Giving back with International Experience

International Experience
Photos: Sarah Boucher

By Kelsey Smith

About the organization

International Experience (iE-USA) is a nonprofit high school exchange student organization. It promotes diplomacy and cultural awareness by providing students from around the world an opportunity to experience American life, as well as an opportunity for Americans to learn about other countries and cultures.

Sarah Boucher
Sarah Boucher

How did you get started with International Experience?

When I was in elementary school, my family hosted four girls from Germany who were touring the United States with a choir performing tour. That was my first experience meeting someone from another country. Then when I was 9, I became pen pals with a girl from New Zealand. These experiences fascinated me and sparked my interest in learning more about other countries. I wanted to be an exchange student in high school, but with my mom being a single mom struggling to make ends meet, it just wasn’t in the cards for me. As an adult, when I learned about iE, it seemed like the perfect fit to experience student exchange from a different viewpoint — both as a host family and a local coordinator.

What impact does International Experience have on the local community?

International Experience provides the community with the opportunity to not only learn about other countries and cultures, but also to see our world through another lens. It’s fascinating seeing America through the eyes of another. International Experience provides an opportunity for international diplomacy — seeing how we are alike, not just how we are different — as well as understanding why things are done differently in other countries and cultures instead of focusing just on what is different.

Why this matters

Learning about the world and being able to communicate with and respect those who have different languages, values, cultures and religions from us is important to bridge countries and cultures and to become global thinkers. My youngest children are 9 and 10. We began hosting when they were 2 and 3. Each year, their teachers comment they are amazed at how our children can get along with anyone in the classroom, they don’t have “cliques,” and they have a very interesting perspective when it comes to solving problems and seeing the big picture. We attribute this to their exposure to people from around the world and learning that someone being different from them is an opportunity to learn and grow by seeing things from another perspective. 

pumpkin carving

 Exchange students often discuss how their perceptions of American life are based on what they see in the movies or on TV, and that America is very different in a lot of ways than what they pictured. They enjoy learning about our educational system, participating in school-sponsored sports, seeing the “freshwater ocean” of Lake Michigan and more. They also become fluent in English (they all speak English well enough to attend school without ESL services) which helps many of them become accepted to university in their home country and obtain internship and job opportunities. 

 Perhaps most importantly, relationships are built and memories are made. At the end of the year if it’s hard to say “see you later,” you know you’ve done exchange right. Many times, lifelong relationships are formed, with students coming back to the U.S. to visit and host families traveling to their students’ home countries.

How you can help

International Experience is seeking families of all shapes, sizes and styles to host our students. Host families volunteer to make a student part of their family for a semester or a school year. Visit ie-usa.org/host-a-student for more information on hosting. Students cover their own personal expenses (such as school and sports, clothing, personal hygiene, cell phone, medical insurance, travel, etc.). 

In addition, I have presented at schools for career days — I brought exchange students to classrooms to talk about their countries. If a school or organization is interested in a presentation, let’s connect at s.boucher@international-experience.net.

International Experience
507-301-3613
ie-usa.org

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