Hosting foreign exchange students

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Many families with teenagers are taking in foreign students as a way of broadening their horizons and looking at themselves through someone else's eyes. Two couples in the Los Angeles area whose own offspring have grown and left home are finding they still enjoy being hosts to exchange students.

Kim and Rosa Johnson of Altadena and Bob and Blanch Greenwood of La Crescenta have an almost continuous stream of foreign youths in their households.

As a conversation stopper, Rosa Johnson likes to say she has been "foster mother" to more than 300 students and young adults over the last 20 years. Some stay for only a few nights, but many stay for about a year.

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The exchange students come through various programs, including Youth for Understanding, International Experiment of Living, World Affairs, and American Host Teacher Program. The Johnsons are now hosting Ivette Abedrabbo, a high school girl from Ecuador, through the Youth for Understanding (YFU) program.

The Johnsons are retired, having sold their business a little over a year ago. "Mama Rosa," as Mrs. Johnson calls herself, says that hosting exchange students is good for older couples. "You never get too old to learn, and we learn from them," she explains. She has learned to cook many new foreign dishes and learned to speak Spanish from her Latin-American guests.

Kim Johnson enjoys having the exchange students just as much as Mrs. Johnson does. He takes the boys golfing and fishing, and they all travel together in a camper to see the sights of the West.

The Johnsons maintain that older couples have some advantages over younger host families: They often can afford it more easily, they have time to teach the students and take them places, and the youths can learn many things from seniors that they wouldn't get otherwise.

Not all foreign students are willing to stay with a family that has no teenagers, however. The Greenwood have solved this problem by taking the exchange students two at a time. They are now hosts to Montserrat Aragon of Spain and Rossana Spera of Uruguay, high school students here for a year under the YFU program. The girls are both Spanish-speaking and thus have much companionship, but force themselves to speak English in order to learn the language better.

The Greenwoods are far from retired. They both work, and Blanch Greenwood is a member of the Glendale School Board as well. So, Montserrat and Rossana are expected to help out with household chores.

Both the Johnsons and Greenwoods say that the foreign students should not be treated as guests in the home. They must become members of the family, do their share of the work, abide by the rules of the family, and accept friendly chiding and correction.

Both couples are volunteer workers in the YFU program and advise new host families. They caution them to be aware of the great cultural shock many foreign students will feel on arriving here. Even such mundane things as differences in plumbing systems can cause problems if not explained properly.

Families with children of their own at home must be sure that their offspring feel secure, so that they will not feel displaced by the attention and praise being heaped upon the newcomer.Having a foreign student in the home requires some sacrifices of each family member. Teenagers learn to be responsible for someone besides themselves, since they introduce their new "sister" or "brother" at school, provide companionship, and try to smooth the way, especially when the student first arrives.

Of course, hosting foreign students does bring rewards such as learning about the students' countries and cultures, says Mrs. Greenwood.

Another bonus for host families is that if they have the opportunity to travel abroad, they can visit in the homes of their "foster children." Bob and Blanch Greenwood traveled in South America for three weeks and stayed with families the majority of the time. They have been hosting YFU students for 10 years.

And, the Greenwoods' daughter was able to go to Brazil as an exchange student and live with the family of a girl who had stayed in the Greenwood home.

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