From Germany, With Love

photo by Stephanie Ryan
photo by Stephanie Ryan

“Can we host an exchange student?” Isn’t that the question every husband expects to hear coming from his wife? I had been coming across Facebook posts by Ms. Arnetta, Regional Manager for the Program of Academic Exchange (PAX), for several weeks. 

The first person I mentioned my idea of hosting an exchange student to was my twin sister, Jodie, my right-hand YES man. Of course, she said, “Do it!” Now, all I had to do was convince my husband Bradley, a busy dad of four, to say yes to adding another child to our crew for nine months. I asked and the first couple of times all he said was, “Are you crazy? We already have four kids!” But everyone knows, when I get an idea of something I want, it’s hard to change my mind. 

I started making a list of all the good things we could experience by hosting an exchange student. The pros outweighed the cons. It would be so “cool” to meet and get to know someone from another country. After several weeks of trying to persuade my husband, who already had his mind made up, Ms. Arnetta stopped by our house to pick up a shirt she had purchased from me. While at our home, I introduced her to my husband and got more information about the program. That night, with one last-ditch effort, I asked my husband about the opportunity to host a student. To my absolute surprise, his answer was not “No,” but “You really need to pray about it.” As I said my prayers, I begged God to give me a sign that this is what we should do as a family, because the desire in my heart was too strong to ignore. That very next day, sitting in Sunday service, our preacher spoke about stepping out in faith and doing something you wouldn’t normally do. That was my sign! I told my husband, “We have to say YES!”

One “yes” later, we proceeded with paperwork, rules and requirements, a thorough house study, and an interview about our family interests. When signing up to host an exchange student, you agree to provide three meals a day and a safe place for the student to live. Students come with their own money and anything else they may need. We received several profiles of potential students to choose from. We eventually chose a girl from Germany. Of course, I already knew we would treat her just as if she was our very own. Now we just waited for the first hello email from the girl who became, “Our Paula.” 

Once the first email was received, we communicated back-and-forth, sending pictures and information to get to know each other before she was to arrive in America. We learned that Paula, an only child, was from Hagen, Germany and was 15 years old. On Labor Day, two long weeks later, we picked Paula up from the Texarkana Airport. Paula’s first words stepping outside of the airport in Texas was “Wow, it’s so HOT!” Her first stop in Texas was our favorite restaurant, Texas Roadhouse. Maybe not the best first place to take a German exchange student, but it turned out okay. 

Day one consisted of getting to know each other, exchanging welcoming gifts, and being surrounded by four siblings and a host mom who couldn’t wait to ask a million questions. Our Texan slang was hard for her to understand at first; we all had to talk a little slower and make sure we tried to speak our very best English. Over the next few weeks, Paula got to experience having a big family, getting registered as a Pleasant Grove Hawk and starting school in America. 

As we all got to know each other, we learned many things about Germany, and Paula learned many things about America. One thing we quickly learned about Germany is they don’t have a lot of fast-food restaurants. Of course, we had to take her to our favorites, with the first being Chick-Fil-A. She loved it just like the rest of America.

 In Germany, Paula’s family has a tradition of baking 16 different types of cookies during a special weekend in November. We tried keeping the tradition alive over our Thanksgiving break, but we only baked about four different kinds before we tired of baking. Paula got to experience Thanksgiving, Christmas and ringing in the New Year in America. She also introduced a new tradition to us that is celebrated in Germany on December 6, St. Nicholas Day. 

The year was going great. We were extremely busy, but it was great! We had four kids playing basketball and had games or practice almost every day of the week. Luckily, our family loves basketball and cheering on the Pleasant Grove Hawks! Some people couldn’t even tell Paula was not our biological daughter because she fit into our family so well. Her Sweet 16 was spent in America, Texas style. We had all of our friends and family over for a surprise party with barbeque and cake. 

In March 2020, COVID-19 arrived and life as we knew it changed completely. We were worried that Paula may get sent home early because of international travel restrictions. Thankfully, her parents trusted we would keep her safe and PAX let each family decide if the student would stay. Ours was a super simple decision… YES! In hindsight, the COVID-19 shutdown was actually a great thing for Paula’s exchange year. We got to spend more time together than we would have normally gotten. 

Paula experienced a lot of firsts: driving a car, painting a fence, fishing, riding horses, online schooling and having sleepovers with new siblings nightly. We took tons of pictures, played basketball and board games, and lived in the pool when the weather was good. Paula was not only our exchange student, but she had worked her way into our hearts and become our daughter/sister... our family. 

Before we knew it, days, weeks and months had passed, and it was time for Paula to head back to Germany. We skipped her Texarkana flight and drove her to the Dallas airport so we could spend every single last second with her. Paula’s last night in Texas was spent in Dallas, eating at our favorite place, Texas Roadhouse. We exchanged heartfelt gifts and shed a lot of tears. This girl, “Our Paula,” “Our P,” our beautiful German exchange student who had spent the last nine wonderful months with us, had to go back to her first home. (I always say her first home because Texas will always be her home, too.) 

Of all the good things I could think of as reasons we should host an exchange student, I never thought about the hardest reason why we shouldn’t. It was the goodbye, or, for us, “see you later.” A piece of our heart was leaving and going back halfway around the world. No matter how much we wanted her to stay, she couldn’t. 

We got her to the airport within 10 minutes of boarding time. We waved and cried until we couldn’t see each other any longer. The next time we spoke, she let us know she made it home, safe and sound, to her parents. The funny thing is, as soon as she got home, she made good ol’ Texas sweet tea for her parents to try. 

Since Our P has been back in Germany, we have stayed in touch through Facetime and text messages. We send care packages every few months and I try to surprise her with some of her favorite American items. We are currently counting down the days until she is back here with us, in Texas, to spend her summer break. 

Although it was one of the hardest “see you later” experiences of my life, I would not trade it or the chance to meet Paula for the world. Hosting an exchange student was by far the best experience our family has had. The “cool” experience I had expected turned out to be so much more. We gained family, experienced great adventures, and had the chance to fulfill a dream in a child’s life.


 

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