GRAND RAPIDS, Mich (WOTV) -This is the sixth time Dottie Unrath has hosted exchange students, providing each a warm home from which to experience a new land.
The first one, a boy from Sweden, fell in love with another student and eventually came back and married her. Next it was the girl from Norway, who was the first female youngster in Unrath’s household.
“She ate unbelievable amounts of my cooking,” Unrath recalled. “She must have gained 25 pounds eating my food. She’s married and has three kids now.”
Unrath also hosted two students from Germany. And then there was the girl from Thailand, with whom she had to communicate for the first few months via simple translations on sticky notes affixed to nearly every object in her house.
She readily admits she grows attached to her United Nations of houseguests: “Oh, I sure do,” she said.”
Unrath, a special education parapro at Mill Creek Middle School, likes hosting exchange students so much that she’s hosting two at once this year. That makes four who have attended Comstock Park along with three in Kenowa Hills, where she lives.
“It’s just me in the house, so I just thought it would be good for them to have someone other than me to depend on,” Unrath said. “There’s a little bit more clutter in the bathroom than there usually is, but we do OK.”
“We” is Unrath and Yuriko Kogure, 17, from Tokyo, Japan; and Annalena “Annie” Woellmann, 16, from Berlin, Germany. So not only are the girls learning about American culture during their year-long immersion at Comstock Park, they’re learning about each other’s cultures.
“Mostly food,” Annie said with a laugh. “Our parents send us snacks from home, so we get to try candy the other one likes. (Yuriko) really likes German chocolate, and I got to try different flavors of Kit Kats. Green tea was interesting.”
At school the girls are in English and psychology class together, and Yuriko plans to take choir next semester because Annie had such good things to say about that class. Both hope to play tennis in the spring.
“I like how they can study together and look to each other for that support,” Unrath said.
The trio make for an intentional temporary family that fills Unrath’s empty nest and satisfies her desire to be an ambassador for the district and the country. This year, for instance, there was pumpkin carving at Halloween. And Unrath got to help the girls prepare for homecoming, an event neither has in their native countries.
“My three sons were getting older and I really like middle and high school-age kids,” Unrath said. “I missed having that kind of activity in the house.”
More Students Over the Years
Comstock Park High School Principal Steve Gough’s wife, Tuesday, is the district coordinator for Educatius International, the Boston-based exchange organization Yuriko and Annie are working with. The Goughs often host events at their house for exchange students.
Over the past 10 years, Educatius has placed students from more than 50 countries to academic programs worldwide. In addition to U.S. high school and university programs, they also place students in high school programs in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
Basic requirements to become a host family are a genuine willingness to share daily life with an international student; an English-speaking environment; and an available bedroom for the student with their own bed, desk and closet, plus three meals a day. Potential host parents also must undergo an interview and criminal background check.
Gough said when he started working at the high school about a decade ago, the school only accepted one exchange student per year. This year there are six.
“We would take even more if there were more host homes that were willing,” he said. “It just enhances the experience of all students to interact with students from other cultures.”
Unrath encourages families interested in hosting to talk with those who have. “Many don’t realize how serious they are about their education and about having this year-long cultural experience,” she said.