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The rewards of hosting an exchange student

Jiyung Bae and Kadi Merrill during the junior prom in Littleton last year. Jiyung was the Merrill family’s second exchange student from Korea. Courtesy photo. (click for larger version)
July 15, 2009
LITTLETON—A lot of families think about hosting exchange students during their time in the United States but don't do it for one reason or another.

The members of the Merrill family, who are about to host their third student from South Korea, say the rewards far outweigh any reasons against not hosting a student.

"You gain a lot by hosting them, you learn so much," said Cheryl Merrill, of Littleton. "It's a great opportunity."

Her daughter, Kadi Merrill, was just as adamant about the benefits gained from hosting a foreign exchange student.

"You learn about different cultures, and the differences between them," Kadi said.

Two years ago the Merrills decided to host an exchange student. The first year, a South Korean student was assigned to them and during the following two years, the family requested South Korean girls.

"Now we understood their culture at that point, it was a little easier," Cheryl said. "We decided to stick with it."

When a family decides to host a student, they go through a background check and a house inspection. The students must have their own bed, though they are allowed to share a room. They send a list of required duties and chores to the company sponsoring the student, which in turn sends a letter of introduction from the student, talking about him or herself. The family in turn sends a letter to the student, Cheryl said.

Hosting a student is not expensive, Cheryl said. Each student is given a monthly stipend by her parents of around $300. The students are expected to pay for their own school supplies, clothes and food if a family eats out. The family usually absorbs the costs of family meals, Cheryl said.

Hosting the children is a real opportunity to help them.

"If they don't find a place to live they can't come here," Kadi said.

It also helps foreign students practice their English.

"Improving their English is one of the big benefits for them," Kadi said.

The chance to come here helps the students gain exposure to the world and gives host families a chance to be close to someone from another culture.

"These kids are different from American teenagers," Cheryl said. "They're very disciplined and respectful."

There are difficulties of course. While the students might be more disciplined, "they are still teenagers," Cheryl said. Sometimes she has had issues getting students to do their chores, especially when they first arrive here.

"At first its hard not to treat them as guests so it's harder to ask things of them," she said.

Soon enough, however, both student and family get into a routine and understand each other. If there are problems, there are contact people for both the families and the students to talk to for help.

Kadi said that coming to the United States was in a sense a cultural break for her South Korean friends, as they are driven much harder at home, where they have almost no time for a social life and do not participate in any kind of organized sports. For most South Korean students, high school runs from 7:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., she said.

"The two we've had enjoy taking a break from that," Kadi said.

Some of the Korean students didn't really get to take a break. They often repeat the school year they spent in the U.S. when they return home. Of the two students the Merrills hosted, one repeated the school year when she got home.

The bonds the students make when they come here often last a lifetime. Kadi said she and Jiyung Bae, the second student that stayed with her, is now like a sister to her. At the end of this past school year, Kadi traveled to Korea to meet her family and explore the country.

Jiyung's family paid for half of her airfare, while she earned the money to pay for the rest, she said.

The Merrills' third South Korean exchange student will arrive just before school starts this fall. It will be Kadi's senior year but she said she will be happy to have another friend to meet.

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