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Foreign relations

Lifestyle | Hosting an exchange student has its benefits, but it requires a lot of flexibility

Issue: "Tilting at turbines," July 17, 2010

By most standards Anessa and Steve Odum have their hands full. He's in the Air Force and often away-maybe three weeks every month and a half. She homeschools their oldest two children, ages 7 and 5, while also caring for the two youngest, ages 3 and 9 months (the 3-year-old's twin brother died in infancy).

When I met and talked to Anessa at a baseball game in St. Louis, her family had just said goodbye to a foreign exchange student from Sweden. The high-school student was the third exchange student (they have also hosted students from Hong Kong and Germany) the Odums have hosted through AYUSA, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for international students to study in the United States and American students to study abroad.

Why would a busy family take in an exchange student? "We love the idea of exposing our kids to a different culture," Anessa Odum said. She also wants to expose them to the sounds of a different language when her kids are still developing their language skills.

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Since host families choose students based on website profiles, wise host families learn to read between the lines. Their German student turned out to be very independent and surprised when she discovered that the Odums expected her to obey a curfew and eat dinner with the family: "What do you mean I have a curfew? What do you mean I have to eat with you?"

Eventually they arrived at an arrangement that worked: The student learned generally to abide by the curfew and called if she was going to be late. In turn, the Odums loosened their expectations for family dinner. In retrospect, Odum says maybe the girl was giving signals about her independent streak when she expressed on her profile a love of hip-hop music.

Choosing a student is only the first step. It took months between the time the Odums selected their Swedish student, Lisa, before the student knew she'd been chosen by a host family. The hang-up was the public school district, which has to give permission for the student to attend. Some school districts refuse for budget reasons. After repeated calls by Odum and the AYUSA representative, the local school finally agreed, and by then it was only a week before the beginning of the school year. Meanwhile, they'd been praying for Lisa and hoping that no other host family would choose her.

AYUSA is not a Christian program and it discourages evangelism. But the organization encourages its participants to attend church with host families as part of the cultural experience. The Odums have included students in their normal activities including worship and prayer. They even attended a Chinese church with their student from Hong Kong.

Living with an almost-adult from a radically different background requires flexibility. Odum says she's learned to "accept that they aren't our kids," and that means allowing the students to do some things that she wouldn't necessarily want her own kids to do: "We try to keep them safe and love on them the best we can."

Strange science

What if you could set up a museum devoted to the oddities of science, archeology, and history? Educator Lee Krystek's Museum of Unnatural Mystery (unmuseum.org) is a website museum with engagingly written stories about weird and wacky science-related subjects. It's graphically appealing and written in a kid-friendly style. The site is a great source for odd information sure to lead to hours of "Did you know?" conversations with kids of a certain age. (Caution: Like most science sites, it has an evolution bent, but the topic is not the main thing.)

Faulty ladders

Christian counselor and professor David Powlison says we can plot on a spectrum any human difference: wealth, height, weight, and so forth. The problem, he says, is that human beings tend to take those spectrums and turn them into ladders signifying relative importance or worth.

For example, we turn a spectrum about wealth into a ladder with rich people at the top and poor people at the bottom, as though rich people are better than poor people. We spend our lives, Powlison suggests, scrambling up these ladders and hoping to find significance. We don't realize that our 15-foot ladders are propped up against a 25-foot wall. No matter how high we climb, or how near the top of the ladder we are, those ladders can't bring us righteousness.

That's a good image to keep in mind when reading about the latest consumer trends. Trendwatching.com says, "The need for recognition and status is at the heart of every consumer trend." We live at a time when conspicuous consumption is out of favor, so marketers are trying to identify alternative status ladders. Trendwatching notes, " For an increasing number of consumers, the mere act of consuming less is the greenest status fix of all."

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