Becoming a host family for students all across the world.
When Mandi and Randy Steinlage and their three daughters Kearra, Cora, and Karina decided to host a foreign exchange student last year, they didn’t quite know what to expect. The opportunity presented itself when Mandi, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Stanislaus School in Wardsville, connected with Whitney Griffin. Whitney attended St. Stanislaus in her youth and was a volunteer Spanish teacher there before establishing the Whitney English Academy in Navalmoral dé la Mata, Spain.
Whitney’s academy also happens to pride itself on its cultural exchange program that sends academy students to short-term placements with families in the Jefferson City area. When Whitney reached out asking for families to host, Randy was the first one to suggest that the family look into it. He recalled his older sister inviting a foreign exchange student into the family when he was younger, and the student stuck around for an entire academic year in what was ultimately a very positive experience. Randy says the other families he saw around him growing up, who hosted foreign exchange students, had a similarly great experience.
“I never saw it ever to be a negative,” Randy says. “It always turned out to be a positive for the whole family, and all the peoples’ hearts that are touched. By the time they went home, you could see a big change in people … It was just amazing.”
At the time, Randy didn’t even know how long the exchange was supposed to last, he just knew he was on board. And he was right. By the time Adriana, a 15-year-old exchange student from Spain, left to go back home, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
But, the family wasn’t without its anxieties prior to Adriana’s arrival last August. Mandi says she was initially anxious about how the family could accommodate someone speaking a different language and hailing from a different culture. She wanted to make sure the Steinlage family was meeting Adriana’s needs in comparing the two cultures. It turns out, there wasn’t any need to worry.
“You never know if you’re going to gel with a person, but I could not have asked for someone who fits our family and our lifestyle better than Adriana did,” Mandi says. “She was willing to try new things and new foods. She fell in love with strawberry Pop-Tarts.”
Adriana was only in the country for a matter of weeks, but they managed to pack in plenty of experiences, like traveling to the Steinlage family’s lake house for some kayaking, fishing, and tubing. They tried different restaurants serving different types of food just about every day, and they went to watch Cora compete in volleyball games.
“She brought a lot of her culture to us as well,” Mandi says. “She brought us some new foods to try and different things, and she was trying to teach me and my girls different words in Spanish.”
Luckily, Kearra had been studying Spanish herself, so the two girls were able to hold full conversations in the language. The girls held a special bond almost right away. Kearra says she was eager to learn more about the Spanish language and culture and to discover more about different parts of the world.
“It always turned out to be a positive for the whole family, and all the peoples’ hearts that are touched. By the time they went home, you could see a big change in people …It was just amazing.”—Randy Steinlage
Let’s Exchange 😉
Exchange programs like Whitney English Academy’s aren’t the only option for folks in the Jefferson City area hoping to host an exchange student. There’s also the Rotary Youth Exchange that offers students aged 15 1/2-18 1/2 the opportunity to study abroad for an entire academic year living with three families —with their local Rotary Club providing support and underwriting most of the cost of living and school expenses.
District 6080 covers southwest and Central Missouri, and Jefferson City has four of the district’s 50 Rotary Clubs. Those hoping to learn more about Rotary Youth Exchange can visit District 6080’s website: rotaryyouthexchange6080.org.
“I was fully on board when I heard about it,” Kearra says. “I remember meeting her, and she just seemed like so much fun. Obviously, she seemed a little shy, but she was brand new to the country. In that first week, she became one of my best friends ever.”
Kearra and Adriana still Face-Time often to share details about what’s going on in each of their lives, and Adriana was already lobbying to get the family to pay her a visit in Spain before going home. The family says they hope they’ll get a chance to make good on a visit someday.
Middle sibling Cora was a bit more of a tough sell, though. The family jokingly describes her as “not a people person.” She was skeptical about the prospect of living with a stranger at first, but quickly found that Adriana was a sweet person and probably just as (if not more) nervous about visiting from a different country.
It also helped a lot that they had one key commonality — together, Cora and Adriana were embarking on their first days at a new school. Cora was entering her freshman year at Helias Catholic High School, and she says the pair felt less nervous knowing they could lean on one another for support.
“We kind of both went into it saying, ‘We’ve got this, and if we ever need each other, we can always just say hello in the hallways,’” Cora says. “So that’s something that we both had in common. I think it made it better for her to realize that she’s not the only one scared going into this new school, even though she probably should’ve been more scared than me.”
Adriana got along well with the whole group of siblings, in fact. Randy says she has a younger sibling back in Spain, so it didn’t matter much how old you were — she wasn’t leaving anyone out. The whole family says they would absolutely do it all over again, and the Steinlage family may end up traveling abroad after all. Kearra says as she’s looking into college options, and keeping an eye out for schools that offer a study abroad program.
“A few weeks wasn’t enough … We really fell in love with her, and when we had to say goodbye to her it was tough.”—Mandi Steinlage
“Spain would definitely be at the top of my list — especially after Adriana was kind of trying to kidnap me, saying ‘Come back to my country, meet everybody, all my friends would love you,’” Kearra says. “I definitely want to go over, or host somebody else again, especially if we could have Adriana — and we could try to convince her to keep it more than just a two-week thing.
The family also agrees that there simply wasn’t enough time with Adriana.
“A few weeks wasn’t enough, and there were plenty of things the family didn’t get to do that she wishes could’ve happened,” Mandi says. “We really fell in love with her, and when we had to say goodbye to her it was tough.”