By Eva Bugnaski
Jeanie Gould-McElhone and her parents waited at the airport with visible excitement. Bill McElhone and Leona Gould stood in front of both gate exits, unsure of which Paula, their foreign exchange student, would enter from. They both gripped signs, anxious to display them, while Jeanie ran from exit to exit, awaiting Paula’s appearance.
Jeanie Gould-McElhone and her family prepared for the nail-biting moment of meeting their year-long addition to the family, Paula Montoro from Spain.
The Gould-McElhones are only one family of the 1.1 million estimated to be involved in hosting foreign exchange students, as shown in a study by Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova. Their home in Kalamazoo Michigan was completely prepared.
This was not the family’s first time hosting a foreign student. Mizuka Fuji visited from Japan in 2015, which Jeanie described as quite a change, given the drastic differences between Japan and the United States. Mizuka’s transition was slightly rocky as she attempted to adapt.
“The cultural difference between Japan and the United States is crazy,” Jeanie explained. “School is really different.”
However, despite the immense shift for Mizuka, she seemed to enjoy her experience in the United States, attending prom and participating in other school activities. The thrilling time as a host family inspired the Gould-McElhones to invite another foreign exchange student into their home.
Paula Montoro now attends Norrix along with her host sister Jeanie Gould-McElhone. She follows a typical high school schedule and became comfortable in her new environment quickly. Jeanie described her and Paula’s relationship as “really good,” and feels as if they have become close over the course of their time together. Though Jeanie’s first experience hosting Mizuka as a foreign exchange student was valuable, the smaller age gap between her and Paula allowed for their easy formation of friendship.
Due to Jeanie’s usual position as the only teen in the house, she welcomed having someone her age around.
“Being an only child, it’s nice to have a sister for a year,” said Jeanie.
The foreign exchange program has allowed Jeanie to grow her knowledge about life in Spain. She explained that it is interesting to learn about how the other country functions.
Paula has also absorbed an incredible amount of information during her time in the United States. She feels comfortable with her host family. Although her first couple of days in Kalamazoo were certainly an adjustment, she has found her place in the rhythm of everyday life at Norrix.
Paula explained, “The first week was the hardest one but after two days people were really nice to me, and I feel really good here.”
Paula claimed that everyone she met was very welcoming, and that she is especially grateful for what the Gould-McElhones have done to make her comfortable. On her first morning in Kalamazoo, Paula remembers going out with Leona Gould to see the city. She recalls feeling very appreciative for this experience, after being unsure of her ability to adapt to life in Michigan.
Additionally she has learned so much about the character of individuals in the United States. Paula explained that as she was meeting girls her age, they reacted very positively, despite her expectations for their behavior.
“I like that girls here support each other in a lot of ways. They are always complimenting each other,” Paula said with a smile.
Paula’s experience is not rare. Calvert Jones, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Maryland, claimed that 96 percent of foreign exchange students report an increase in self confidence. The welcoming attitudes at school have left Paula feeling appreciated.
For both Jeanie and Paula, the foreign exchange experience has brought about not only knowledge but also friendship. Jeanie has learned so much from her time with Mizuka and Paula.
Jeanie said, “It’s really nice to host somebody, welcome them to America, and to teach each other about our cultures.”
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