of her students and it was very interesting to me especially because I wanted to do it when I was in high school.
Why did you decide to host an exchange student?
I was interested in being a student as a kid, but I wanted to do something from the hosting side of it. My husband is in the military, so we travel a lot. I had two kids at that point and I really wanted to expose them to a different culture. I don’t quite know what came over me! I had a lot on my plate, but it felt like something I just wanted to do.
What were your expectations when you decided to host a student? What were you hoping to gain from the experience?
I didn’t think of anything off the bat, but after meeting Lulu I think I just wanted to provide an intercultural experience for someone. That was a big deal for me. I always dreamed of having a big family and providing them with all that experience and maintaining the relationship for the rest of our lives. I certainly didn’t know what to expect!
Were there any hesitations when you signed up to be a host parent?
My husband was deploying once a year. I was nervous about having two kids under the age of three, also working, and then hosting an exchange student. I didn’t know how I would be able to juggle all of that. We were completely at ease once we met Lulu.
Now, after I’ve been through the experience, its not just your family that it impacts, it has a bigger impact on your family, your extended family, your community, as you guys say, the #AFSEffect, which is so relevant. It’s a ripple effect to the larger community.
How do you think hosting Lulu created a ripple effect in your community?
It was amazing to see how she was embraced by my family and my community. Her birthday was on the family calendar, her school events—both sides of the family really embraced her and sent gifts and attended her extra curriculars.
I remember prom, for example. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go and then Thursday morning she decided she wanted to. The prom was Saturday. And I thought, “Oh god, where are we going to get a dress?” So, I reached out to my Facebook and said “Tampa friends! What do we do?” and the whole community came together with ideas and stores to go to. Everyone stepped in and helped.
What surprised you about the hosting experience? Were you surprised by what you gained in the end?
Yes. I did not expect to get as close to Lulu as I got. We had a set date when she would be leaving, I knew it from the get-go, but I did not realize how much her leaving would impact me. It was one of the hardest things. She was in our lives for nine months and we got so close, she’s like a daughter and friend. The closeness was totally unexpected. How appreciated she was and how easily she fit into our family and how enjoyable she was. The whole thing was amazing.
Can you describe some of the fun memories you made with Lulu during her exchange?
Yes, we took two trips! One was to Canada because I have family up there. It was a “me and her” trip which was super cool. She got to meet my extended family. I took her to NYC which was on her bucket list. I took her to Times Square and she absolutely fell in love with NYC. The little things as well—anything I could expose her to, we did, because we’re a family that loves to do that kind of stuff.
Did you guys have any little family traditions? What was your day to day?
Lulu would always be doing her homework while I made dinner, which was very comforting. She would talk to me about her day. In the evenings we would try to do something special like a board game or watching one of our favorite shows together. She and my husband loved to watch a show called The One Hundred, and then we would watch comedies. She would help me with the kids. I would drop her off to school every morning and it was the same thing, “Ciao, Emily!”
Can you tell us about the reunion your family had with Lulu in Italy?
Shauna, Nick’s mother, had never left the country so one of the first countries she chose to go to was Italy, to see Lulu. They got to hang for a couple days and were so happy to see each other. It was amazing for Lulu to play translator between her family and them.
Also, our aunt and uncles went to visit. I know for sure that they saw Lulu completely in her element. Instead of playing the follower role, she was the leader. “Okay, lets go this way. This restaurant is good, I’ve been here.” It was cool for them to see that.
How did Lulu blend in with your other two kids?
I was nervous that they wouldn’t get along. But Lulu had a younger brother as well, so she really bonded with them. She taught them to count to 10 in Italian and taught them little Italian words. She loved them, and they really loved her. There were no bumps in the road there, which made me feel really blessed.
Why do you think people should host exchange students?
It was such an amazing experience for us personally. We have made a lifelong relationship with someone we care about very much. We’ve made an impact on her life but in return she made a huge impact on ours. She’s part of our lives forever. It opens you up to totally different cultures and ways of thinking. I loved that. I loved embracing that. It’s great if you have other kids and they can embrace that as well. The vast majority of people would not regret hosting an exchange student.
Any advice for host families?
Understand that mostly the experience is about them, not about you. It’s not about them fitting around you, it’s you fitting around them. You’re hosting. Focus on that word. Sometimes its not seamless or the easiest. I mean, for us it was [laughs]. It’s them stepping into your life, you should work around them. Be patient and understanding. Her family embraced us, and we embraced them. It was really wonderful.
Why do you think intercultural exchange is important?
Exposing and embracing different cultures is so important. For Lulu, it meant the world to her. Its something her parents wanted for her and she worked hard to do that. She worked a ton on her English and got her independence and found out more about herself. We will definitely be hosting again down the road when our kids get a little older!