Culture, experience, more awaits students, families

Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Kevin and Judy Miller, a local family, hosted an international student Jai, from Thailand, back in 2019. Contributed photo

Erwin: ‘Students are interested in coming here’

Since 1989, Foreign Links Around the Globe (FLAG) has been opening doors to whole new worlds by placing exchange students with more than 5,000 host families.

Heike Erwin, local FLAG coordinator, said host families are needed in the Barry County area more than ever. Erwin is from Germany and has lived in Washburn for 13 years.

“I have been working with FLAG for the last year,” she said. “I began working with FLAG to help the students. I have always had a heart for international students.”

Erwin said getting host families is the most difficult part of the job.

“For someone who is interested, they can go to our website and fill out an application,” she said. “Then, I talk to the family. I go to their home and take photos to show the student and their family.

“Hopefully, the host family and the student build a relationship before they get here.”

That relationship can include shared hobbies and interests.

“We want to fit the students to the family,” she said. “Part of that is preparing the student to live with the family.”

There are different FLAG programs host families can look into, from a full academic year to a 2- to 4-week summer homestay program.

“I work with families in a 100-mile radius of where I live,” Erwin said. “But, I try to stay closer in order to have a better contact with the host families, as well as the students when they are here.”

As a FLAG coordinator, Erwin is available for both the families and the students support.

“We want everyone to be happy and comfortable,” she said. “Host families aren’t super popular in this area, but students are interested in coming here.

“Not all exchange students want live in New York, or other big cities. Some of them are interested in what we have here, like farms and small-town communities.”

Being a host family not only opens a home to a new culture, but also a chance to show a student the cultures and tradition of this area.

“This is small-town America,” Erwin said. “Not everyone in the country lives on a beach or big city, and this is a wonderful opportunity to show that.”

Nearly 60 percent of the time, exchange students come back to visit their host families.

“These can be lifelong relationships and friendships,” she said. “Also, the learning opportunities are amazing. Imagine a classroom discussing somewhere like Germany. They can get a first-hand account and example from someone from there, instead of just from a book. Experiences like this can change minds and lives.”

In the last year, Erwin has placed a student with one family locally, but there have been other host families in the area before her time with FLAG.

“School districts don’t have to allow students into their districts, but most do,” she said. “If there is ever an issue with it, we try to have as many conversations as needed, and worst case scenario, a student can attend a neighboring district.”

The students are mostly juniors and seniors, 15-17 years old.

The program is reversible as well, meaning U.S. students can become the exchange students themselves and experience another country’s cultures.

Each program has its own application process, requirements and criteria to meet for eligibility.

According to, more than 80 percent of host families are repeat host families.

FLAG represents more than 35 International Partners and 51 countries across the world.

More information can be found on the FLAG website, or by contacting a local coordinator.

Some facts for host families include:

• There is no minimum income amounts to be a host family. FLAG represents many socio-economic levels with “room for one more.”

• A host family is only financially responsible for offering three meals a day.

• A student may share a room with a child of the same sex. The exchange students do require their own bed.

• The host family does not have to secure a spot at a local school district. The coordinator will do that.

• Exchange students are not allowed to drive, so host parents must provide transportation to school, after school events, activities and cultural programs. That can be by public transportation, a bike or a ride from a friend.

• Students bring their own funds for personal expenses, as well as being fully insured for medical expenses.

• The host family is not required to have children the same age as the student. The experience can be rewarding for children of all ages in the home.

• Exchange students are all required to speak English and be able to function in a classroom environment.

• An exchange student may be here for 10 months, August to June, or a full academic year, but some may only stay for one semester.

“By joining FLAG’s program, students become ambassadors of their home country and are encouraged to share their own culture and customs with their American host family,” Erwin said. “It is exactly this type of exchange that fosters global understanding, thereby eliminating stereotypes — the ultimate goal of international student exchange.”

For more information on a local level, people may contact Erwin at 417-342-6475, or by email at

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