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Exchange programs seek Vermont families to host international students after pandemic lull

Stowe residents Mirjam and Michael McCormack will be host family to a German exchange student this fall. This family photo was taken on their 17th wedding anniversary last year after a hike up Spruce Peak in Stowe. Pictured from left are their children Ella, 14; Jacob, 15; Skyler, 9; and Brookie, 12 at that time. Courtesy photo

Mirjam McCormack came to Utah as an exchange student from Slovakia when she was 17.

A high school senior at the time, McCormack missed her family but said she had a unique experience with her host family, who welcomed her, stood by her through the challenges and even helped her apply to college.

McCormack, who now lives in Stowe and has four children of her own, has stayed in touch with her host family all these years. “We still call them our Utah cousins when we visit them and the kids have a wonderful connection,” she wrote in an email. 

This fall, McCormack is looking forward to welcoming an international exchange student — Johannes, a 16-year-old high school junior in Germany — into her home and family.

“Our children know my story and are very excited to meet another brave student that is willing to leave his/her own family to meet us and have a Vermont experience with us. They are excited to have a ‘new sibling,’” McCormack said.

But the waiting list for students seeking host families is long, said Meghan Fahey, northeast coordinator for International Experience, one of many organizations that facilitate such exchanges in Vermont.

The lingering effects of Covid-19 lockdowns, and the ongoing impact of the pandemic, is straining the system, she said.

“We have a significantly larger number of students this year who were put on hold, whose paperwork got a stay because of Covid, so we are doubling down, tripling down,” Fahey said. “And some have been waiting a year and a half or two years to come here.”

This year, International Experience has 80 students to place before Aug. 31, with at least 10 specifically requesting the Northeast. 

They include 14-year-old Anton from Spain, who is interested in golf, hiking, sailing and watching TV shows like “Friends”; Marie, a 14-year-old German, who enjoys volleyball, cheerleading, pets and wants to “get to know real American life;” and Kaan, a 14-year-old from Switzerland, who likes to cook, draw, swim and whose father participated in the exchange program, according to bios shared by Fahey.

“I hope this experience will change my life,” Kaan wrote in his bio.

Students usually come with their own health insurance and money for school and personal expenses. The organizations help facilitate the formalities such as visa, travel, liability issues and provide other support.

The host families do not get paid but have access to benefits — for instance their high school-age children qualify for year-long immersion programs in Spain and Germany through International Experience, usually the following summer, Fahey said.

Like many other sectors, exchange programs took a hit during the pandemic when travel stalled. Fahey said they had no placements in 2019 and only two last year. Now, as more international students sign up to participate, Fahey said they are scrambling to find volunteer families to host them.

According to annual data provided by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, visiting exchange student numbers dropped in 2020 across New England but seem to be bouncing back up since last year. In Vermont, 21 high school exchange students were placed in 2020 — a significant drop from the 96 students placed in 2019. But the number climbed last year with 92 students placed across the state. No data is available yet for 2022.

At least three local placement agencies told VTDigger they are having a hard time finding host families this year.

“It is correct that we are all in this business struggling these days. But finding loving close families is never easy,” said Milos Prokic, chief operating officer of International Student Exchange in New York, which placed 10 students in Vermont last year.

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