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Hosting an Exchange Student as a Retiree

a woman hosting an exchange student as a retiree

Hosting an exchange student as a retiree sounds like a made-for-tv movie. Knowing ahead of time what to expect can help make sure your movie has a happy ending. But when Sandy Playter hosted her first exchange student from Brazil 10 years ago, she went in blind. Her daughter-in-law prodded her to do it, insisting that it would help Playter, who was having a hard time living alone. Fortunately for her, hosting an exchange student opened an exciting new world. 

“It was a spectacular year,” remembers Playter, 74, a retired school counselor from suburban Kansas City, Missouri, who raised four sons and now has ten grandchildren. “We had such a wonderful time.” 

After her initial reservations, Playter has hosted 11 other students from Brazil, Mexico, Italy, and Spain over the last decade. She still hears from most of them frequently. And she’s traveled to Mexico, Italy, and Spain to visit some of them.  

“Each of them enriches my life in some way,” she says. “It makes me more culturally aware of what’s going on in other parts of the world. They really do just become like family.” 

The Benefits of Hosting an Exchange Student 

Playter’s experience highlights the great benefit that retirees can get from hosting exchange students, a situation more common than you might expect.  

“Absolutely, retirement is a good time to host students,” says Debra Slagle, executive director of the nonprofit cultural exchange organization Ayusa. “It’s an opportunity for retirees to gain family members all over the world.” 

“If you’re retired, you may not be interacting on a day-to-day basis with many people,” says Slagle. “But social interaction is healthy for our brains and our bodies.” Beyond the social component Andrew Clifton, senior project manager at international exchange organization CIEE, says hosting students can provide the satisfaction of giving back to a larger cause and a sense of purpose that can boost well-being. 

“Hosts are contributing to building bridges across the world that have an impact that far exceeds that year or just those people,” says says 

In the exchange of cultures, everyone benefits. Slagle remembers how much her 92-year-old mother enjoyed hearing about their host students’ home countries. And the learning goes the other way as well. “The students we hosted now look at the Midwest and Kansas City, where I live, in a way that they would never have dreamt of before they came here.” 

Is Hosting Right For You?  

Hosts of all ages have many questions about the process, and retirees often have their own particular concerns. Here are answers to some of the most common questions.  

How Does Hosting an Exchange Student Work?  

Students fill out applications with information about themselves. Hosts can select the student they’d like to invite. They also get to say whether they want to host for a semester or a full school year. The student gets to express preferences and approve the placement in your home. All host families go through an orientation with the local coordinator the summer before the student’s arrival, and you and the student can start to communicate through email, text messaging, or FaceTime. 

“That can be kind of fun to set the stage and get to know each other and get jitters out of the way,” says Clifton. 

What Do I Need to Provide?  

About 85% of exchange students come to the U.S. on J-1 visas, otherwise known as cultural exchange visas. These visas require hosts to provide three meals a day, a bedroom (or a shared bedroom with one other person), and a place for personal belongings. Students come with their own spending money.  

Don’t the Students Want a Younger Host or a Family to Live With? 

Students often enjoy living with retirees, whether it’s because they like having more attention and room to themselves or are relieved to have a quiet respite from hectic high school life. 

“When they come to live with me, it’s like living with grandma,” says Playter. “I have time for them.” 

How Should I Prepare for Their Arrival?  

Beyond setting up their room, preparation can include learning about the country the student is from and thinking about what you hope to gain from the experience. Slagle suggests writing down house rules to review with the student to clarify expectations. Some host families assign light chores or other household duties so the student doesn’t feel like a guest. However, exchange students are there to study, not earn their keep, so their housekeeping obligations should be minimal.

Will I Need to Drive the Student Around and Participate in Events? 

No, you are not required or expected to provide rides for the student or to attend any events, though many hosts find they enjoy doing these things.  

Can I Take My Student on Trips?  

Yes, some host families enjoy taking students to visit notable places in the area or region, such as a host in Arizona taking a student to see the Grand Canyon.  

“It’s not an expectation, but I know a lot of our retirees love to do that,” says Slagle. “That’s an advantage they see in hosting—being able to share those places with these kids from other countries and help them really get a taste of what America is about.” 

What if it Isn’t Working Out?  

State Department rules require organizations that run exchange programs to provide community representatives dedicated to supporting host families and students. This person checks in on the student once a month while they’re in your home and can help you with any concerns or issues that arise. 

“You’re never stuck,” says Clifton. “If this isn’t working for you, we move the student to a new home. That may sound callous and simple, but it’s part of the process.” 

Is There Some Way to Try It Before Committing? 

Yes. By law, exchange students cannot enter the U.S. without a host family assigned and official permission to attend that family’s local school. To comply with the law, students who haven’t secured a placement with a family yet can be placed with an “arrival host parent” who agrees to host the student temporarily while the organization arranges for a longer-term placement.  

“It’s a good way to get your feet wet,” says Slagle. “There’s a need for it. And a lot of time what happens is the arrival family falls in love with the kid and keeps them.” 

Love and new family members? Those sound like occupational hazards anyone could live with.  

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