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The hunt is on for host families

Hosting a foreign exchange student improves global understanding, but fewer families are volunteering because of the poor economy.

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Global connections: Clockwise from top: Foreign exchange students take part of all the activities of their US host family. The Sattler family of Wisconsin introduces a Chinese student to fishing. Emi

Courtesy of The Center for Cultural Exchange

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August always ranks as the busiest month for Lori Tibbett. As director of placement services for the Center for Cultural Interchange in Chicago, she and a network of volunteers face a looming deadline: finding host families for nearly 1,000 foreign exchange students by the end of the month. The task is never easy, but this year presents an added challenge.

"People are worried about the economy, even if it hasn't affected them directly," says Ms. Tibbett, who still needs 150 hosts. "Some say, 'I'm not sure about my husband's job,' or 'It's going to cost more for gas and food.' "

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Despite these concerns among potential hosts, more high school exchange students are coming to the United States than ever before, says John Doty, president of Pacific Intercultural Exchange in San Diego. At the same time, exchange programs are undergoing changes. They're drawing students from more countries and enlisting hosts from a wider range of family types. Hosts now include single people, single-parent families, and retired couples.

Retired people offer the advantage of having time to devote to a student, Mr. Doty says. "Students from Asian countries are more respectful of older people. They may live with a grandparent at home, so living with a retired couple here is not a big step for them."

One first-time host is Selena Rankin, a single parent in Boston. On Aug. 25 she and her 13-year-old daughter, Kenya, will go to Logan Airport to welcome a 16-year-old girl from China who is coming under the auspices of the Center for Cultural Interchange.

"My daughter took up Chinese cultural studies in school last year," Ms. Rankin says. "She suggested having someone come. I went online and looked up programs."

To prepare, mother and daughter have readied a spare room. Kenya bought a gift to welcome her and has learned to cook Chinese dumplings, egg rolls, and noodles.

"We're thrilled to embark on this," Rankin says.

Other families volunteer year after year. Mike and Kathleen Hindman of Watauga, Texas, parents of seven grown daughters, are awaiting the arrival of their sixth exchange student. All have been girls from North Vietnam.

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"We started hosting about the time our girls started college," Mr. Hindman says. "I had the empty-nest syndrome. It's a wonderful experience for us. I never felt they were visitors. They were our new kids. We stay in touch with all of them."

He adds, "Bringing a child here certainly outweighs what little extra costs there may be."

Students come with their own spending money and health insurance. They pay for clothes and school fees, Tibbett says, adding, "They eat meals with the family, go to Grandma's for Thanksgiving, and do what the family does."

Describing a typical host family, she says, "They're not rich people. They like to share in international interests. They like to let other countries know that Americans are good people."

Since 1960, American families who volunteer to host students through programs designated by the US Department of State have been entitled to a $50 monthly tax deduction for every month they host a student. "It's considered a contribution to a charitable organization, but it hasn't kept up with inflation," Doty says.

A bill before Congress would increase that deduction to $200 a month. "It shows that this is a very important activity in this country," says Doty. Most countries compensate host families.

After 9/11/2001, leaders of exchange programs were concerned that interest would drop. "But just the opposite happened," Doty says. "It grew." As one way to bridge cultures, a 2002 initiative funded by the State Department, the Youth Exchange and Study program gives scholarships to students from Muslim countries, among them Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Pakistan.

"The Muslim students are wonderful," says Margaret Crotty, president of AFS in New York, "A lot come from very needy families."

As Americans seek to improve their image abroad, some leaders of exchange groups see these programs as part of the solution.

"At the heart of it, the idea is, if we know each other better, we're not going to aim guns at each other," says John Hishmeh, executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel in Alexandria, Va.

"What we need to do," he adds, "is reinvigorate the concept of exchange in our society based on today's reality. We're trying to prepare our students for a global economy."

At the same time, he acknowledges that hosting is not for everyone. "Hosting is a commitment, not something you should enter into lightly."

Ms. Crotty describes it as "a decision you make depending on what your family circumstances are, how your kids are doing."

Ultimately, Crotty says, "It's really not an economic decision. People are doing it for the right reasons – having international exposure. Host families learn just as much as students do. It's such a wonderful symbiotic relationship. These family relationships stay for generations."