This is my fourth year working at IRIS, so I’ve seen a lot of students and a lot of host families come and go. Some people only plan to host once, and then they are done. Some think that, but they fall in love with the experience and end up hosting again. And some people just have a spot in their soul for exchange students, and they do it over and over again, year after year. 

For the most part, IRIS’s YES students are phenomenal. I can’t imagine hosting from any other program, and that’s not just because I’m biased. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Youth Exchange & Study students come from different countries and different backgrounds. When I was in high school, the exchange students were always from affluent countries or families. And good for them – it’s great that they can afford the experience. But YES kids are from Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. They are kids who would likely never be able to afford this type of opportunity through the numerous for-fee/pay-your-way programs. YES is a scholarship, and I like that.
  • YES students give back. Since this is a scholarship, YES asks that the students give back to their communities. The students are required to do a minimum of 2 hours of community service each month, but many of IRIS’s YES students have accomplished much more; last year, we had over 10 students complete over 100 hours of community service during their 10 month stay in Iowa communities. That’s awesome!
  • YES students build bridges of understanding. Since they come from countries that Americans don’t often travel to, their presence in American schools for an academic year gives those schools and communities an opportunity to learn about more remote regions, colorful cultures, and new perspectives. And the students are encouraged to do cultural presentations throughout their stay. Plus, the bridge goes both ways – these students often fall in love with their host, community, and America, and bring that love back home with them. This promotes peace and understanding in their home countries, too.

Many people are somehow under the impression that all the exchange students who come to America each year are all basically the same. But it’s really important to do some research before choosing an organization (like IRIS) and a program (like YES). Almost all exchange organizations and programs are FOR PROFIT. That means that the student is paying the organization – usually a lot – to come to America. Because they pay, they often have high expectations and not as much interest in giving back. After all, they paid a lot of money for the program. And I’m not saying all students who come this way don’t deserve it. Many do! But there is a huge difference between people who know they will have the opportunity to travel to American again someday, and those who know that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Hosting through programs like the YES program really does become a life changing experience for the students who are chosen. They do over a year of tests and interviews, orientations and planning sessions, before they arrive in your home. They are eager to learn and eager to teach. They want to show their graciousness and thankfulness for the opportunity, and they want to make the most out of everything – as it will more than likely be their one chance to travel to America (maybe even their only chance to travel abroad in their whole life). Not every YES student is perfect, but I’d say 98% of the YES students I’ve met have spend their ten months trying very hard to have a great experience and be a full member of their host family and community. 

And as a host, I think it’s great to feel so very supported. IRIS has been working with the State Department’s YES program since its inception, so they know the ropes. They come up with activities throughout the year to bring all of their students together for team building and cultural events. Local coordinators make regular phone calls to hosts, students, and schools, and make sure things are going smoothly – and they actually help whenever there is a need. And since IRIS is an Iowa based organization working almost exclusively within the state, the families and students become part of a large network that help each other and support each other throughout the year. 

So yeah, I’m a little biased. But if I didn’t believe in this program, and didn’t respect this organization, I wouldn’t have come back to IRIS after living abroad for three years. I’m glad to work here, and now I’m glad to volunteer as a host parent, too.