From Sweden with Love

Discover the joys of hosting a foreign exchange student

When Frida Elmbro, now a 19-year-old from Nybro, Sweden (pop. 12,322), moved into our suburban Chicago home last summer, just about everything she knew about America came from Hollywood and TV. To her, the U.S. was a lawless place where people were either too rich or too poor. Americans, she thought, were overweight, materialistic -- and too loud. A flag-waving bunch, they were led by a president who was "evil" and trigger-happy. Worse, Frida couldn't believe we would eat pizza or hamburgers with our bare hands. Nevertheless, she was intrigued by this powerful culture that has touched the whole world.

After a year here as our foreign exchange student, a few things have changed for her. She learned we have plenty of laws, including that odd ban on teen drinking. There are, indeed, too many poor people -- but there are plenty in the middle. And loud as many Americans are, not all are plump or materialistic. A passionate Social Democrat, Frida still isn't fond of President George W. Bush -- but she found plenty of kindred spirits at antiwar protests. By the way, she's now eating pizza and burgers barehanded (veggie burgers, that is).

Life with an exchange student can be an adventure. To my wife and me and our surprisingly hawkish children, Frida's politics and economic views seemed a bit naive. But it was fun when she sported peace symbols and we all sang rock 'n' roll in the car. Talking about how lofty ideals and gritty realities often conflict with each other was worthwhile, as was debating the merits of the Swedish nanny state. A key lesson of the exchange experience for the student and the family is finding common ground. "Frida is wild and crazy like me," says my daughter, Abi, 14. Son Dan, 16, explains: "We agreed to disagree."

Indeed, along with free speech and the national rebellious streak, Frida discovered plenty to like about America. She and three other free-spirited seniors at the Francis W. Parker School -- the private Chicago school she attended -- grew so close that they plan to meet this summer in Sweden. She took a shine to Chicago's sprawling skyline and downtown shopping district. She traveled with our family and found Las Vegas "very weird," but fascinating. Philadelphia's quaint architecture was reminiscent of home, while New York was "overwhelming." She was wowed by Disney World, which she visited with other kids here under the aegis of the AFS-USA Intercultural Programs. She loved services at synagogues and an African American church and beamed as she took us to a Swedish church festival. Says Frida: "You really have to live in a place to understand it."

Taking in a high schooler from abroad isn't always easy. You become a surrogate parent, helping with homework or any emotional challenges. Sometimes you must deal with homesickness: Frida burst into tears while talking with her mom by phone a few weeks into her stay. And the host family can run into disconcerting issues -- Becky, our 19-year-old away at college, felt at first we were trying to replace her. Fortunately, AFS can help, providing experienced volunteers that you or the child can go to for guidance. If the match doesn't work out, AFS can move a child to another family. This seldom happens, because AFS screens families and visitors.

The requirements for hosting are simple. You don't even need to be a parent. You provide a bed, food, transportation to school, and an open heart. AFS handles the rest, including arranging school enrollment. For details, check afs.org/usa or call 800-AFSINFO. We will miss our "AFS daughter," but now have a great reason to visit Sweden.

By Joseph Weber

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