Experiencing a new culture, or even learning more about your heritage, is possible right in your own home. For American families who open their doors to Norwegian exchange students, the experience offers learning opportunities for both the host family and the student. During the 2013-2014 academic school year, Mark and Lora Bullert of White Bear Lake, Minn., hosted a high school student from Norway, and the experience proved to be life-changing.
There are many ways a student and a host family can get matched up. AFS-USA is an organization that has been welcoming students from across 40 countries to the United States for 65 years. “Norway is one of our big partner countries,” says Nancy Weis-Sanfo, an account manager with AFS-USA. “We have about 100 students that come from Norway each year and are placed with families throughout the country.” Working with an exchange program begins the process to host a student. Sometimes a personal connection with a family can open the door.
That was the case for the Bullert family. At the beginning of the 2013 school year, the Bullert family welcomed 18-year-old Guro Bergdal from a suburb of Trondheim, Norway. The connection between the families stemmed from a friendship between Guro’s mother, Mari Saettem Bergdal, and Lora Bullert. In 1982, Mari was an exchange student in Wisconsin and became friends with Lora Bullert at Hudson High School. Lora and Mari kept in contact with each other over the years, and when the opportunity arose for Mari’s daughter, Guro, to study in the United States for the 2013-2014 academic year, she approached Lora. Making the decision to be a host family is a commitment. It’s important that the whole family is onboard with the idea. “The biggest factor for us was making sure we were all on the same page,” says the Bullerts, who have a college-aged son. “If one of us hesitated, we needed to respect this and decline the opportunity because it is a year-long commitment. The family decided they would love to host Guro.
A Warm Welcome
Making Guro feel welcome in her new home was an important step in helping her transition to a different culture. “Before she arrived, we had a bulletin board hung with photos we had printed from her Facebook photo albums, so she would feel more at home in her new room,” says the Bullerts. “One of the first social things we did to help Guro feel welcome was to throw a neighborhood party.”
When hosting a student, having an open mind is key, says Weis-Sanfo. “We hope families have traits that would include flexibility, a willingness to make adjustments, an interest in a new culture and a general openness to share their life, family activities and their own customs to a foreign student,” she says.
While the host family learns by having a student from a different culture in their home, the student also gains a great deal from being in a new environment. “The biggest surprise was how much I learned about Norway from being in America,” says Guro. “Living away from home and seeing Norway as an outsider made me realize a lot of differences.”
Helping the student better understand the language and government of their host country can also be beneficial long after they return home. “You learn the language fluently which is helpful in circumstances later on in life,” says Guro’s parents. “It is also beneficial to learn about the United States as one of the leading nations in the world whose international affairs influences a lot of our own country.” Of course, the academic year allows for lots of new learning experiences.
Though there were many differences between Guro’s high school in Norway and White Bear Lake Area High School in Minnesota, the challenges were also learning opportunities. “The whole school system is really different from what it is in Norway,” says Guro. “What I loved about high school in the United States was school spirit. The school felt more connected, and we were more like a big happy family!”
Some of the differences Guro saw between the school systems were teaching styles and college preparation. “School in America seemed a lot more stressful with all of the college preparations. In Norway, we don’t have honors classes and college classes in school, so you can’t start talking about college before you have even finished high school.”
In June, Guro graduated with the White Bear Lake Area High School senior class. She’s back in Norway now finishing her final year. The experience abroad has prepared her in many ways. “I feel really ready for something else, and just as mature as my American friends who have graduated.”
Sharing cultural traditions and experiences is how the host family and student share and grow together. The Bullerts say a few of their favorite memories with Guro were making Norwegian pepperkaker (gingerbread cookies) together and having her teach them to sing “Silent Night” in Norwegian on Christmas Eve.
For Guro, holidays were some of her favorite times during her stay in Minnesota. “Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving will go down as some of my favorite memories because we were with all their relatives, and I always felt so welcome,” she says. “Also, watching movies together, baking and going to Twins baseball games brings back good memories. Doing small things like that goes a long way.” The experience and memories don’t end when the student returns home.
“We have stories of families and students who are still in contact 30 years after their program,” says Weis-Sanfo. “Oftentimes, the host family visits their student in their country when the student returns home, and sometimes the students come back many years after their program to visit their host family in the United States.” That was the case for the Bullerts and Bergdals.
When Guro graduated from White Bear Lake Area High School in June, her family came to Minnesota for the graduation and to spend time with the Bullerts. “I had a really good experience overall, and I am beyond thankful for everyone who made it great,” says Guro. “My host family had a really close relationship with their relatives, and we spent a lot of time with them. They treated me like family.”
Tips for Hosting an Exchange Student
- Invite your friends and family over to visit your student, and introduce them to people their own age.
- Keep an open line of communication. Let the student know what you expect of them, and they will give you their expectations.
- Be supportive and get involved. Take your student to a baseball game or a family reunion. They want to learn your culture, too!
- Make them feel at home by personalizing their room with pictures of loved ones from back home.
- Once they return home, stay in contact.
Norway ranks among the top 10 countries sending students to participate in youth exchange programs in the United States.
- Germany: 6,573
- China: 4,176
- Brazil: 1,708
- South Korea: 1,542
- Italy: 1,418
- Spain: 1,376
- Norway: 1,193
- Thailand: 1,156
- Denmark: 913
- Japan: 803
Source: The Council on Standards for International Educational travel (CSIET), 2012-2013.
There are many ways a host family can connect with a foreign exchange student. Here are a few accredited organizations to begin your search.
Council on Standards for International Educational Travel
*Sons of Norway does not endorse any particular exchange program. If you decide to host an international student, please be sure that the program you choose is reputable and accredited.
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Viking, the magazine for members of Sons of Norway (sonsofnorway.com). Viking and Mpls.St.Paul Magazine are published by MSP Communications.