Creating Meaningful and Mission-Based Homestays
At Germantown Friends School (PA), we seek to ground our programs in our mission. From intercultural and transgenerational dialogue to travel opportunities, our school’s programs nurture tolerance, openness, respect, and consideration of different perspectives in deep, lasting, and freshly relevant ways.
We believe it is essential that we create opportunities to explore the lives, cultures, challenges, and ideas of those from around the globe. In addition to seasonal exchanges and a global online learning platform, we offer the International Student Program (ISP), a year-round homestay designed to encourage our domestic students to live and learn with peers from other countries. For the past six years, we have welcomed students from China and Chile to stay with members of our school community for their high school career. This year, we are excited to welcome 13 students. While some attend Germantown Friends School (GFS) for the last two or three years of high school, others spend all four years with us. Now that our program is established, we plan to recruit students from additional countries to further our diversity.
The Perfect Match
Our homestay program is different than many across the country. We do not use an intermediary agent to place students and manage homestays. This way, we get to know each student personally, facilitate strong and meaningful matches, create a sense of belonging for them, and nurture their whole being. I’m the program director and coordinate recruitment, matches, and programming. Currently, most of our international students find their way to us through referrals.
Our international students are fully immersed in academic courses with their American peers, and they are placed with host families who are affiliated with our school, including current students, alumni, parents of alumni, faculty, and staff. This creates a nurturing and familial atmosphere for the students, as well as a natural continuum of partnership and care.
Our host family selection process is thorough. After a phone discussion and a home visit, we ask for references from the community and require background checks. To best match students and families, we use a questionnaire as well as in-person conversations to learn about interests and goals. We continue to tweak and improve our interview process, but our personal approach has been successful. A recent ISP graduate was interested in music, and we found her a family of singers, including the host father, who was in a band. We also matched a nature-loving student with a family who appreciates being outdoors and often takes weekend camping trips and hikes.
GFS supports both students and hosts throughout the entire homestay experience, considering the social and emotional welfare of everyone. Our school psychologist leads a student group that includes new ISP students and their domestic peers, which meets weekly to discuss any feelings related to being in a new place. I hold office hours and meet with students every eight days to discuss any challenges they might be facing. We also meet monthly as a group for updates and birthday celebrations. We have a sofa in our ISP office where students can just stop by and spend time during their free periods—unscheduled drop-ins and check-ins are encouraged.
There are occasional matches that are not a great fit. With the systems in place for regular check-ins with individual students, we have many opportunities to discuss and determine how to best manage the specific challenges that may be hindering harmony at home, such as communication or time management. We have always been able to address and support students and families and facilitate swaps. We have been lucky to have international students who are open to growing emotionally and eager to understand the role they play in making a host family match successful.
ISP is designed to create and prioritize community. It may be stressful for our international students to leave home and live in a completely new environment, with different customs, political systems, educational programs, and social structures. To build community and create shared learning opportunities, GFS offers a robust calendar of events, ranging from birthday celebrations to annual potluck picnics, badminton tournaments, and a Lunar New Year celebration. Our international and American students also work to plan events, including athletic tournaments and cultural discussions, giving students a space to bond and communicate outside of school.
GFS also facilitates monthly meetings for our host families to connect, address specific questions that arise, and to build community. This is a great opportunity for us to bond as a group and form an extended family for our international students. I also have monthly phone conversations with individual host families to see how things are going. These conversations provide great information regarding students who may need additional social-emotional support.
As educators, we must encourage and foster connections between cultures, giving young people the opportunity to learn, collaborate, and make positive change. We hope to create experiences that our students will hold dear for years to come, that will inspire them to ask questions and listen to one another. An international student program, living and learning together, is the perfect way to help students think locally and act globally. As ISP senior Steven Pu, explained, “Especially in the age of globalization, it is important to understand each other’s perspectives.”
Our international students bring a global awareness and understanding to our community, as well as lasting friendships and joyful memories. As senior Jack Miller explains, “Going into this, I knew Steven would be a roommate, but quickly he became a brother.”
Our community has embraced ISP, and we anticipate that it will be a part of GFS for decades to come. As we advance and adapt the program, we hope to further diversify our international student cohort and find even more ways to share each student’s voice within our school and our city.