Foreign exchange programs face uncertainty with virus

Diego Nicolosi spent two summers in the United States, at the Hodges’ home in Camden.

“For a 14-year-old boy, shy, who was traveling so far from home for the first time, the first few days were difficult, but they had a lot of patience and, in the end, my experience in Delaware was fantastic,” he wrote in an email. “I knew the region and American life, they made me feel phenomenal.”

Mr. Nicolosi is from Spain; his home overlooks Madrid from the mountains. His first trip to the U.S. was in 2017, when his parents enrolled in a vacation program to improve his English. He was paired with the Hodges family, which started a connection between two families across the globe from one another.

They hoped to build on that this year, with Mr. Nicolosi looking to study abroad in Delaware. COVID-19 had other plans.

Like many students across the state and country, plans to study and vacation abroad are up in the air.

The EU extended its travel ban on the U.S. travelers indefinitely given the number of coronavirus cases in the country. The U.S. itself has a list of countries that it too is restricting from entering its borders, including Spain, barring certain exceptions.

But before the coronavirus pandemic of 2019 and 2020, the Hodges decided in 2017 to participate in the program to host a student with their youngest child, Lee, who is 14 now, in mind.

“I thought he would visit one time, and that would be the end of it,” Angel Hodges recalled. It turned out a bit differently: “They call us their American family and we call them our Spanish family.”

“It’s like a bond that you create with these families. This kid just shows up. Literally we showed up at a bus, they handed us a kid. He’s nervous, we’re nervous. You got the summary before, but a summary is just paper, you don’t know,” Justin Hodges said. “He’s just the greatest little kid, besides my grandkids and kids, but he fits right in. You could have his heart with a bottle of Ranch dressing.”

The following summer, Mr. Nicolosi returned and “fell more in love with the United States.” After two summers with the Hodges, his family hosted them during their trip to Spain.

“It was very hot, but we were able to visit some places and I think they liked the experience,” Mr. Nicolosi noted. The Hodges agreed that they did.

The past three summers led Mr. Nicolosi to a goal his parents had for him.

“My father is Italian from the city of Catania, and my mother is Spanish from Madrid, but curiously they always told me, that if they could afford it, they would like me to study one year in the USA, that living that experience would be good for my personal development, for my maturity as a person and that learning English would be the best career I could have,” he said.

Hitting a snag

Though Mr. Nicolosi began the work of studying abroad in December, with the Hodges starting their side of the process a few months later, his senior year in the States hit a snag with COVID-19.

With travel restrictions and the closure of consulates and embassies, there is some uncertainty about what an exchange program could look like. For Cultural Homestay International, the California-based exchange program mediating Mr. Nicolosi’s trip, possibilities for next year’s program are opaque.

“We also are aware that in many public high schools on the east coast and west coast, the principals are not exactly very excited to have foreign students in their high schools, as beneficial as it might be to American students because they all of course plead lack of funds due to the virus,” said Tom Areton, founder of CHI. “So there may be quite a lot of headwinds trying to find spaces to put these students in our American public high schools.”

The program has already placed some students across the country, where some schools are anticipating a return to in-class sessions and other schools are looking toward limited classes and emphasized online sessions. (Delaware will announce how schools will operate in early August. The Delaware Department of Education released recommendations Wednesday for three potential scenarios.)

“We are informing our prospective students who we are in the process of placing now what to expect, that they have to be flexible, they’ll have an experience with a host family that’s going to welcome them and give them an opportunity to be part of an American family and that they will be attending a school, we just don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like,” said Miki Lalonde, director of academic programs for CHI.

A wider viewpoint

She and Mr. Areton noted that it’s incredibly beneficial for the students studying abroad, and the communities hosting them.

“It’s wonderful to get to know other cultures, other people. It really makes you a bigger person, with a wider viewpoint with new ideas, perhaps,” Mr. Areton said.

Mrs. Hodges noted that she was wary at first about the concept.

“I was probably more closed minded and scared than Justin was. Justin was much more open minded, but Justin’s traveled the world, with being in the military. He’s been in lots of countries,” she said. “I’m from Delaware… It was a little harder for me.”

But Mr. Nicolosi became part of their family.

“One of the biggest things I learned is that Spanish kids are just like American kids. They’re all the exact same,” she said.

But, even more than that, it builds a rapport between nations, Mr. Areton said.

“These are future leaders of their countries. So we want to win them as friends, we want them to be impressed by the United States, to love their host families, their new host brothers, new host sisters, to learn about democracy,” he said. “It’s really important that we bring these students here.”

Through the difficulty getting schools to respond to their requests — even before COVID-19 closed schools across the state — Mrs. Hodges was surprised that local districts didn’t seem to have an interest in hosting a foreign exchange student.

“I just assumed that the school had one foreign exchange student every year,” Mrs. Hodges said. “I just assumed that it was just something that they would want to do and did do. To learn that they just weren’t interested in it really shocked me.”

After the difficulty finding a school in Delaware that would be willing to host Mr. Nicolosi, CHI gave him the option to find another family in another state.

Mr. Nicolosi said he understands the hesitation on the part of the principals, though.

“So this year it’s not going to be possible for me to study in Delaware and live with the best American family that a European student can have, the European dream of living the American dream,” Mr. Nicolosi said, adding, “I’m [going to] keep trying, even though me and my family are really sorry it can’t be with the Hodges family in Delaware.”

Mr. Areton explained that it’s usually easier to place students in Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, South Dakota or Alaska, versus Delaware, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania or California.

“During this time, we may be more successful in the middle of the country where it seems to be school boards and principals are much more receptive than schools on the coasts,” he said.

Last year, Milford School District hosted two foreign exchange students, but with the uncertainty of this year, hadn’t received requests for the 2020-21 academic year or planned on having any foreign exchange students. Other schools, like Sussex Tech — which has previously hosted students — also didn’t anticipate any programs running this year.

As coronavirus started to spread throughout the U.S. and Delaware in March, Cape Henlopen High School opted to cancel its study abroad group coming from Japan.

Approximately 14 students from Japan come to the U.S. and spend time in Washington and New York and then stay with a host family and shadow students at CHHS, but given the circumstances, the administration felt it was better to miss this year.