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Editor's blog: Hosting an exchange student

Two weeks from today I will lose a daughter, and regain an only child.

Our 17-year-old Serbian exchange student Nevena will fly home after a year living with us and going to a non-traditional Boulder high school for the 2010-2011 school year.

During these nine-plus months, she has become part of our crazy little Boulder family, filling our house with fashion, Facebook and song (a very loud rendition of “Jolene” by Dolly Parton with a slight Serb accent is a recent favorite).

These final days are proving to be full of emotional upheaval played out with short fuses, big laughs, tickle attacks, the beginning of what is sure to be a flood of tears, and many, many trips to Ripple, our favorite self-serve frozen yogurt joint and healer of all woes.

From family of three to family of four – and back

We have supported her as if she was our own child, attending school events and helping as needed with homework. We bought a colorful 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle and a stash of good chocolate, which helped her get through the most grueling month of January. We even sped up our decision to become truly American and buy a big-screen TV and sign up for Netflix. (We still use a rabbit ear antenna, though..)

Early on, we enrolled Nevena in Frequent Flyers, an aerial dance program after detecting a love of daring – yet potentially glamorous – feats. We pushed her to take the risk of making new friends (the hardest thing to do in a new country). In recent weeks, that has finally happened. She just returned from shopping on Pearl Street with a friend and has towering, golden Steve Madden heels to prove it. Knowing of her interest in international affairs, we hooked her up with Model United Nations. We shared in her excitement when she and a Japanese teammate brought home a trophy.

We took her skiing and signed her up for lessons. Never mind the bent ski pole. She learned to ice skate in America. She went on her first overnight camping trip with her CAP (Community Adventure Program) class at New Vista High School. At Christmas-time, Santa brought Nevena and our 8-year-old daughter Milena stockings plump with gifts. Same thing with the Easter bunny. We helped her carve her first pumpkin at Halloween. We took a spring break trip to Florida, baking on the beach and checking out the wild artwork of Salvador Dali. I took her shopping for prom dresses, and doted upon her with camera in hand as she appeared, looking like a Grecian goddess. Early on, my friend, a pilot, took her flying (turns out that was definitely against American Councils for International Education rules…. Oops!)

Most recently, we walked and jogged the Bolder Boulder, indoctrinating her in a very unique American ritual to celebrate Memorial Day. She now has God Bless the U.S.A. by Lee Greenwood stuck in her brain. She is proud to be a Serb with part-American heart.

Why did we do this?

We always wanted two children, but fate did not agree. Being host parents to Nevena gave us the opportunity. And over these months, we have fallen in love with her. I will always think of her as my Balkan daughter. Not only did she share her incredible spirit with us, she gave Milena a sister to hug and to harass, and a new way to think about her unusual name. Milena no longer talks about wanting to change her name to “Rachel.”

To parents of only children in particular, I highly recommend hosting an international student.

It’s not easy. Turns out having a person live with you for a year is the same as holding up a giant mirror and seeing – in sometimes disturbing relief – all the things you don’t like about yourself and your family. Truthfully, though, I’m thankful for that, too, because we needed to make some changes and we are now working on them.

This photo begs the question: How did we pass the background screening?
This photo begs the question: How did we pass the background screening?

We decided very late in the game to host a foreign student. We had it in the back of our minds to have an exchange student when our daughter was in high school and when we were sure to be expert “parents of teens.” But our friends sent a pleading e-mail about Nevena, who is here on a scholarship from the U.S. State Department-sponsored A-SMYLE (American Serbia and Montenegro Youth Leadership Exchange) program. Her original placement had fallen apart. We looked at her sweet yet serious face and imagined her in Serbia with bags packed and nowhere to go. My husband is Serbian-American so there was a cultural connection, too. After five days of vigorous discussion, we said “OK.” Somehow, we passed the background screening and Nevena arrived exactly one week later. It felt then, as it feels now, “meant to be.”

As brutal as it is to see her go, her return home is also meant to be. I can only imagine how her mother and father must be counting the minutes until they can wrap their arms around this most wonderful person. We don’t know if we’ll ever see her again – but my gut says “yes.” I don’t believe Milena would have it any other way.

So, this is my blog post to say goodbye to Nevena and and to encourage parents to think about hosting an international student. It’s worth the risk. Some of the rewards are obvious, others I am sure we will continue to discover long after she leaves.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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