Attending a top 100 university, as defined by U.S. News & World Report, is not only a goal for U.S. students; it’s a goal for many international students as well. To prepare for studying at a notable American university, international families send their young adults to American high schools. The Institute of International Education recently pointed out that the number of international students enrolling in American private high schools with the purpose of obtaining a degree tripled from fall 2004 to 2013, whereas the number of exchange students (students that stay for the maximum of one year on an exchange visa) grew by just 15 percent in the same timeframe.
The rapid growth of the international secondary school population has fueled the growth of a multitude of “homestay” programs, where American families are recruited to host international students. Hosting an international student can be an extraordinary experience for local families, especially where children are present. It can introduce them to other cultures and social realities that will enrich their worldviews – without ever leaving home.
Typically, a homestay or “placement” company works independently from the school to connect students with host families. It’s an arrangement that can leave challenging gaps. What if the student has issues at school that don’t get addressed and the problem spills over into the home life? What if a host family needs more support than a typical agency is prepared to provide? Who is available at a moment’s notice to offer practical suggestions for keeping family members and international students happy while living under the same roof?
Can a school have a bigger role in making the homestay experience the best it can be for the host family and international students? The staff at Orange County-based Fairmont Private Schools thinks so.
Fairmont Private Schools, founded in 1953, is the oldest and largest non-sectarian private school (preschool through high school) in Orange County, with five campuses in Anaheim and Tustin. The campuses are committed to rigorous academics as well as providing students with community service and character development opportunities. Students also engage in performing arts, sports and other extracurricular programs.
Along with the rest of the nation, Fairmont has seen its international student population grow rapidly… which means a significant need for host families. Fairmont established an entire department dedicated to creating an exceptional living experience for both students and host families. Since 2003, Fairmont Homestay has been connecting their international students with families and supporting all parties along the way.
We visited the Greenler family at their home in Whittier to get a firsthand look at how the dynamic works when a few international young adults are added to the domestic mix. Jeff and Kim Greenler have two daughters of their own, eighth-grader Katie and third-grader Abby. Over the years, they have hosted several Fairmont students. They love the different cultural perspectives the students provide the Greenler girls; the satisfaction of knowing they’re making a positive impact in these young adults’ lives and influencing, for the better, their view of American families. But the Greenler family gets something out of the arrangement, too.
“We love these girls,” says Kim. “They become like family to us.”
This summer, the Greenlers hosted three young ladies, Zhuoyun, Lumin and Yi, all of whom are from China. It’s obvious as we talked with the parents that the Greenler girls enjoyed their guests, who joked and played with them comfortably, even as they were still learning each other’s languages.
The success that the Greenlers have experienced is largely due to the nature of Fairmont Homestay, which from its inception has set itself apart by being of service to both host families and international students. Fairmont Preparatory Academy, where the international students attend, and Fairmont Homestay staff members work to ensure a rewarding experience for the students in both the home and campus.
On the host side, Fairmont Homestay staff members carefully review prospective families. Interviews, background checks and home inspections are conducted to ensure the setting is right for a homestay. Upon approval and consultation, staff members work with host families to make sure the necessary steps are taken to prepare their students for school and life in America.
On the school side, staff members at Fairmont Preparatory Academy help their international students feel at home on campus. They make sure their needs are met while the students become familiar with their new family and school environment.
“Fairmont Prep and Fairmont Homestay work as a team to help each student make a smooth transition,” says Kiki Mendoza, Dean of Students at Fairmont Preparatory Academy. “No problem is too small for us to pay careful attention and work on a solution that helps the student and host family have a mutually enjoyable experience.”
Support for host families comes in the form of the Fairmont Homestay team working in concert with Fairmont Prep counselors and educators. Andrea Cribbs, Fairmont’s Homestay Programs Manager, spends time educating host parents on what students might be feeling or expecting so hosts can anticipate hurdles. She coordinates with school staff to stay aware of students who need extra attention. Andrea and her colleague Kevin East, who speaks Mandarin after studying in China as an international student himself, help students adapt to their new homes and make themselves available to help host families 24/7 – not a benefit that third party placement agencies typically offer.
“My family has been with Fairmont Homestay for several years,” said Heather Porretta, another long-time homestay participant. “Being a host parent has definitely broadened my horizons, and I see things from different perspectives. My seven-year-old daughter especially loves having ‘big girls’ visiting our home.”
“Our primary goal is to make hosting easy for host families,” says Andrea. “When host families have the knowledge and logistical support they need, they can focus on being great host parents who welcome young adults into their family, and that’s what makes the experience special for our students.”
Fairmont host families do receive a monthly stipend, but Andrea stresses that Fairmont selects hosts who are in it for the experience, not the money.
“The compensation is provided to give families the means to treat students as one of the family without stressing about the cost of extra utilities, food and gas that come with another person in the house,” she says. “Hosting an international student is about the joy of caring for a young person who is in a new country, and gaining international cultural experiences.”
That joy is something the Greenler family seems to have tapped into, with Fairmont’s help.
“We have never felt as though we were on our own to figure out the way to host our guests and provide them what they need,” said Kim, who proudly stands by a wall full of family photos, many of which feature previous Fairmont international students – just part of the family. “Fairmont Homestay makes it great for us so we can make it great for the students.”
If you are considering hosting an international student, contact Fairmont Homestay. Short-term and long-term hosting opportunities are available, and given Fairmont Preparatory Academy’s rigorous academic focus, the school attracts international students who are serious about learning and eager to explore Southern California. M
Learn More About Fairmont Homestay
For more information, visit fairmontschools.com/homestay to RSVP for an upcoming Fairmont Homestay Information Session: September 17, October 15 or November 20.