International education has always been an important part of my life: hosting international students, studying abroad, working with international students, somehow I have always found a way to surround myself with other cultures. I am very thankful that my family provided me with these opportunities. I also owe a lot of gratitude to my families overseas, the host’s who welcomed me into their homes and helped me on so many different levels, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.
My family started hosting students when I was young, in the late 1970’s. Growing up, we hosted students from South America, Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe. This exposure was the beginning of my curiosity for languages and cultures. In high school I spent a summer in Russia, my senior year in Germany and in college I studied in Italy. Hosting students, I didn’t always understand why they did things the way they did, but I knew there had to be more to the story than what I could see.
Living in a home with someone from another culture makes it possible to really understand the culture and the people-whether it is opening your home to a student or living in another home in another country. Not only do you learn about the culture through first hand experiences, there is so much more learning that happens without consciously being aware that you are learning. You absorb characteristics: a sense of open-mindedness, adaptability, flexibility, curiosity, appreciation. If you are good at being adaptable, you learn that setting smaller goals, having a sense of humor and making mistakes are o.k. It is humbling living in another culture, you learn a lot about yourself. You also become self-reliant, finding new and creative ways to make it through each day. I found myself with a tolerance for ambiguity, not understanding a language or knowing what each day or hour would bring always left me curious and flexible for surprises. I gained a deeper understanding of empathy and a non-judgmental approach to working with others. I also learned new means to communicate, not only using verbal languages, but reading body language, sometimes hand gestures, a wink or nod of the head, a smile, etc.
In 1988 at age 15 I had my first opportunity to travel abroad, to Russia (then the U.S.S.R). This was my first time removed from my comfort zone, traveling to a country with very different political structure: communism. I learned that many of our familiar comfort items were a rarity for the average person in Russia. Despite new and uncomfortable situations, I also had the opportunity to talk with Russian teenagers. I discovered that they were more similar to American teenagers than I ever could have imagined: the same fear of nuclear war and desire for peace between our countries. This experience left me curious about rising political issues, Gorbachev and Reagan’s relationship, perestroika, glasnost, and how our countries interact. Most importantly, I became more open minded about Russians, the general population, their ideas and opinions vs. our pre-conceived perceptions of them.
As a senior in high school I studied in Seligenstadt, Germany (former West Germany), August 1989-June 1990, the year of German reunification. Here I learned that history and politics could literally change before my eyes. Having been born in the 1970’s I had only known the country to exist as two separate countries (East and West Germany). I lived with a host family at the time and I never would have understood all the details without their help. My German was weak, it took me at least 3 months to just understand basic conversation, then another 3 months to express what I wanted to say. Without my host’s patience, kindness, sense of humor and compassion, I would have been lost. I owe so much to a wonderful family who was caring enough to welcome me into their home.
I also learned so much about myself while studying in Germany. It wasn’t always fun, actually it wasn’t a lot of fun, but I learned a lot. Despite not being able to speak any German, I attended an academic high school (Gymnasium), but couldn’t understand any classes, teachers or assignments. I had been a good student in America, but in Germany I flunked nearly every class. But I am confident I learned more about getting through tough situations than I ever would have in any American classroom. I wouldn’t trade the year abroad for anything. It matured me and toughened me up, made me who I am: flexible, understanding, compassionate, open-minded, self-reliant, motivated and adaptable.
I owe so much to my host families, they supported me through all my struggles, even those I wasn’t aware of. We established a tight bond, a different kind of bond than I have with my own family. A lot of times we don’t recognize an appreciation for these experiences until we are older. As an adult I extend a sincere thank you to anyone willing to invite someone from another country into their home. There were many memories made by just experiencing whatever came my way in day to day life living with a host family. I learned to be adaptable and enjoy the surprises. Somehow they always made sense when the day was over.
Over the years I have returned to Germany with my own family. My host family bond continues to a new generation. With each visit, it is the small everyday experiences that make a lasting impression: eating chocolate and ice cream, gardening and baking together, gathering eggs from the neighbors, grocery shopping. It’s the little things that create memories that last a lifetime.
Last spring we visited again, my sons are now teenagers. My host mom baked a rhubarb cake with fresh rhubarb from their garden with my son, Simon-because he likes to bake desserts. My older son, Rudi, is interested in autos and racing. My host father was able to connect him with the Hockenheimer Ring, a famous race track, just a short drive away. And Simon loves to sail-my host family connected Simon with the neighbor who is the president of the local yacht club. He got a tour of the club, connected with the local youths in the sailing community and an open invitation to sail when he returns to Germany. It is so wonderful when these personal connections are made, extending relationships in international education to a new generation.
I want to extend my appreciation to all the hosts who open their home to international students and to the students who are brave enough to study in another country. You make such a difference in the world.