Julian Neumark, a German student, walked down the escalator into his new city of Madison, Wisconsin to see a family of unfamiliar faces. Vinny, his brother-to-be, was wearing a button down shirt tight around his neck. While Julian later learned Vinny had just gotten off work at a pharmacy, his first thought was “hopefully he’s not too weird.”
Julian had stayed with an American host family prior to his Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX) experience. He studied abroad in Texas as a high schooler and said it was a great experience for both him as a person and for his English skills. Though Julian found his first American family incredibly generous, he only stayed with them for three months. Approaching living with a foreign family again after 4 years on his own was a little intimidating.
So when he saw Nadine, Maggi, and Vinny, along with his host mother Annette, waiting by the luggage carousel, he thought to himself, “I’m going to stay with them for a year and I don’t even know them. What am I doing?”
A year later, Julian watched the sun rise over the lake in Madison. The bars were now closed on his last night in town. Fortunately, his host sister, and now close friend, was there with him. “That [memory] is just burned into my mind because it was so beautiful and so nice.”
Julian is now over a year removed from his internship experience in the United States. A joint program funded by the German and American governments, CBYX provides the opportunity for German students to spend a year interning, studying and immersing themselves in American culture, which includes living with host families. For Julian, it was this part of the experience that made all the difference.
“You can find friends in a dorm and you can get close to those friends, of course. But as close as I got to my host family? I doubt it,” he said. “That’s a family I’ll stay in touch with for the rest of my life.”
During his year in the United States, Julian’s host family included him in all aspects of their lives. He went on family vacations, from the Wisconsin Dells to New Orleans. Annette introduced him to extended family members during the holidays. Julian got to experience both small and college town life during his stay. Annette lived outside of Madison, but Vinny and Maggi rented a house there together. Julian often stayed over on the weekends after going out with his host siblings.
At one point, he even saw two of his worlds collide when his high school Texan host family invited him to Las Vegas. He brought Vinny along. Since his departure, his two American host families have bonded even more. His Wisconsin family recently went on another trip to Las Vegas with his Texas family.
While interning in the United States, Julian picked up new carpentry skills to supplement his previous apprenticeship experience in cabinetry. But he gained more than professional experience: he now has a second home. Though he’s back in Reichelsheim, Germany, Julian stays in regular contact with his Wisconsin family and intends to come back and visit soon. Maggi and Vinny are also planning trips.
Looking back on his U.S. experience, Julian said he loved Wisconsin but thinks he could’ve been happy anywhere, “if it would’ve been with the same people.”
The Career Host Mom
Just as Julian had previously lived with another host family, it wasn’t Annette’s first time as a host mom, either. Her family has hosted students from everywhere from France to Mexico to the Middle East. Since both of her parents were immigrants, it seemed like the natural thing to do.
“I guess it’s just an interest in learning about other places and people, and…a desire to make the world a little bit of a smaller place,” Annette said of raising her three children around people from across the globe.
But this year, with Julian, it was a little bit different. Annette’s husband had recently passed away and she felt gun-shy about hosting again with her two oldest children now moved out for college. However, Julian’s application stuck out to her immediately.
“His funny personality just came through in the letter,” she said. Julian had included a picture of him with his friends, all donned in t-shirts with pictures from the movie Anchorman. All of her children love that movie, too. It seemed like Julian would be a good fit.
Whenever Annette welcomes a student into her home, her goal is to treat him or her like family, with the same expectations. She said she’ll show off the touristy parts of Wisconsin, but she likes exchange students to get to know locals in “normal situations.” That’s why she included Julian in everything from a trip to Wisconsin Dells to a neighborhood party.
“I think the thing that most [exchange students] tend to be surprised about is that people here are so friendly,” she said.
Even though Julian came during a “crazy transition” period in the family’s life, he immediately connected with Annette, Vinny, Maggi, and Nadine.
“He had a really nice individual relationship with each one of us,” said Annette. “A very separate and special relationship with each member of our family. It’s not that way with every [exchange student].”
Annette and Julian’s relationship involved binge-watching Netflix shows. Gotham and Narcos were two favorites. She said she had missed having someone to watch TV with. He also became something of a co-parent to her youngest daughter Nadine because he knew her so well.
“So any frustrations or joys he was right there with me,” she said.
Annette knows that her family will maintain a special connection with Julian. They even Skyped with him on Christmas Day this year. “It’s these ongoing relationships,” Annette said of the students she’s hosted. For example, she’s now considering hosting the younger sister of another German who lived with her family.
“The more you’re exposed to something, the more you can come to accept and even appreciate it,” Annette said of the hosting experience. She pointed to a study that says young children have to try a new food 10 times before they accept it.
“It applies to different lifestyles or different cultures or anything,” she said. “When it’s something we’re not familiar with, maybe we think it’s weird of different or wrong. But when we get to know a person…it builds understanding.”
Hosting at Cultural Vistas takes many forms, from our generous host families to the companies that welcome international interns into their workplace. If you have a story about how hosting impacted your life, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow along with the series at #WhyHostingMatters.
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