Exchange programs seek Vermont families to host international students after pandemic lull

Stowe residents Miriam and Michael McCormack will be hosting a German exchange student host family this fall. This family photo was taken on their 17th wedding anniversary last year after climbing Mount Spruce Peak in Stowe. Pictured from left their children Ella, 14; Jacob, 15 years old; Skyler, 9; and Brooke, 12 years old at the time. photo courtesy

Miriam McCormack came to Utah as an exchange student from Slovakia when she was 17.

McCormack, who was in high school at the time, was missing out on her family but said she had a unique experience with her host family, who welcomed her and stood by her through challenges and helped her apply to college.

McCormack, who now lives in Stowe and has four children, has been in touch with her host family all these years. “We still call them our Utah cousins ​​when we visit and the kids have a great connection,” she wrote in an email.

This fall, McCormack is looking forward to welcoming her international exchange student — Johannes, a 16-year-old in high school in Germany — into her home and family.

“Our children know my story and are so excited to meet another brave student who is willing to leave his/her family to meet us and enjoy the Vermont experience with us. They are excited to have a ‘new brother,’” McCormack said.

Megan Fahey, Northeast International Experience Coordinator, one of the many organizations facilitating such exchanges in Vermont, said the waiting list for students looking for host families is long.

She said the lingering effects of the Covid-19 lockdown and the continuing impact of the pandemic are straining the system.

“We have significantly more students this year who have been suspended, whose papers got residency due to Covid, so we are tripling their number,” Fahey said. “And some waited a year and a half or two years to come here.”

This year, International Experience has 80 students to apply before August 31, with at least 10 students specifically requesting from the Northeast.

Among them are 14-year-old Anton from Spain, who is interested in golf, hiking, sailing and watching TV shows such as “Friends”; Marie, a 14-year-old German, enjoys volleyball, cheerleading, and pets and likes to “learn about real American life”; Kahn, 14, from Switzerland, loves to cook, paint and swim and has been involved in the exchange with his father, according to a biography shared by Fahey.

“I hope this experience will change my life,” Kahn wrote in his autobiography.

Students usually come with their own health insurance and money to cover school and personal expenses. Organizations help facilitate formalities such as visa, travel, liability and other support.

Fahey said host families don’t get paid but have access to benefits — for example, their high school-aged children qualify for year-long immersion programs in Spain and Germany with the international experience, usually the following summer.

Like many other sectors, exchange programs have taken a hit during the pandemic when travel has come to a halt. Fahey said they had no jobs in 2019 and only two last year. Now, with more international students registering to participate, Fahey said they are striving to find volunteer families to host them.

According to annual data provided by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the number of visiting exchange students decreased in 2020 across New England, but appears to have been recovering since last year. In Vermont, 21 high school students were recruited in 2020 — a significant decrease from the 96 students placed in 2019. But the number rose last year as 92 students were placed across the state. No data is available yet for 2022.

At least three local recruitment agencies have told VTDigger that they are having a hard time finding host families this year.

“It is true that we are all in this business struggling these days. But finding loving close families is never easy,” said Milos Prokic, chief operating officer of the International Student Exchange in New York, who placed 10 students in Vermont last year.

“Of course we’d like it more because it’s a great country and I think kids love skiing and winter sports and everyone who loves to spend time in Vermont,” he said.

Prokic said that asking someone to bring in a teen for a semester or a year is always a tough question. Eliminate concerns raised by the pandemic — such as international travel, complicated paperwork, inflation, financial struggles and a lack of wage incentives — and it’s no surprise that host families are in short supply this year.

Host families are mostly volunteers who share their home and family life with student exchanges for five to 10 months (a semester or an academic year). They run the gamut of traditional and non-traditional families, empty clans, single parents, bachelors, same-sex couples or retirees. As long as the host family is willing to provide a loving home, guest or dormitory with a host sibling of the same age and gender, 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 stress that we are a relationship-focused organization because we believe that by creating these connections around the world, we can make the world a better place.”

Exchange student Oscar from Germany with his host family in South Burlington (LR) Mia 12 and Ella 9, parents Debbie and Jan Dinkmann skiing in Bolton in February. contribution image.

Oskar, a 17-year-old exchange student from Germany last school year, had a whole list of things he wanted to try in the States — like the root beer float experience. He didn’t quite like the blackjack, but was able to remove it from the list thanks to his host family.

Deborah and Jan Dinkmann of South Burlington, who have just returned from a trip to Germany, said they would love to get an Oscar. “He seemed to fit in right away,” Deborah wrote via email. She said their three children enjoyed having an “older brother” around and miss him now that he’s back in Germany.

The returns are rich and this is one of the reasons why people Broektsch said he’s falling in love with the show. He said the costs were “not zero” but not “huge” or “impossible,” encouraging families to sign up.

“People have been doing this for years and the benefits are pretty much endless — from your kids going to visit those kids coming from abroad, your having another family member for life, all the kinds of learning that takes place and the satisfaction of sharing cultures,” he said.

McCormack, of Stowe, still fondly remembers her experience as an exchange student.

“My family in Utah stood by me the whole time and their home was always full of love and open to me,” she said. “I acquired a family in the United States, and although my entire 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 an interest in some of the many activities her children enjoy – football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, skiing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, swimming and more.

“We love children and hope to add this, at least as a friend, for life,” she said.

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