Mirjam McCormack came to Utah as an exchange student from Slovakia when she was 17.
A high school student at the time, McCormack missed her family, but said she had a unique experience with her foster family, who took her in, supported her through challenges and even supported her. helped to apply to university.
McCormack, who now lives in Stowe and has four children, has stayed in touch with her foster family all these years. “We always call them our Utah cousins when we visit them and the kids have a wonderful connection,” she wrote in an email.
This fall, McCormack looks forward to welcoming an international exchange student — Johannes, a 16-year-old high school student in Germany — into his home and family.
“Our children know my story and are very excited to meet another brave student who is willing to leave his own family to meet us and have a Vermont experience with us. They are thrilled to have a ‘new brother,'” said McCormack.
But the waiting list for students looking for host families is long, said Meghan Fahey, northeast coordinator for International Experience, one of several organizations that facilitate such exchanges in Vermont.
The lingering effects of Covid-19 lockdowns and the continued impact of the pandemic are straining the system, she said.
“We have a much larger number of students this year who have been put on hold, whose paperwork has been put on hold because of Covid, so we’re doubling, tripling,” Fahey said. “And some have been waiting for a year and a half or two years to come here.”
This year, International Experience has 80 students to place by August 31, with at least 10 specifically applying for the North East.
These include Anton, 14, from Spain, who is interested in golf, hiking, sailing and TV shows like ‘Friends’; Marie, a 14-year-old German girl who loves volleyball, cheerleading, pets, and wants to “experience real American life”; and Kaan, a 14-year-old Swiss man who enjoys cooking, drawing, swimming and whose father participated in the exchange program, according to biographies shared by Fahey.
“I hope this experience will change my life,” Kaan wrote in his biography.
Students usually come with their own health insurance and money for school and personal expenses. Organizations help facilitate formalities such as visas, travel, liability issues and provide other support.
Host families are not paid but have access to benefits – for example, their school-aged children are eligible for year-long immersion programs in Spain and Germany through International Experience, usually in the summer next,” Fahey said.
Like many other industries, exchange programs have been impacted during the pandemic when travel has stalled. Fahey said they had zero placements in 2019 and only two last year. Now, as more international students sign up to participate, Fahey said they are scrambling to find volunteer families to host them.
According to annual data provided by the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the number of exchange students fell in 2020 across New England, but appears to be rebounding since last year. In Vermont, 21 high school exchange students were placed in 2020 — a significant drop from the 96 students placed in 2019. But the number soared last year with 92 students placed statewide. No data is yet available for 2022.
At least three local placement agencies told VTDigger they were having trouble finding host families this year.
“It is correct that we are all in this struggling business these days. But finding loving close families is never easy,” said Milos Prokic, chief operating officer of International Student Exchange in New York, which placed 10 students in Vermont last year.
“Of course we would like it to be more because it’s a big state and I think kids who love skiing and winter sports and anything else who would love to hang out in Vermont,” he said. -he declares.
Asking someone to host a teenager for a semester or a year is always a difficult task, Prokic said. Add to that the concerns brought about by the pandemic – such as international travel, complex paperwork, inflation, financial hardship and the lack of salary incentives – and it’s no surprise that host families are rare this year.
Host families are largely volunteers who share their home and family life with an exchange student for five to 10 months (a semester or an academic year). They run the gamut from traditional and non-traditional families, empty parents, single parents, single people, same-sex couples or retirees. As long as the host family is willing to provide a loving home, spare or shared room with a similar age and gender host sibling, meals, and local transportation, they are welcome to apply.
“No family is too big or too small, too boring or too busy,” Fahey said. “I always like to emphasize that we are a relationship-oriented organization, because we believe that by creating these connections around the world, we can make the world a better place.”
Oscar, a 17-year-old exchange student from Germany last year, had a list of things he wanted to experience in the United States, like trying a root beer float. He wasn’t too fond of the tank, but he was able to check it off the list thanks to his foster family.
Deborah and Jan Denkmann of South Burlington, who just returned from a trip to Germany, said they loved having Oscar. “He seemed to fit in with us right away,” Deborah wrote via email. Their three children loved having a “big brother” and they miss him now that he is back in Germany, she says.
The returns are rich which is one of the reasons people fall in love with the program, Prokic said. The costs aren’t “zero”, but neither are they “huge” or “impossible”, he said, encouraging families to sign up.
“People have been doing this for years and the benefits are pretty much endless – your kids go visit these kids who come from overseas, your family gains another family member for life, all kinds of learning happening and the satisfaction of sharing cultures,” he said.
McCormack, from Stowe, still fondly recalls her experience as an exchange student.
“My Utah family was supportive the whole time and their home was always full of love and open to me,” she said. “I gained a family in the United States and although all my family is still in Europe, I don’t feel like a complete stranger in the United States because of them.”
Her family is looking forward to meeting Johannes, who she hopes will take up some of the many activities her children enjoy: soccer, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, skiing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, swimming and more. Again.
“We love children and we hope to add this one, at least as a friend, for life,” she said.
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