My Summer with a Foreign Exchange Student

By Chantel Elder

It started with an email.

Actually let me back up – it started really with an attempt to gain new clients that were fun. And the only way to gain clients that are fun is to offer something unique and fun to attract them. So I offered a free photography session to anyone during the month of May if they incorporated their bikes in the shoot.  Fun right?!  And different. So my theory worked and the phone started ringing with all these fun people that were excited to be photographed in a different way besides just smiling at the park.

Weeks later I got an email from one of my “May is Bike Month” clients. I was on a request list and would I, could I, open up my home to an exchange student.

Reply if interested.

And I wasn’t, because before I finished reading the email I had come up with a million reasons why I wasn’t interested or this didn’t apply to me;

  • My house is small…
  • I am not wealthy enough…
  • We don’t have kids…
  • I work during the day…
  • I am not old enough or a “real” adult yet…

That last one got me. I am 30. As foreign (no pun intended) as it is to me that I am that age, it is a very real and adult age. I rethought everything else on the list and decided that if I was being honest, none of them seemed like reasons not to pursue something.

So I went from “nope this doesn’t apply to me” to “Why wouldn’t they want ME to be a host parent?”

And that is how my mind works with everything: mental banter between yes and no and then the most challenging option wins.

Within a week I had received official information, passed a home inspection, conducted a phone interview, and had three references called/checked (like my Mom was going to give me a bad reference). My husband Greg and I were handed a small stack of exchange students that still needed to be placed – and at the top was a 17 year old German girl. Her bio read:

Adventurous and active, up for anything.  Hobbies include bungie jumping, sky diving and house running.  (I had to Google the last one to figure out what it was).

I figured, she couldn’t possibly have more energy than the Labrador we were dog sitting… And she sounded so interesting. Her curious blue eyes in the photo matched how I felt about the whole thing… I knew in my gut that she was our exchange student.

Then Greg and I got really excited – as in we’re having/adopting a new baby excited. We completely redid our guest room. She would only be with us for three weeks, but I wanted it to feel homey. I bought bright pink posters and glitter pens to make a sign to hold when we picked her up: “WELCOME TO AMERICA NAOMI!!”

Who wouldn’t fall in love with her?

The experience after she stepped off the bus is where it gets difficult to describe.

Let me start by saying we have a friend for life. This girl…we adore her.

I drug her to every single thing that I could think of to show her “my America.” We started by immediately taking her out to try Mexican food because Germany lacks burritos and tacos and yummy salsas and that made me too sad to think about. We made her try every sweet and savory thing we could think of while she was here. She promptly let us know she loved cheeseburgers (and if you know me, then you would know that this girl had my heart immediately).

Naomi was part of a program called EF ( The program keeps the kids in school during the day and fills their days with all sorts of touristy field trips and educational classes from 8-5pm (most days). Because the program is really good about showing them the “must see” things like Old Sacramento, the Capitol, San Francisco etc I wanted to show her what Greg and I do. Her visit began right as Launch 2012 was starting so I got her in to the fashion show and the concert at Cesar Chaves Park with GroupLove and Chromeo.

The days flew by. Greg and I took her on a hike to our favorite river spot with friends and jumped in freezing cold river water off of rocks. Once we found out that her friends in Germany followed the Giants we decided that we must make her the coolest kid in school and take her to a Giants game.

We showed her that Toms were cool and she taught me that Keds were all the rage in her world. We drove her to Sonoma, ate a very American lunch of specialty cheeses and Ben and Jerry’s and continued our journey along Hwy 1 and to Bodega Bay just so I could photograph her with beach hair. We talked about history and her boyfriend (a totally babe BTW) and what she wanted to study in school after her A levels (High School).

Go Giants!

Her conversations were beyond her years, and her English was better then most of my friends after a few glasses of wine.

We took her to Sam’s Club to look at all the crazy pallets of unnecessary stuff under one roof, and she marveled at the people giving out samples. Everything was just so BIG to her. We also took her and a school girlfriend to the movie drive-in, something she had never done before.

All of these regular things that are our life, was exciting for her. It was awesome.

Naomi reminded my husband and I that our state is truly beautiful and that you don’t need to get on a plane to have a culturally rewarding experience.

In no time at all her trip was over.When we dropped her off at her bus, big fat tears sprang into her eyes and we hugged her like we had known her for years. She slipped us a letter thanking us for sharing our lives and closed with “I’ll hella miss you guys and the dogs… xoxo Naomi.”

After she left, all sorts of people wanted to know how the exchange program was and would I do it again. My answer is this – it exceeded my expectations completely.

I’m always amazed by how one small thing can set in motion a series of other events.

A simple attempt to attract fun and different people in my work life proved to be ten times more fun and unique than I could have imagined. I might do it again … or I just might do something completely different and fun next summer. Stay tuned. 🙂


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  1. Stephanie says

    So awesome! Love this!

  2. Matthias says

    Chantel, it was a great pleasure for all of us to read your article about Naomi, Greg and you. I’m sure that she will keep everything she experienced with you in these three weeks in her heart forever! We are very thankful for all the experieces she made with you and that you have taken care of her in such a great way. Let’s stay connected with eachother. Cheers Naomi’s family

  3. peri says

    Great story and writing Chantel. So glad it was a positive experience. I’ve been thinking about it as well thinking it would be great for the kids to meet an exchange student. Thank you for reinforcing a good idea!!

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