Kim Connolly O’Grady, living in our Cahir community in Co. Tipperary, talks about why she decided to become involved in hosting and how she is finding the experience.
Why did you decide to get involved in hosting exchange students?
I became involved in hosting exchange students for many reasons, how wonderful it is to enhance your home with a multicultural environment. To provide a home from home for young students in a different country is very rewarding. What better way of exploring and learning about a country than spending time with the people who live there? What easier way of encountering the rest of the world, than in the comfort of your own home!
Jessica from Brazil taught us that family time in Brazil is almost sacred. You will find many families dining together regularly, much like the culture in Spain. They also have their own time table for social gatherings and respect traditions from one generation to the next. Rebecca from Germany reminded me of all those familiar wonderful places such the Hofbrauhaus full of culture and wonderful Bavarian dishes, the arena and the excellent celebrations such as carnival and the Oktoberfest in Germany that I loved when I lived there over ten years ago. Sadly I also learned how terrible my German language skills were. On the bright side Rebecca was learning English so I was “off the hook”.
Has the experience been what you expected?
Yes and no. It has been a very positive experience. All our students to date have been a wonderful addition to our family. It has been easier than I expected because the student becomes a part of your family so normal daily life flows smoothly within the home. I had the pre-conceived idea of our student being a guest and that it would be a formal arrangement. How wrong both my husband and I were. Our student becomes part of our family and helps us look after our other family guests when they visit.
What are some of the challenges your family has experienced while hosting?
Thankfully the challenges that we faced have been few and far between. All the students that have been part of our family over the years have been individuals and all have had different interests. It has been our job to support and understand individuality. Jessica from Brazil struggled with our formal educational system and our suggestion was to embrace it as challenge and we encouraged time at home for Jess to express herself. Barbara from Germany was quite at times and as her host parents we encouraged her with every little encounter. We purposely organised family gatherings to develop her confidence with speaking English. This was very productive and her language confidence grew and grew.
What do you see as the positives of hosting?
I do see many positives to hosting exchange students. This opportunity provides an education for all family members. It has supported and developed our relationship as a family. It has allowed us quality time with each other. It encourages us to come home early from work and have dinner together. Finally it shows us all that there are more important things in life to spend our time on.
What advice would you give to a family considering hosting for the first time?
To be a successful host family your motivation must be genuine.
You must treat all students that come to your home as your own children.
You must allow and encourage open communication within your family and with your new family members. We do this by verbally reminding students that they can discuss anything with us. We make sure there are check in times at home to informally sit together and allow undistracted time to talk about how things are going.
Both parents must work as a team. My husband and I share everything and we work together to ensure that our home is a happy one. Both parents should be actively involved in the students’ life. Finally I would say be open to new adventures. While Jessica was living with us she encouraged us to begin hill walking. Rebecca helped David develop his patience with regards to shopping. Barbara encouraged us to return to home baking.
What advice would you give about Irish family life to an exchange student thinking about coming to Ireland?
It is very important to be active part of your Irish family. Become involved in all daily activities. Our current student is actively involved in all aspects of our daily life such as family gatherings, helping us with the cooking and helping within our home. Our student will come to the supermarket with us and will join us when we are visiting our friends and family.
I would say to be positive before you arrive and talk to your host family regularly, telling them about how you are feeling.
Finally remember we can not read your mind but we will still only want what is the best for you.
Do you do anything special in the first few days to help the student settle?
We always leave a little welcome gift in their bedroom such as something small and possible Irish. Maybe a lucky charm, a teddy bear, book, or a keepsake and a card saying you’re very welcome !!!!!
On arrival we tell the student many times this is their home and that we want them to be comfortable. We discuss the likes and dislikes of our student over dinner, very informal but we try to remember everything as it does help for future success.
We refer to their profile before arrival to help with making them comfortable within our home … this is important as it allows you to have some information which can be vital for breaking the ice and the beginning of this new relationship. Also it shows your student you have made a little effort and I feel that if you were alone in a new country knowing someone has made an effort on your behalf would be very comforting
Finally we tell the students the only expectation we request is that they are honest and have respect for everyone.