Jerry Gulley grew up in a small town in rural Tennessee. In high school, his best friend’s family decided to host an exchange student, Lisi from Austria in 1985. While Lisi and Jerry were only acquaintances as teenagers, Lisi had a profound impact on Gulley’s life, representing the world and all that existed beyond his rural upbringing.
Decades later, Jerry Gulley is a six-time AFS Host Parent and Volunteer. And the coolest part? Jerry and his husband have become host parents to Lisi’s son, Jacob (and Jacob’s brother!). International exchange comes full circle!
We interviewed Jerry about Lisi, his experiences with AFS, and the world-changing power of hosting international exchange students in our homes and communities.
Tell us about your journey with AFS
Well, I lived in rural Tennessee and did not have a very wide world view. Suddenly, there was this person who came from a different country. I thought, “Wow, there’s this thing called exchange students and she’s one of them.”
I don’t think she for a moment understood that she impacted my life. It really planted the seed of “this is a really cool thing that I honestly think can change the world.” Thirty years later when I moved to Wisconsin and started working from home, I thought, “I can finally do this [hosting]. I’m financially able and I have the time to do it. So, we did, and our host son was coincidentally from Austria. That made me think—wow I never reached out to Lisi since she went back to Austria thirty-five years ago. She wouldn’t have thought for a moment that she changed my life. We connected, and she started following my ventures with my three sons as I hosted. Then a year and a half ago, she asked if I would take her son Jacob, who just returned at the end of June. Now, Jacob’s younger brother Nick is our 6th student.
How did Lisi change your life?
I think it’s hard for young people today to understand what it was like thirty-five years ago when you didn’t have this kind of instant technological access to anything in the world. I remember distinctly when Lisi showed up thirty years ago her grandfather died, she didn’t find out until the letter arrived. You didn’t make long-distance phone calls to Europe then. This is a time where geographical isolation was a real thing, and I don’t know if it’s a real thing anymore, but it was a real thing to me.
The catalyst for me was: There is a lot more than what you can see in this life that you’ve had. I was seventeen and lived in the same town forever. I had left the state, but not in a dramatic way. I remember thinking, “Oh wow, there’s actually a lot of great stuff outside what I know.”
I notice in my son’s friends it still has the same impact.
How would you describe that impact?
My host son last year, Max, was from Germany. He became best friends with a boy who lives across the street. Last summer, they let their son spend a week with Max’s family in Germany—they would have never have let that happen. The idea of letting their son get on a plane by himself wouldn’t have been something in their realm, and yet because they knew Max, their son was able to have that experience.
I tell host families: You will never know the impact of what you’re doing. It is changing lives that you will never, ever know. It’s a ripple effect that you can’t quantify or measure or recognize. It’s organic and amazing.
Did you have any hesitations about being a host parent?
I probably wouldn’t have left Tennessee if I hadn’t met Lisi. A lot of times in my life since then, in my twenty-five-year work career, I’ve never had a job I was qualified for. Right now, I work in health technology and I had no formal training in either. I tend to approach things that way.
When we had our first son Lucas, we made oh so many mistakes. We went from having no children to being the parents of a 16 year old boy. But we learned from those each year. But then each year we make brand new mistakes. [laughs]
How did you find out about hosting the first time?
I wanted to do it so badly forever. I saw a Facebook ad about AFS looking for host families and talked to my husband about it. We didn’t even know our host son’s name and he showed up days later for 2nd arrivals.
How would you say your family was able to grow from these experiences hosting?
It’s the most amazing thing that ever could have happened. I have this global family! Yesterday, it was so strange, I had chats on Instagram with my incoming son Olle, then I had What’s App exchanges with his mother, then with Lisi, then our son Max in Germany, and then our son Jonas from Denmark called me urgently if he could come visit. It’s the weirdest thing! We text with Jonas’s family in Copenhagen every single day now. We created this family! These are my sons. There’s no way around it.
Do you have any advice for families hosting for the first time?
It’s cool to be scared. That shouldn’t be a reason to not do it. The experience is different for everybody. I’m so into it, I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t do it. Ten months flies by! You blink, and their time here is gone and yet the connection is lifelong.
What advice would you give to other LGBTQ+ people interested in hosting/volunteering with AFS?
If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community and you host, you will be interacting with other parents through school – like through team sports, or performing arts programs, etc – and you may be the first gay couple the other parents have met. I think that responsibility has to be taken seriously. We try to volunteer for EVERYTHING. If the swim team needs a pasta party, we host a pasta party. If the school needs someone to do mock interviews for the marketing club, I’m there. I know that we aren’t “on exchange” ourselves, but we are sharing our culture in similar ways.
Most of my advice would be the same that I give all families when I now conduct Host Family Orientations. I think it is risky to have very specific expectations. The process is as it is for any relationship…very organic. It’s beautiful. It’s messy. It’s terrifying. It’s eye-opening. It’s life.
Any couple without natural children should think about the fact their student will be “only children.” We’ve discovered over the years that we like hosting students who have several siblings at home. When they are with us, they have to grow and mature in new ways.
What has the hosting experience been like as two host dads?
Outside of getting legally married, I truly feel like hosting is the only thing I’ve ever done that really mattered. And selfishly, it’s given us so much. Being able to call these six amazing, beautiful, smart, funny, good-hearted young men my sons has been the greatest gift of my life.
The thing that has surprised us the most is the #AFSEffect. Very quickly, you see how your student is changing your life, but it takes longer to see the big picture. The lives of your extended families are changed forever. The lives of the American friends your student makes are changed forever. The lives of their teachers are changed forever. It is a ripple effect that has no end.
Why is cultural exchange important?
The only true way to learn is to experience. Nothing compares to actually being there. I know it sounds dorky, but I think it changes the world.
It’s the greatest thing ever, personally. And I wish everybody could feel that. It’s the coolest experience to watch their growth. It’s great for all Americans to look at America through the eyes of someone [from another country or culture].
Jerry’s story demonstrates the extensive impact of international exchange. We admire his dedication to our mission of creating peace through intercultural understanding. If you’re inspired to host a student of your own this fall, meet students coming to your area!
Send us an email at [email protected] to learn more about our LGBTQ+ community and inclusion initiatives at AFS-USA. And please consider giving towards our Pride Scholarship, which provides funds for openly-identifying and exemplary LGBTQ+ students to study abroad.