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The hunt is on for host families

Hosting a foreign exchange student improves global understanding, but fewer families are volunteering because of the poor economy.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 2008

Global connections: Clockwise from top: Foreign exchange students take part of all the activities of their US host family. The Sattler family of Wisconsin introduces a Chinese student to fishing. Emi

Courtesy of The Center for Cultural Exchange

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August always ranks as the busiest month for Lori Tibbett. As director of placement services for the Center for Cultural Interchange in Chicago, she and a network of volunteers face a looming deadline: finding host families for nearly 1,000 foreign exchange students by the end of the month. The task is never easy, but this year presents an added challenge.

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"People are worried about the economy, even if it hasn't affected them directly," says Ms. Tibbett, who still needs 150 hosts. "Some say, 'I'm not sure about my husband's job,' or 'It's going to cost more for gas and food.' "

Despite these concerns among potential hosts, more high school exchange students are coming to the United States than ever before, says John Doty, president of Pacific Intercultural Exchange in San Diego. At the same time, exchange programs are undergoing changes. They're drawing students from more countries and enlisting hosts from a wider range of family types. Hosts now include single people, single-parent families, and retired couples.

Retired people offer the advantage of having time to devote to a student, Mr. Doty says. "Students from Asian countries are more respectful of older people. They may live with a grandparent at home, so living with a retired couple here is not a big step for them."

One first-time host is Selena Rankin, a single parent in Boston. On Aug. 25 she and her 13-year-old daughter, Kenya, will go to Logan Airport to welcome a 16-year-old girl from China who is coming under the auspices of the Center for Cultural Interchange.

"My daughter took up Chinese cultural studies in school last year," Ms. Rankin says. "She suggested having someone come. I went online and looked up programs."

To prepare, mother and daughter have readied a spare room. Kenya bought a gift to welcome her and has learned to cook Chinese dumplings, egg rolls, and noodles.

"We're thrilled to embark on this," Rankin says.

Other families volunteer year after year. Mike and Kathleen Hindman of Watauga, Texas, parents of seven grown daughters, are awaiting the arrival of their sixth exchange student. All have been girls from North Vietnam.

"We started hosting about the time our girls started college," Mr. Hindman says. "I had the empty-nest syndrome. It's a wonderful experience for us. I never felt they were visitors. They were our new kids. We stay in touch with all of them."