The ASSE-International Student Exchange Programs is looking for families in the county to host high schoolers from countries around the world for the upcoming school year.
The program is meant to give families and students opportunities to engage in unique cultural experiences. Originally founded in 1976, ASSE represents students from more than 30 countries, but currently, only 18 families are hosting.
“It’s an opportunity,” said Elizabeth Milby, ASSE’s Maryland state coordinator. “Single moms, traditional couples, gay and lesbian couples, we are not opposed to anyone hosting as long as they’re willing to share their life as they live every day.”
Milby first became aware of the program as a teenager, when ASSE was the American Scandinavian Student Exchange. It has since changed her life.
“I don’t know where I would be without that opportunity,” she said.
Her goal has since been to provide the same opportunity to students in the United States and around the world. While students might be afraid to leave their countries or families afraid to host, there is no shortage of foreign students eager to live in the United States. The first hurdle has therefore been to convince families that it’s safe.
“It’s tough,” said Milby. “Sometimes people are scared.”
As political tensions rise in the U.S., ASSE found that many people perceive student exchange programs as an inlet for illegal immigration. All students, however, come in with a J1 visa and are sponsored by the program.
“We make sure they fly out,” Milby said.
Issues also arise with local schools, who might be overcrowded or find hosting an exchange student a hassle. But to Milby, the same difficulties would arise if a student was moving from a different state.
According to Heather Jones, an ASSE area representative, the common factor for host families always has been that they are interested in learning about a different culture.
“That’s a shared characteristic. Everyone wants to learn more,” said Jones. “You wouldn’t host if you didn’t.”
Jones grew up with a family that hosted exchange students in the summer. In 2015, she got in touch with ASSE to reconnect with that experience. In addition to representing the families that host for ASSE, she is hosting a student herself in her home in Anne Arundel County.
“I thought it would be a good experience for my family,” said Jones. “It is a lot of work to properly support families and students, but it’s a lot of fun.”
One student, Armen Mkrtumyan from Armenia, stayed in Montgomery County during the 2018-2019 school year. Mkrtumyan joined the student exchange through the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), a scholarship program for students in Europe funded by the U.S. State Department. His time in the U.S. motivated him to write a song about his experience.
“It’s pretty hard to get in (FLEX),” he said in his song. “Don’t say you are going to waste a year because you won’t.”