Family All Over the World

Photo: Spanish Exchange Students in DC, by Jacki Dyrholm

Lifelong bonds are formed with international students during exchange program

By Analiese Kreutzer 

Kirbie Lapins and her husband Melvin Griffin became first-time parents this year—sort of—when they hosted an international exchange student from Germany named Ilja. “We were supposed to be helping him, but the reality is that we could never repay what he has given us,” Lapins said. “Having Ilja here turned us from a couple to a family, completely changed our perspectives and some of our goals, and taught us a lot about ourselves.”

Lapins learned about the hosting opportunity at United Studies, a nonprofit that sponsors some of the exchange programs in the county, from a Fauquier County community Facebook post, and she immediately became interested. “I had been an exchange student myself, but I was unsure if we qualified to be host parents,” she said. Lapins and Griffin were not yet married at the time and are in their 20s, but they contacted their local coordinator and learned that anyone can apply to be a host. 

Jacki and Peter Dyrholm became hosts when Jacki saw a similar post in 2013. Her family chose a girl named Mayu from Japan. Dyrholm’s eight-year-old daughter Emma was very interested in Japanese culture at the time. “I thought, we probably would never get to travel to Japan, but wouldn’t it be cool to bring Japan to us for a year,” said Dyrholm, who now works as the admissions and marketing director for United Studies.

Exchange programs give students the opportunity to experience life in the United States while living with an American family and attending high school. In the United Studies program, most students spend a full school year with their host family, arriving in August and leaving in June. The students all are between 15 and 18 years old. Regardless of their age, they attend high school as seniors so they can participate in prom and graduation, even though they are not actually graduating. The students hone their English language skills and learn about American culture, but the benefits to the students and the hosts go far beyond those goals. They often form lifelong bonds, keeping in touch and visiting each other for years afterwards.

Settling In

Since 2002, Susan and Donald Schupp have hosted 16 students who have come from Europe, Brazil, Thailand, and Australia. The Schupps advise anyone hosting for the first time to consider the student as another one of their children. “Otherwise, it’s awkward. You’re not a hotel or a bed and breakfast,” said Susan. 

If a student is feeling very homesick, that’s usually a sign that they need to be more engaged with the family, explained Rene Brown, director of student services with United Studies and an experienced host parent. The students are encouraged to join school or community activities, and host families are expected to take the students to local sites and events to expose them to American culture. Many families also take their students on vacation with them, but that kind of travel is not required. 

One way to integrate the students into your family routine is to give them a chore to do. “I had a Chinese student whose job it was to empty the dishwasher every day,” said Brown. “One day, I forgot to turn it on in the morning, but when she got home, she emptied it and put everything away anyway. You have to make sure you explain things in depth.”

There can be language barriers, especially early on. The Schupps had a few students whose English was very weak when they arrived. “You point to things. You use Google Translate. You get by, and they’re fluent by the time they leave,” said Susan. 

“Don’t make any judgments,” said Mary Bzdak. She and her husband Pete have hosted 18 to 20 students since 1984 and now host chaperones that come with the students. “Just keep an open heart and an open mind. Kids want to be part of your life, and they will become part of your life forever.”

Lapins and Griffin have settled into a family routine with Ilja. “Melvin and I work full time, and Ilja attends Kettle Run High School. After work and school, we scramble to finish homework and house duties before trying to throw together a healthy meal and running out the door to Ilja’s martial arts,” Lapins said. 

Reaping the Benefits

The Schupps said that interacting with the students has made them much more internationally aware. “It’s made the world smaller,” said Susan. The couple keeps in touch with their students and have traveled to see many of them in their home countries. The Schupps have a daughter, and although she’s now married, they still participate in the program and are expecting a new student in August. 

Dyrholm and her family have learned a great deal about the cultures of their students. They have hosted several students from Spain and fell in love with Spanish culture and food when they hosted their first Spanish student in 2014. The family of their second student from Spain, Andrea, invited the Dyrholms to visit them. “In 2017, we spent two incredible weeks with Andrea’s family in Seville, and we now consider Spain our home away from home,” said Dyrholm.

Brown said that people often think they need to wait until their children are in high school before they host. “The best age is probably when your kids are in third to 10th grade,” she said. Younger siblings are a plus. “Little kids worship the exchange students, and the students benefit because little kids don’t judge you on how you say things. Little kids enjoy somebody learning to talk with them.”

Dyrholm chose some of her students because they shared a love of horseback riding with her daughter, so even though they were not the same age, they had something in common. “Emma had so much fun living with someone that loved riding horses as much as she does. They took lessons together and went on trail rides and overnight horse camps,” said Dyrholm.

An Extended Family

One thing host families have in common is how close they become with the students. For the Dyrholms, their daughter now has brothers and sisters all over the world. “We love seeing the bonds she forms with them,” said Dyrholm. A few years into their hosting experience, Emma decided that she wanted to know what it was like to have a big brother, so they chose Alejandro from Spain and have since hosted two other boys. 

“These students are not guests. It’s not even fair to say they become like family,” said Lapins. “Ilja is our family and always will be. When he arrived, we were still in the throes of planning our wedding. Ilja was not only present for our wedding, he was a groomsman.”

“I always tell people that the single greatest thing my parents did for me was send me on an exchange for the summer when I was Ilja’s age,” continued Lapins. “It gave me an education that I could never have received in school and taught me how to communicate, be independent, kind, patient, and analytical. It was a powerful experience for me then and hosting has been a powerful experience for our family now. I cannot recommend it enough.”

Interested in learning more about becoming a host family?




Exchange programs and Coronavirus

Since 1985 United Studies exchange programs have integrated exceptional young people into U.S. communities so that perspectives are shared, misconceptions dispelled, and lifelong friendships are formed. 

During this world pandemic we are available 24/7 to answer questions and continue to provide support for our participants and host family communities. Student safety and well-being is our utmost priority. 

At this time, we plan to continue our high school program for the 2020-2021 school year, following federal, state and local health department recommendations. 

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