ALPENA — Hosting an exchange student is much more than just providing a place for them to live. It’s welcoming them into your home and treating them just like family.
Two Alpena families talked about all the fun, challenges and lessons learned from welcoming their exchange daughters to Northern Michigan.
Ballors hosting Martina from Spain
Shawn and Gail Ballor have teenage twin daughters, and added an exchange daughter to their family this school year.
Martina Abaidua, 15, from Spain, is a senior at Alpena High School this year. She is the second exchange daughter the Ballors have hosted. The first was from Germany. She joins Alicia and Hunter Ballor, both 17, in the busy and fun Ballor home.
Abaidua arrived in Alpena on Sept. 1, 2020. She comes from a large city, Vitoria-Gasteiz, with a population of nearly 250,000 people — roughly 25 times the size of Alpena.
“She lives across from a train station, back home,” Gail said. “So, coming here, and, first of all, having a dirt road that we live on, and having no public transportation, like she’s used to…”
“And living with a bunch of country bumpkins,” Shawn interjected.
They all agreed it was a huge change for her.
“She got to experience her first hunt,” Shawn said. “She was with Alicia, and they got a deer.”
“It was cool,” Abaidua said.
“She got to help me clean ducks,” Shawn said.
“We’re a big outdoor family,” Hunter added.
“So, she’s open to trying anything, learn some new things,” Shawn said. “Except for dirty dishes. She’ll do it, but that’s her least favorite.”
Yes, Abaidua would rather clean a duck than a dish. She noted some of the differences she has had to adjust to here. She said she misses Spanish food and she can’t cook, other than deep-fried Oreos. She also misses her midday siestas.
“In Spain, when you meet someone, it’s two kisses,” she said, adding that people here are more into their own business while they are passing you in the hallway. “In Spain, we say ‘Hi’ to everyone we know.”
Gail said the lack of friendliness might have something to do with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a rough year for everybody, and I don’t know if that’s what’s causing more of that, especially with the kids,” she said.
The Ballors had already decided to host an exchange student prior to the pandemic. They decided the benefits outweighed the costs of bringing an exchange student into their home.
“We decided to do it way before the pandemic even began, so we knew we were getting her in November 2019,” Gail said. “We were nervous about it not happening, because we weren’t sure what was going to happen with ASSE, if they were going to be able to come or not. It was off and on for a little bit, then it was a go.”
ASSE International is one of the organizations that oversees the student exchange programs here.
Abaidua is one of two exchange students from Spain at Alpena High School this school year. In Spain, they are from cities that are only about 45 minutes apart, she said. Both cities are part of the Basque Country. The other exchange student is from Bilboa, Abaidua said. She added that they did not know each other prior to coming here, but it has been nice talking to him and getting to know someone from her own area while she is in Alpena.
While at AHS, Abaidua has participated in cheerleading, track and dance — ballet, jazz, hip hop and tap. She also tried skating for a few months.
Because of the pandemic, lots of the usual events such as pep rallies and dances were canceled this year, but she still had fun in Alpena. She said school dances are an American thing.
“Our parties have nothing to do with school,” she noted. “School is pretty much sports and learning. We do trips but we don’t do dances.”
She does enjoy shopping, though.
“She’s probably the most professional shopper I’ve ever seen,” Shawn said. “This girl can shop for days for clothes.”
“Three hours in one store, for two things?” Hunter added, as the others laughed.
The Ballors explained why they have taken in exchange students.
“I think it’s nice to give our girls a little lesson in different cultures, and get to learn the cultures from around the world, because we are not a diverse community up here,” Gail said.
“It’s neat to have friends and family around the world, and hopefully build those relationships,” Shawn added.
They noted that shipping packages to European countries is much more expensive than having them shipped to the U.S.
“Our customs are not near as stringent,” Shawn said, adding that Abaidua’s parents will ship something to her, and “the package, the day her mom wants to get it to her, it’s on our doorstep. And I know to ship something to Germany or Spain, it’s hundreds of dollars.”
“The same package our (former) exchange student shipped from Germany, it cost her maybe, like, $25, and for me to ship the same thing back, would have been over $100,” Gail said. “It’s just strange.”
Shawn said life is a lot different in Europe.
“In a few hours, they can be in another country,” he said, comparing it to us having to drive five hours to get to Ohio, the next state.
Aside from her accent, you’d think Abaidua was part of this family from the start. The way the girls tease, pester and laugh with each other, they were definitely meant to be sisters.
Polis to welcome Giulia from Italy
The Polis have already hosted three exchange students — one from Australia, another from Italy, and one from Lithuania. Their fourth exchange student, Giulia from Italy, will be here in August for the 2021-2022 school year.
Todd and Jenny Poli have always hosted female students because they have a daughter, Laura, 12. The girls have been “older sisters” to Laura, who still keeps in contact with some of them.
Laura Poli has already been chatting with Giulia from afar, and she is looking forward to meeting her in person.
Laura said she really liked her exchange sister from Italy a few years ago, so that factored into choosing an Italian this time.
“This year I’m taking Italian for my foreign language,” Laura said.
Todd said he has Italian heritage, so that’s another reason they settled on Italy.
“His dad’s family is from Northern Italy,” Jenny said. “And both of these girls are from Northern Italy.”
Giulia is 16 years old and she loves playing sports and has taken rhythmic gymnastics lessons for the last 10 years. She enjoys many different activities such as skiing, jogging, swimming, baking and traveling. In Italy, she attends a linguistic high school and studies Spanish, French and English.
“They know it better than us,” Jenny said of the exchange students learning English. “They speak proper English.”
She said their Lithuanian exchange daughter was especially fluent in English.
“Our Lithuanian girl was amazing with her English,” Jenny said. “She spoke perfect English.”
“It’s funny because now, when I talk to my former exchange students, when they go back to their city or where they’re from, their English has just gone way down,” Laura said.
Laura added that hosting these exchange students has been a positive experience for her, since she is an only child.
“I’ve never gotten a chance to have a sister,” Laura said.
Jenny teaches science at Alpena High School, so she is right there for the students during their school day. She can keep tabs on them, and she knows the ins and outs of the school.
Another reason the Polis host exchange students is that they have the room in their house.
“We have part of the house that we just don’t use,” Jenny said. “We kept saying, ‘What are we going to do with this?’”
The Polis’ future exchange student Giulia is described as a hard-working student, who is ambitious and puts her best effort into everything she does. She is also creative, curious, friendly, responsible and an adventurous girl. Giulia is excited to spend a year in Alpena, Michigan, as an exchange student and looks forward to making friends and learning about American culture.
To host an exchange student, you have to be background-checked and reference-checked, and you will be paired with a student whose profile matches your requested criteria as closely as possible.
“You do the picking,” Jenny Poli explained. “The kids on the other side don’t know. They just know they’re going to the United States.”
You can even match up a profile with the same religious preferences as your family.
“We’re Catholic and we go to church every single week,” Jenny Poli said. “So we tend to look for a Catholic person … all the ones that we’ve had so far have gone (to church) with us, but we don’t force them.”
Every ASSE exchange student comes with an enthusiasm to practice their English and experience American culture. They will also share their own culture with their host family and community. Host families welcome these students into their family, not as a guest, but as a family member, giving both the students and families a rich cultural experience.
“It is fun,” Jenny Poli added about hosting an exchange student. “It is a commitment, though.”
She added that they had no qualms about bringing an exchange student into their home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To become a host family or to find out how to become involved with ASSE in your community, please call the local Area Representative, Lori Vought at 989-464-1509 or the Eastern Regional Office at 1-800-677-2773. You can also go to www.host.asse.com and fill out a host family application to begin the process of welcoming your new son or daughter into your family today.