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A young man waits in an airport, dazed by the many signs all around him, written in English. Though he speaks the language, it is not his native tongue, and he hopes he will adapt during his summer in America.

This is the common experience of fifty or more international teenagers who participate in the cross-cultural program Terra Lingua Virginia each summer. This non-profit group, a branch of the Terra Lingua USA organization (founded in 1997), places foreign students with host families throughout Virginia, Maryland and D.C. for a four to six-week summer stay. German, Spanish and French teens, ages 13 to 18, improve their English and learn about the everyday lives of Americans. Program representative Mary O’Donnell of Clifton, Va., describes the host experience as an “opportunity to bond with the students and teach them about the American culture… from a non-Hollywood perspective.”
Each student becomes a part of his or her host family, rather than a guest, and consequently must accept typical family life through both the busy and quiet days. For the students, they “learn about America the way it should be learned,” and both parties “forge friendships from outside their own cultures,” sometimes deeper than expected.

Several years ago O’Donnell hosted a German boy who was very shy and hardly spoke to anyone. He was polite and enjoyed playing the host boys’ drum set, but only showed his feelings with the occasional smile. At the end of the stay, the family took the boy to the airport, and as they said goodbye he hugged them and broke down in tears. He shared that his father never allowed him to pursue music. He said he appreciated the family’s hospitality and kindness toward him, and “was sad to leave.”

O’Donnell grew up in Europe, but when she was first asked to host ten years ago she was nervous. “We had to wait until our children were ready for teenagers from other influences,” she said. However while the students did pass on their cultures and values, Mary soon realized that “the students were intent upon being great guests.” They felt “it was really important to leave the host family with a good experience.” Over ten years of hosting international students from Spain, France and Germany, the O’Donnells have been blessed with many good experiences. Mrs. O’Donnell is now the Virginia Terra Lingua coordinator.

Each coordinator must advertise within his or her own community or church, and hope to place all the kids within a matter of months. “We’ve never had to turn anybody away,” says Mary, “but almost every year we will get up to the last moment.” The “target audience” for Mrs. O’Donnell is the homeschool community within her church in Fairfax, which is usually eager to learn about different cultures. She advertises in over seventy homeschool newsletters across Virginia. Most of her target audience belong to churches, thereby adding another aspect to students’ cultural education. Students placed in Christian homes “definitely have something to think about,” O’Donnell said. With the exception of the occasional self-declared atheist, most program participants from Spain and France tend to be “non-practicing Catholics,” while the Germans are largely Protestant or Catholic.

O’Donnell conducts home inspections and interviews host families before making a match. She usually allows families to select their own students and to read letters from them, because she finds that these matches are more compatible and result in more successful stays. Required from the host family are: “a bed, three meals a day and a welcoming attitude,” says O’Donnell. (Students do not need their own rooms.) The guests in turn must agree to abstain from smoking, and to respect customs and views; students must also be recommended by a teacher and speak English fluently. Though more than one student may stay with a family, they may not speak the same native language, so that they may immerse themselves in English.

The Terra Lingua Virginia program does not coordinate group activities for the students; however it does encourage host families to involve student guests in their outings and events. “They can do everything,” Mary says, including a tour of Washington, DC at least once. Most families will find it instinctive to show their students the nation’s capital and surrounding areas with famous historical, cultural and nature areas in the D.C. metropolitan area. And yet, each family is free to do -- or not to do -- much in the way of touring; the program does not require it.
“If the student and family bond, and if they can afford it, [the students] come back.” Return rate is high in these cases, especially in Mrs. O’Donnell’s own home – they’ve hosted the same girl from Spain for three years, and know several families who have visited their students in their home countries. Email, Facebook and other social networks help to keep students and families connected long after they have separated – “an instant place to visit.”



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