Why hosting an international exchange student can change your life

When the phone rang and everyone saw that it was Gaby calling from Ecuador, their faces immediately lit up. They all gathered around the phone and started making small talk as if they saw each other every day. Gaby, Lita, Sonja and Verena, four girls from four different countries who until just a few days ago had never met before. But they shared a bond that ran deep: they had all done high school exchanges in Prince George, British Columbia, and they had all lived with the same host family, the Vogts.

Andy and Cheryl Vogt, whom all four students still refer to as Mom and Dad, decided to host an international student for the first time over a decade ago, and they haven’t looked back since. We got to spend a day with them in Oslo, where for the first time ever they were all together (well, almost). Andy and Cheryl had come all the way from Canada with their son Ben. Verena, from Austria, had come from her current home base in Berlin. Sonja was there from her native Finland. And Lita was acting as host and local tour guide to them all! Unfortunately, Gaby couldn’t make it, but it was clear she was there in spirit (as well as on the phone).

Watching them hang out and reminisce about their time together, several things became clear right away:

First, the Vogts are a special family, kind, affectionate and boundlessly generous. They’re also quick with a joke and quicker to laugh. Andy enjoys pressing people’s buttons, but only if it brings a smile to people’s faces.

Second, the bonds they formed with each of the four girls is something truly special. From inside jokes to cherished memories, these are relationships full of trust, history and meaning.

Finally, none of their lives would be what they are now if they hadn’t had these experiences, and they are all better off for it. We got to hear stories of Sonja coming out of her shell and growing in confidence, of Gaby’s English improving by leaps and bounds, of the Vogts travelling the world to visit each of the students (they’ve visited Norway and Ecuador and even attended Sonja’s wedding in Finland!). 

The Vogts began their journey as host parents with a clear intention to give. They wanted to give young students a place to live for a year, a stable support system during their exchange and the experience of a lifetime. In return they ended up getting back much more than they expected. They got to experience multicultural exchange in their own home, to watch their own children broaden their horizons and grow wiser and more confident, and most importantly, they gained, in their own words, four new daughters.

Sure, it wasn’t all smiles and rainbows. There was work involved, hard work. To hear Andy tell it: “When Cheryl and I went into this, we said that we were going to treat these kids just like they’re our own. There are no special rules, there’s no special favours. They’re the same as any other child in our family. And with that comes the laughter, the chores, some tears, some arguments.”

But no amount of difficulties could change the fact that their lives were forever changed thanks to these young women: “They enriched our lives greatly. They’re somebody more to love. We’ve gotten emotionally attached to these kids. You don’t just bring them into your house and send them off after 10 months. They become a part of your family. And any time your family grows, you can only get better.”

Hosting an exchange student opens a world of possibilities, experiences and bonds, not just for the students, but for the receiving host families, as well. Sonja’s musicality and eagerness to learn, Verena’s uncompromising personality, Gaby’s struggles and eventual conquering of the English language, Lita’s great ambitions and philosophical nature, they all brought something new and beautiful to the Vogt household. What will you bring into yours when you open your doors and add a new member to your family?