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How Taking in a Foreign Exchange Student Helped My Family Learn to Love Better

  • Jacopo
  • Foreign Exchange Student

Ah, snowy mid-March in Minnesota. It’s a season that may make some of us wish to be anywhere but here. As you dream of warmer climes, or return from exotic spring-break locales, we invite you to enjoy this reflection from one of our learning coaches on what it means to bring the world into your home. Hosting a foreign exchange student might be just the breath of fresh air your family needs.

Our little family is six months into living with an extra teen in the house. You might think it was our graciousness that led us to answer the all-call posted on the Minnetonka high school Facebook parents page: could somebody please host an Italian exchange student whose original family had backed out? Just six weeks” —the post reeled us in— “You don’t have to do anything but make sure your temporary exchange student gets to and from school and has access to food” was the gist of it.

His name was Jacopo. Seventeen years old, an only child, Catholic, handsome, and academic. That’s all we knew. I told my husband and sophomore son that this was the time to do our part. That as Christians we open our home to people in tight spots.

The truth was, however, the request came the very same week we were shipping off my first-born daughter to college in Michigan. What was I going to do without my 18-year old’s smile, her laugh, and all her drama? Even running my own business, being involved in philanthropy, heading up a school prayer group, and barely surviving my daily Crossfit workouts did not take the place of real parenting.

As we Uber-Moms tend to do in the West Metro: when in doubt, add another activity! Offer to help plan that banquet! Chaperone the “half-day” field trip to ValleyFair! Host a foreign exchange student…why not?

And so, I prepared to take in another kid. With forty-eight hours and a couple hundred bucks, I turned the old guest bedroom into a dorm-style setup. Bright plastic milk crates for storage, fresh paint on the walls, and heavily-discounted bedding from Target did wonders. It was nearing midnight when I finished, preparing for the impending chaos of another teenager.

Except instead of adding to the thrilled frenzy of my overbooked days, Jacopo brought an unexpected calm and balance to our family life.

As it turns out, Jacopo is far ahead of most American teens, as far as life-skills are concerned. He does his own laundry, and irons a collared shirt for special occasions. He cleans his room and the bathroom. He loads and unloads the dishwasher without complaint. And my own 15-year old son quickly picked up on the new expectations, and his assistance with routine household tasks has improved significantly without me needing to nag. Imagine that. Meanwhile, my husband dubs our much-cleaner house—and spotless kitchen—“the Jacopo effect”.

Jacopo’s day looks so much different from what I’m used to seeing from typical American teens. He comes home at 3:05pm, and after saying a cheery hello and debriefing about the school day, plows straight through homework until 6:45pm, when we typically eat dinner. He does not check his phone, turn on Netflix, check Facebook, or visit with friends. Jacopo is always done with homework by 8pm, and enjoys visiting with us for an hour. He wants to discuss the events of the day, including politics or sports or religion. Those aren’t thirty-second topics. He doesn’t see the value in rushing off to a sports practice and cutting dinnertime short.

Jacopo has straight A’s. Never seen that before in our house, but the lack-of-distracted studying certainly helps. He also isn’t afraid of asking for help from his teachers. He doesn’t appear to be frustrated by a new or difficult concept; rather, he says “I just haven’t learned that yet.” He seems to know instinctively what we at Yellow Parachute have been learning slowly over the years, working against our own perfectionist tendencies to build a model of education that is holistic, empathetic, and process-oriented: that a fall is not a failure, that it’s the effort that counts, the willingness to try again, to stick with it.

Jacopo does school very very well, and beyond that, his monthly calendar might include one sleepover and a movie. He enjoys spending an hour on the weekends cooking up a meal. That’s it. Jacopo is content, says he’s not homesick, and finds enjoyment in daily life without being scheduled from morning to night. He’s made 2-3 good friends and is fine with that.

I took Jacopo into our family because I was terrified by the hole left when we shipped my eldest off to college. I needed to do more mothering to affirm my self-worth. Yet Jacopo’s self-sufficiency and maturity instead brought me the opposite: balance, self-confidence, and an appreciation for slowing down.

Jacopo tells me repeatedly that I do too much, and that Italian mothers don’t do nearly as much. I’d like to chalk that up to WINNING, until he tells me how happy his mother is, how relaxed she is, and how much fun she is to be around. Case in point: when we got that freak snowstorm in January, my husband was out of town, so I promptly got out the shovels and went to work on the driveway. Jacopo told me in no uncertain terms that Italian women would never shovel a driveway, in the dark or with 25 mph crosswinds hampering our efforts. Now I pride myself on my rugged independence and Midwestern work-ethic, but his point was clear. And my back was sore the next day.

What started out as a six-week experiment has turned into a 9-month stint as host parents.  Jacopo is staying with us until June 10th. He didn’t want to leave his “temporary host family,” and we realized our lives were enhanced by his presence, not to mention his authentic spaghetti sauce! We are beyond blessed to nurture this young man.

As a family, we’ve learned to better balance our needs with one another. I don’t feel any less efficient but I do feel more calm. We’ve learned to wait until the weekend to do our “Target Run”: once a week is more efficient than stopping in every other day for a handful of items. We’ve learned to slow down and make time for dinner together at least four nights a week. We’ve learned to discuss our experiences after they take place. Jacopo wants to debrief everything: what it means to watch our son swim on a high school state championship team, the effect of a powerful faith story at church, or his impressions of a student walkout at the high school. My sophomore son has benefited greatly from those conversations and seems to have gained perspective—and control—over his life at school.

Perspective. Compromise. And a greater capacity to love. It all started with saying “yes” to hosting a foreign exchange student.

- Brenda Alberts, Yellow Parachute Learning Coach

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Sunday, 05 April 2020