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Cultural Exchange Programs Give High School Students a Taste of Life in Tennessee

The beginning of the school year is always filled with anticipation and excitement for students as a new year of possibilities is laid out before them. For high school exchange students coming to America, the nerves of a new school year are taken to the next level, being accompanied by the unknowns of a new country, school, culture, and host family.

Many families in Middle Tennessee have been opening their homes to exchange students for years, showing them Southern hospitality and introducing them to the culture of the United States.

Ryan and Dawn Gustin of Spring Hill have been welcoming international students into their home since 2016. After hearing about foreign exchange programs through a former co-worker, the Gustin's jumped headfirst into the experience and have been helping international students become immersed into life in Tennessee ever since.

“We don’t have biological children of our own and so being somewhat new to Tennessee when we started the program, [we] thought it might be a good and fun, exciting way to open our home to other cultures," says Ryan. “But at the same time, the exchange program was allowing us to assimilate deeper into the local community with other families that have children and learn more about the high school.”

The Gustin's have hosted five full-time exchange students in their home and have also had multiple temporary placements. They’ve consistently hosted students in their home, starting out as a host family through the exchange program with Education First (EF), before eventually becoming International Exchange Coordinators (IECs) for the local area.

"As an IEC, in essence, you just support local families. We act as a local resource. EF has headquarters in Denver and Boston—here in North America—even though it’s a Swedish-based company, but we act as a local resource,” explains Ryan. “We always would like to think things will go swimmingly well and create nothing but fun and exciting experiences but there are times when there are inherent challenges, so it was always comforting for us to know that we had a local resource in our IEC. Now the families we supervise have a resource in Dawn and me. There are IECs spread throughout Tennessee and throughout the country.”

Ryan and Dawn have spent years working with exchange students and have now grown to be the Regional Coordinators [RC] for the entire state of Tennessee. “So instead of supervising families, we’ll supervise IECs to provide another layer of local support,” says Ryan. “We’re just one example of many families in Middle Tennessee and throughout Tennessee, while EF is one of also several programs that brings students into these schools.”

In addition to serving in this role supporting other host families, they are also continuing to open their home to hosting exchange students.

During the 2022-2023 school year, they hosted Justin Behr from Berlin as he participated in his exchange year during his junior year of high school in Spring Hill. Justin had a friend in middle school in Germany who was passionate about doing an exchange program and as he continued to hear more about it, he was inspired to do an exchange program himself. Growing up watching American movies where he was fascinated with events like American high school proms, so he was interested in coming to the U.S. for his exchange program and allowed EF to choose the city for his placement.

“I feel like in the United States, especially in Tennessee, people are more friendly and more welcoming than in Germany,” Justin shares of the cultural differences he experienced between the United States and his home country. “The whole school was totally different because we don’t have school sports in Germany or any school spirit, so that was definitely something different. The patriotism here, like all the American flags everywhere because we don’t even have a single German flag in our school. It was definitely different the first time everyone stood up for the pledge of allegiance and I was like ‘Oh, what’s going on?’”

During his school year, in addition to making friends with American students, he also had other exchange students in his school from Germany, as well as Spain, Taiwan, and China.

And in addition to getting the full American high school experience, Justin was able to travel with the Gustins and experience other parts of the country. His adventures included visiting seven theme parks, becoming scuba certified in Palm Beach, Florida, going on a road trip through Michigan and traveling to several other states. He also had the opportunity to attend concerts including Lizzo, Post Malone, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Based on his experience, Justin encourages other high school students to explore doing an exchange program too. “Definitely do an exchange year because it changes you as a person for the better,” he says. “Sometimes it seems like a challenge because you’re in a different country and different language, but it just gives you more self-confidence. At least it gave me more self-confidence. You step out of your comfort area because you’re not living where you lived your whole life. It comes with a challenge, but it also comes with so many memories and exciting events. It’s just awesome.”

Prior to hosting Justin in their home, the Gustins hosted another German exchange student, Larissa Petricevic, who is from a town in Germany south of Stuttgart. Larissa chose to study in the United States because she wanted to improve her English skills so that she could focus her future studies on “economy of business in English.” While she could’ve gone to England for her exchange year, she thought that the U.S. looked fun and was more of an experience since it was farther away from her home country. “I just wanted to do something completely different,” she explains. “You can pick if you want to go to the West Coast or East Coast or if you have any preference, but I didn’t do it because I thought ‘I just want the perfect family for me and not live in a
special region.’ I think it’s more fun if you don’t know where you’re going and just to experience it, because that’s like literally the American life, Tennessee or just the normal areas.”

She says the school experience was challenging at first because a lot of students knew each other since kindergarten or elementary school, so it was a bit intimidating to get to know people initially, but it got easier as the school year progressed.

Attending school in the U.S. was very different than what she was used to, noting that the high school was huge compared to her German school. Back in Germany, it was common for her to walk to places easily in her town and utilize public transportation, which she says gave teenagers more flexibility; therefore, she was surprised by the lack of sidewalks in the area and how many people utilized cars instead. Being in the South, she also says she immediately noticed the students wearing cowboy boots and hats.

The added safety measures in school were also something that was a key difference for her. “Our school system [in Germany] is completely different and we just go to school and it's never locked and we don’t have police officers,” she explains. “Our school schedule is completely different, and we don’t have football teams and all that, so that was a really crazy change, especially to see police officers walk around school with guns.”

Larissa’s 2019-2020 exchange year was cut short due to the pandemic, but she was able to experience most of the school year. She took time to participate in programs like the Best Buddies club as well as being the team manager for one of the basketball teams at the high school.

Among her favorite memories was attending an Alabama vs. Auburn football game. “I loved to travel with my host parents,” she says. “We went to Georgia, Alabama, Florida, just doing really fun trips.”

When it comes to hosting students there are many opportunities for families in Middle Tennessee. “I would echo what EF would say, in that they just want families that are open and welcoming, to kind of as we say, ‘Open their doors to another culture and create a loving and supportive environment for these kids to thrive for their school year.’ I look at it as being kind of mutually beneficial,” says Ryan of being a host family. “We very much learn and grow ourselves, from opening our homes not only just to the teenage experience with not having children of our own, but the various cultures. We very much take away a lot of the shared experiences that we do with the students, whether that’s traveling, learning about their cultures, or learning about their food. At the end of the day, we really feel like we’ve built a family.”

For Ryan, parting ways at the end of the school year is hard, but he says it’s not really a goodbye but more of “until we see each other again.”

“You’re creating lifelong experiences, and obviously I think that more often than not, these are also lifelong relationships that you have,” he says of host families and exchange students. He can tell stories of people who have been hosting for 30 years that have hosted a student and then years later, host that student’s kids. “They do very much feel like an extension of your family and so I would definitely express to the Middle Tennessee/Williamson County area for families that are considering this to really give it a
chance.” For more information about volunteering to host an exchange student contact: efexchangeyear.org/iec/ryan-gustin

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