Opening your home to a foreign exchange student can lead to a bit of trepidation. A sheet of paper with a list of a few details becomes a member of your family for a year.
German exchange student Luise Wolf, 17, joined the Ayers’ blended family in August, completing both sides of the exchange-student spectrum.
The Ayers family’s daughter, Claire, left for Italy last year to spend her junior year abroad. She lived with an Italian family and went to school in Messina, a city on the island of Sicily.
“I wanted to be an exchange student in high school, rather than in college,” said Claire, a senior at the Tacoma School of Arts. “When you’re there in high school, you’re living with a family, going to their school, being in the culture.”
She said she may not learn the language or fully immerse herself in the culture if she traveled abroad while she’s in college.
Claire’s experience in Italy highlighted the key to success: The host family needs to be a good match.
“I had a nice host family, and everything was great at first, but they weren’t able to have me stay for the full year,” Claire said. “It got uncomfortable in the transition, and my new family wasn’t the best fit for me.”
The language barrier and family host transfer had Claire return home earlier than the full year.
“There were some great times, and I still have friends from school I keep in contact with from Italy,” she said. “I would do again if I could, though.”
When she returned, Claire, 17, was undaunted by her less-than-ideal experience, determined to have an exchange student stay with her family to experience the other side.
“I’ve wanted to be a host since my sophomore year when I saw how fun it was for a friend,” Claire said. “It was also a way to make my experience better and end on a more positive note.”
The Ayers family brought in Wolf, from Wettin, Germany. Wolf had seen a flier at school that offered an opportunity to come to the United States. She won the full merit-based scholarship after she interviewed with German politicians and performed well on a history and politics test.
Paul and Teresa were notified of her placement, and shortly thereafter, Wolf was at their home.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been an easy transition,” Paul said.
Used to multiple teens in their home, the addition of another one was a breeze.
“No one could be as lucky as us,” Teresa said. “Luise is part of the family already. I expected that feeling to be gradual, but she came into our lives, and we just loved her right away. She has a great personality and is an easy fit for all of us.”
A small family dinner to welcome Wolf was anything but quiet the first night. Jake, 19, who was home for the summer, along with groups of friends and grandparents who dropped in, made for a hectic, packed place.
“It was a full indoctrination into our house right away,” Paul said.
“I liked it that way,” said Wolf, who speaks fluent English. “Having all those people around was much better than sitting down and having polite questions and a quiet dinner.”
A senior at Gig Harbor High School, the biggest challenge for Wolf has been to break into well-established social groups.
“I got into leadership and made the Maestro Singers,” she said. “Everyone has been friendly and helpful to me.”
The Gig Harbor-Peninsula Fish Bowl matchup Sept. 13 was her first experience with American-style football. Wolf helped make spirit posters and the senior T-shirts.
“I enjoyed seeing the school unity and everyone so happy and excited,” she said.
Her German school includes grades five through 12 and is half the size of Gig Harbor High.
“Gig Harbor seems like it is a typical high school from the movies,” Wolf said.
Her next American adventure will be her first dance at Homecoming, with the added bonus of dress shopping with Claire and her friends. German schools don’t have dances or proms.
Wolf uses social media to keep in contact with her family.
“My mom is sad, but she and my grandparents are glad for me because I am happy and really like it here,” Wolf said. “I don’t feel homesick at all.”
The Ayers family did some sightseeing in August with Wolf, including a trip to Sunriver, Ore., and Pike Place Market in Seattle. They have additional plans to attend a theater, a Seattle Sounders FC game and a University of Washington football game.
Wolf will go back to finish her last year of school in Germany, since her academic year at Gig Harbor High won’t count on her transcript.
With eight months to go, she already plans to return to the states, and the Ayers family is scheduling a trip to Germany.
The girls share a room, and although they attend different high schools, Claire appreciates the sister-like bond they have formed.
Younger step-brother, Gavin, 14, feels like he has gained another big sister.
Wolf is one of 16 exchange students in the Puget Sound area from the AFS-USA, formerly the American Field Service. The process includes a form and background checks for family members and the cost for adding another person to the family.
“The main thing we were told as exchange students is not to have any expectations,” Claire said.
The Ayers family had no idea what to expect in either direction of an exchange. At Claire’s insistence, though, everyone is enjoying their role as host family, with Wolf a member of their family for the year, and having the exchange student experience come-full circle.
For more information about the exchange student program, visit www.afsuse.org.Lifestyles Coordinator Kim Eibel can be reached at 253-358-4152 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @gateway_kim.