When a host and her international student call each other “mom” and “son,” or when a woman says she loves her teenaged guest, and everyone agrees there is a rich cultural exchange, you know something good is happening.
Host parents with GPHomestay say the experience of welcoming an international student into their home to learn how Americans live while earning a high school education is most rewarding. Daniela Currie-Gutierrez is one such host parent. Chinese student Jun Yan, 18, who goes by the American name Abner Sampson, has been with Daniela and her partner, Robert Watson, for three years. (Typical stays range from one to four years, but short-term hosting opportunities are also available.)
“Abner is an extrovert,” says Currie-Gutierrez. “He’s definitely silly, goofy, and loves Doctor Who and sci-fi. He’s one of a kind.” Besides having fun with his American and Chinese friends here, Abner has earned a 3.85 grade point average at the Sparhawk School, a small private high school in Amesbury.When he graduated this spring, his stay was officially over. But rather than return home right away, he remained a while longer so he could accompany his host parents to China, where they would be guests in his home in Jiangsu Province. He mapped out an itinerary that included visiting some of the province’s gems: Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing in the northeast region of the country. Currie-Gutierrez and Watson would experience firsthand a culture with a 6,000-year history—a fitting reward for their generosity.
GPHomestay’s residential coordinator, Peter Lendall, says, “The students that come have an incredible work ethic in academics. They know it’s a sacrifice for their family. They put that effort in…. Students know that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles may be paying for it, and that they are representatives of their family.”
Host mom Margery Shapiro of Salem has had a gratifying experience with Hengwang (Dylan) Lyu and Yinglun (Chandler) Wang. After her husband died suddenly in September 2013, Shapiro looked into GPHomestay. “It would have been easy to not be sociable,” she says. “[The boys] helped me get a routine back. I like to cook, but I wasn’t cooking for myself. It’s been amazing…. I’m enjoying it very much.”
Lyu, 18, who will be a senior at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers in the fall, takes advanced placement courses and has scored a grade point average of “4.0-ish,” he says. This spring, he stayed with his uncle in the Fenway section of Boston and took summer courses at Harvard University before returning to Shapiro’s home for his senior year at St. John’s.
School is harder in China, Lyu says. “The test at the end of your senior year defines your future. One test is the only thing defining who you are, nothing else.” He has come to appreciate the system in the United States, where “it’s your homework, clubs, participation, labs, tests. It all counts. Here you have to do well every single day.”
Yes, clubs count, especially if you founded one, as Lyu did. With the help of a St. John’s Chinese teacher, he started the Chinese Ambassador’s Club in which students studying Chinese have opportunities to converse and learn about Chinese traditional culture, pop culture, and history. He started it to get involved in the community. “It’s not only about knowing American culture,” he explains. “One of my other missions is to introduce Chinese traditions to Americans and see how the collision of cultures happens.”
Lyu, who has been here two years, always had his heart set on coming to the United States. Even so, he admits to being lonely and sensing he wasn’t a part of either world at the beginning. “I’m sure every international student feels the same,” he says. “We feel we don’t belong anywhere. I left my home, family, friends. I didn’t belong to China anymore because my feet were on American soil. I had to change my mind-set. I got encouragement from my parents and friends. We would go out, watch a movie, or just chill. I became more and more used to how things worked here. It’s a completely different version of life. It’s very conservative in China.”
Locally, GPHomestay has partnered with Bishop Fenwick High School, Masconomet Regional High School, Austin Preparatory School, Nazareth Academy, St. John’s Preparatory School, and the Sparhawk School. Headquartered in Waltham, GPHomestay works with hosts and students, arranges interviews with prospective families, and coordinates activities with groups and schools. International students apply through agencies in their home countries (most come from China and Korea). GPHomestay says it’s an opportunity for both the schools and families in Boxford, Danvers, Peabody, Reading, Wakefield, and the surrounding areas to reach out globally without leaving their homes. Logistically, host families receive a stipend for each student and are expected to provide meals and transportation to and from school, or make arrangements for it, though students do come with their own insurance and spending money.
Asked if he has advice for students contemplating coming here, Lyu says, “It’s a fantastic decision to make. It’s beyond your imagination. Everything is different. It changes your life.”