For Foreign Exchange Students, It's A Family Affair

Sep 9, 2019

It’s the end of summer in northern Illinois, and the Carey family is preparing for the new school year. But the student they’re helping is a guest to their house.

“My name is Ezgi and I’m coming from Turkey. I’m an exchange student here. Here I’m living in Illinois, Geneva, and I’m going to Geneva Community High School.”

Ezgi came to the U.S. through American Field Service, or AFS-USA. This organization matches foreign students with host families across the country. The program often relies on volunteers, especially when seeking out families. 23-year-old Shayla Carey says for her, the process started early.

"My parents started having exchange students when I was in seventh grade, so I’ve had sisters from many different places, and I obviously became pretty close to them after they lived at my house for a year. I’ve had the chance to visit them in their homes and meet their families and friends.”

Ezgi is from İzmir, a large city on Turkey’s western coast, which is known for its beaches.  Since arriving in the states, she’s had to adapt to a new climate, culture, and school system. Ezgi says Turkish schools aren’t as fast paced as those in America.

“Students have their own classes and teachers are coming for the lessons, so you don’t change your class in the breaks or you don’t go to your locker, so you have a lot of time," she said.

She says the first day of school was difficult, but time has allowed her to adjust, make new friends, and meet up with other AFS students.

"Kuwait, yeah. Kuwait, Turkey, Senegal, Germany and Spain. And I have a friend from Morocco who’s living in Batavia.”

Shayla’s mother, Kathleen Carey, says there was another element that isn’t as present in Turkish schools.

“She said, oops I forgot I didn’t do my homework yesterday, I didn’t know I had homework, so last night we said, well here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do our homework on the table," Kathleen said.

Ezgi receives some help with her Spanish homework from Sebastien, Shayla's fiance. 

Shayla Carey (left) is Kathleen's daughter, and is well acquainted with Ezgi and the other exchange students her family has hosted. When she studied abroad in Chile, she met Seba (right) her fiance.
Credit Chase Cavanaugh

“I studied abroad twice. Once in Austria and then once in Chile, and that’s how I met Seba," Shayla explained.

The exchange has also allowed Ezgi to get more in touch with her own culture while sharing it with others. She describes her experience with Turkish coffee.

“I like coffee but I’ve always seen it as, oh, older people used to drink it," she said.

"And now that you’re in the United States you’ve made it, and you like it," Kathleen replied.

This cultural familiarity also comes in handy when educating the exchange students. One of her AFS volunteer duties is providing an orientation on dogs. Canines are considered unclean in Islam, so in majority-Muslim countries, including Turkey, cats are far more prevalent. Kathleen says this adjustment wasn’t too difficult for Ezgi.

“We were very lucky, since we have two and one of them is still a little bit of a puppy and is very rambunctious, Ezgi gets along very well with dogs,” she said. 

Though that hasn’t stopped Ezgi from reminiscing about her cat.

Ezgi says she’s eager to experience all she can over the course of the school year. 

“Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving, American football, something like that that doesn’t exist in my country or my culture," she said.

I think we can handle all of those," Kathleen replied.

As for the family, they continue to volunteer for AFS, and encourage others to host exchange students. Shayla says even though her current job has little in the way of international components, her past experience still has significant value.

"I think it definitely helps to learn to communicate with different types of people and to have an open mind about people with different viewpoints," she said. "I think that having exchange students is more of an extreme example of that, so it prepares you for a lot of stuff.”

Ezgi will stay with the Careys through June of next year.