What to Expect When You're Exchange Student!

Cassandra Ross and her husband were expecting to host Kim, a lovely exchange student from Germany when… the unexpected happened. She was pregnant with baby number three!

American family with German student at the park

The Ross family was convinced that Kim (center) would be disappointed if she had to live with a pregnant host mom who was too tired to organize fun activities every day.

As an experienced mom, she knew exactly what to expect when she was expecting a baby, but what about an exchange student?

 “I thought there was no way we could host an exchange student,” recalls Cassandra, who remembers thinking, “Is it even allowed to host in this situation? Is it normal? Would it be fair to the student?” It was with a heavy heart, therefore, that Cassandra notified ICES they simply could not host Kim after all.

Much to her surprise, the ICES Coordinator was unfazed by Cassandra’s concerns. “Everything will be okay,” she reassured her. Then she carefully coached this lovely new host family on what to expect when hosting an exchange student…

What to Expect: 1st Trimester

First and foremost, the Ross family needed to let go of many unrealistic expectations:

  • They did not need a large house, just room for their student.
  • They did not need to entertain Kim as a guest.
  • They didn't need to take Kim on trips.
  • They didn't need to "prepare" do anything special.

They only needed plenty of love to share with Kim. Her dream was to become part of a real American family for 10 months, go to high school in the USA and live her version of the American dream - just like any other teenager in our country.

Many hands together with a big red heart painted on them

High school exchange students love sharing their culture with US host families - and all they are looking for is the chance to be a part of a real American family while they go to school in the USA.

And then Kim arrived!

The whole family was thrilled to meet their new member and Cassandra was feeling quite good. “The beginning of the pregnancy was not too bad,” she recalls. “I had a new kid in my house, and I wanted to make things good for her.”

Cassandra’s big concern continued to be Kim’s expectations. “I’m such a self-conscious person and I was constantly asking:

  • Are you happy?
  • Are you okay?
  • Is my house too small?
  • Is it a problem that we don’t have teenagers?

And she was so sweet, always reassuring me that she was very happy with us. She would say, ‘All I care about is having a family that loves me’. And I just kept saying, “I have lots of love to give.”

German student giving host mom a big hug

Cassandra and the whole family had plenty of love to share with Kim. They opened their home and their hearts and enjoyed sharing the simple pleasures of everyday life together.

Host mom and daughter quickly bonded...

But what about host dad?

 “He did great! He’s the best dad ever, a very thoughtful person, and he’s very tender-hearted. In fact, the reason we picked Kim is because my husband has always had a real interest in Germany and German history. He’s a World War II fanatic!”

a cobblestone street in Germany lined with traditional shops and houses

Host dad is a huge fan of all things German, enjoying conversations about German culture and especially the history of World War II. Host mom loved learning about cultural differences and the kids even learned how to say a few words and phrases in German.

Cassandra worried that Kim might not feel comfortable talking about World War II. “I thought it could cause her some stress or anxiety, but she was so open about it.” Host dad and daughter bonded over lively conversations about the war and even enjoyed watching WWII movies together.

What to Expect: 2nd Trimester

“It was not a good pregnancy for me,” Cassandra recalls. “It was really rough on my body compared to the other two – especially the second trimester. I didn’t feel like getting up or doing things. I was really worried about Kim’s experience.”

Kim, however, was already part of a whole community. She was thriving at school and had many friends – and the Ross family’s network of friends and relatives was also falling in love with this vivacious teenager. “We’re really involved in church, and we have friends with teenagers who included her in their plans.”

German exchange student and young host siblings with Santa Claus

Kim (far right) loved playing the role of big sister for her five-year-old brother and one-year-old sister. They adored her and loved every minute of their year with her.

Kim was not just happy; she nearly set the world record for saying thank you daily, and she loved to write sweet little thank you cards. Her parents sent gifts from Germany. And she showed her appreciation every day by diving in and being part of the family – especially when it came to having fun with the kids.

family dressed up for halloween

“Some people thought we wanted her to be a built-in babysitter and we joked about that,” recalls Cassandra. But even though Kim had never been around children, she loved being a big sister, and the kids adored her from day one. “She would play games with my kids a lot. My son loves transformers, so she would watch transformer movies with him. My daughter was just one-year-old, and she loved being with Kim too.”

What to Expect: 3rd Trimester

And finally, the big moment arrived!

“Near the end of the school year, I gave birth to a son. Kim loved it! It was one of the most amazing parts of her experiences. She got to watch him grow until he was three months old. Even when I took a shower, she wanted to watch the baby.”

German teenager with newborn baby

It was clear that Kim was no guest in the Ross house. She was part of the family. Far from being a burden, she enriched their lives every day in so many ways.

“Oh, my goodness! It was such an eye-opening experience,” says Cassandra. “It was so fun to watch my kids learning from her. For example, they learned to say I love you in German and so many little things. Just watching them grow and learn with her was so rewarding.”

German exchange student and host parents at graduation

Kim's graduation was just one more amazing experience in the USA. 

Hosting Kim has expanded the whole family’s horizons. “I never imagined my kids travelling the world, but now that they have a sister in Germany, I can see them travelling! I love to travel, but I never had a desire to travel abroad until I got into exchange. Now I want to visit the places the kids I work with are from.”

What about cultural differences?

In addition to the lively conversations about German history and WWII, every day meant learning something about German culture. “Mainly there were cute, funny little things like European table manners. I wouldn’t set out a knife unless it was necessary, and she would always go get a knife. I had never even thought about this before – or how we eat some foods with our hands.”

Fork and knife

What to Expect: 1st Five Years

Exchange students don’t just come to the USA for a year, they lodge themselves in their host family's heart forever. Kim's relationship with the Ross family continues to grow even today!

American family and German family portrait together

The Ross family was delighted to meet Kim's parents when they visited at the end of the school year - just in time for the big good-bye party.

Since she left in 2016, Kim has been back to visit her host family three times (every year until the pandemic hit). Cassandra and her family look forward to visiting Germany one day.

Family photo with mother, father, three kids and German exchange student

Kim came back to visit the Ross family every year until the pandemic hit. She loves seeing her siblings grow - including the newborn baby she held in her arms just a few years ago.

At the end of the school year, Kim also changed the course of Cassandra’s life when she asked, “Have you ever thought about becoming a coordinator [for exchange students]? I think you should look into it because you would be really good at it.” Cassandra thought about it for a few days and then contacted ICES.

German exchange student at church with three small host siblings

Kim at church with her three American siblings on one of her many return visits to continue bonding her family in the USA.

“I absolutely love my job. It has definitely fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine to work with teenagers. And it’s perfect because I get to stay home with the kids and then travel or do home visits.” In fact, visiting host families is a highlight for her. “I love to see the look in the eyes of a host family that is so excited as they prepare to meet their kid!

As a coordinator I hear people say, 'It’s not the right time to host'. It’s never the right time to host an exchange student. If you wait for the right time, you’ll never host. That mentality comes from the fear of messing up, and I understand that because I felt it too.”

Host mom and German student selfie in London

Cassandra and Kim have a special bond to this day. When host mom travelled to London, Kim was able to travel there from Germany so the two could meet up once again.

But as Cassandra has seen time and again: these kids are not looking for perfection. They’re not expecting the perfect family or the perfect home. “They’re looking for a family who will give them a chance to live the American Dream – a family that can give them love.”

What is Cassandra Ross’ advice for everyone out there?

Everyone who can host should do it at least once. It’s one of the most rewarding and incredible experiences and no one should miss out on it.” 


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Tags: Host Families, Cultural Exchange, Youth Exchange, Host mom

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