Host an international exchange student, grow your own world

By Julienne Gage

The 2015 Gaskin family Christmas photo with host brother Ian Gaskin, FLEX student Luliia Kim of Kyrgyzstan, Chinese exchange student Ke Wang., host parents Russ and Bernadette Gaskin and host sister Isabel Gaskin.

Living with a host family in a foreign country can greatly expand a teenager’s horizons, but what are some of the benefits to the host family?

Washington, DC resident Isabel Gaskin, 17, a three-time host sister of World Learning exchange students, says hosting students from around the world has drastically shaped her own coming of age process, and given her the confidence and boldness to go out and explore the world herself.

“It has definitely shaped my whole high school experience, especially since we hosted girls who were similar to my age,” said the high school junior.

In 2011, Isabel participated in a two-week exchange in which she and her family hosted a seventh-grade exchange student from the city of Bilbao in Spain’s Basque Country. A month later, her exchange student hosted her for two weeks in Bilbao. In 2012, she enrolled in Washington, DC’s prestigious School Without Walls, a competitive magnet school that considers the nation’s capital its classroom. The school encouraged students to talk to their parents about hosting exchange students through the U.S. Department of State’s Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX), managed in-part by World Learning, which provides scholarships for Eurasian high school students to live with an American family for one academic year.

Having enjoyed her short-term exchange experience a few years earlier, Isabel convinced her parents it was worth the longer-term investment.

The Gaskin’s first World Learning exchange student was Bayan Akhmet, a 16-year-old FLEX student from Kazakhstan.

“She was three years older than me and I had never had an older sibling, so it was like having a new role model in my life, one who was ready to travel,” Isabel said.

Bayan gave Isabel a clearer sense of what teenage independence could look like. By the time Ukrainian exchange student Yuliya Hundyak arrived a year later, Isabel was ready for a travel buddy. Together they set out on trips to see family in New York and San Francisco.

“It was fun exploring the city by ourselves,” said Isabel.

Isabel and the Gaskin family’s latest exchange student, Iuliia Kim from Kyrgyzstan, have made it their mission to try new things from travel and foreign language learning to cooking and playing sports.

FLEX student Iuliia Kim heads out for a Washington-based homecoming dance with friend Kennedy Elmore and host sister Isabel Gaskin

“We’ve gotten super close over this year, especially since I’ve had a lot more experience living with exchange students. I’ve tried to introduce her to American culture more. We play tennis even though we’re both horrible at it. We both dance, even though I’m not as a great a dancer as she is,” Isabel said with a self-assured tone.

The duo are particularly proud of their efforts to become multilingual. In addition to English, Isabel, an American of Filipina descent, speaks fluent Spanish, some of her ancestral Tagalog, and studies Madarin Chinese. Iuliia, whose ancestors hail from Korea, speaks Russian and a bit of her regional tongue Kyrgyz, and she’s currently perfecting her English. They talk often about their multifaceted identities and try to teach each other words and phrases in each of these languages.

“If we’re out in public and we hear someone speaking one of these languages, we go up and try to practice the language with them,” said Isabel. “We don’t know how people will react, and I would never do that if I were by myself, but it’s fun to try and get to know new people [together]. It makes us more confident.”

It’s part of a philosophy both teens have learned as exchange students. Iuliia didn’t know much about her host family before boarding a plane to America, so there wasn’t a lot of warm-up time before her arrival at the Gaskin’s.

“You just have to be open and take the initiative to get together with people,” said Iuliia, adding that she quickly learned it wasn’t just up to the family members to draw her out. “You need to take steps too,” she said.

Isabel’s mother Bernadette is thrilled with the girls’ positive adolescent development.

Thanksgiving with friends, including FLEX student Iuliia Kim.

“They’ll go look on the computer and then bake something they’ve never tried before,” she said. “My daughter really enjoys having the students. They’re really best friends.”

And not only do the Gaskins reap the benefits of new exotic dishes, they also gain a greater understanding of the world’s many cultures and foreign policy. With Bayan, they learned how ethnic groups like the Kazakh people maintained their language and tradition under the Soviet Union, and continue to promote it today under Russian influence. With Iuliia, they learned not only about the traditions of Kyrgyzstan, but of its large community of people of Korean descent whose relatives migrated there before North and South Korea separated. Meanwhile, Yuliya showed them art and elaborate costumes from Ukraine, and the family bonded with her/comforted her during Russia’s 2014 invasion of the country.

“We had more concern about what had happened over there because the student living with us was worried about what was going on back home,” said Bernadette.

Gaskin siblings Ian and Isabel share a meal with their mother Bernadette, their friend Kennedy Elmore and their exchange siblings Ke Wang and Iuliia Kim.

Hosting World Learning’s long-term exchange students was such a good experience that this year the Gaskins decided to take in a Chinese student through another program sponsored by their son Ian’s junior high school.

Meanwhile, Isabel is preparing for a trip to that student’s mother country. She spent two weeks in Beijing last year on a short-term exchange through the AFS China Scholarship. Now she has been selected for the U.S. Department of State’s prestigious National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) and she will spend a gap year studying in Beijing. This is one of the Department of State’s fully funded reciprocal exchanges for American high school students, designed to bring knowledge of critical languages to students 15–18 years old.

“Definitely the fact that I’ve been part of a host family will help me because I’ll be living with a host family,” said Isabel. “It’s just one of the most important parts of getting to know a country and a culture, so the fact that I’ve been able to bond with all these students will help me to bond and have a better connection with my host family in China.”

“It’s been a great experience for us,” reflected Bernadette. “That’s what I would tell another family. People always say ‘oh it’s a lot of work; oh you have to feed them.’ They’re always thinking of the costs and not the benefits,” she said. “But I tell them, ‘you know what? It hasn’t really been hard work. I mean, we have our own kids, we feed them so what’s one more? For us it has been an enriching experience.’”

World Learning is grateful to the Gaskins and all host families who open their hearts and homes to these young leaders. We are currently looking for families to host 2016–17 students. All types of families (individuals, retirees, parents without children, etc.) are encouraged to apply. To learn more about eligibility for hosting and to meet our available students, visit our blog http://ltyeworldlearning.tumblr.com/.

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