Lessons from an Exchange Student

July 23, 2014

He cried when he left. A hard cry, not a few crocodile tears. I was in the kitchen making coffee, and he was in the foyer, wrestling with his bags.

“Do you have your passport?” I called.

I waited a few beats and when I didn’t hear an answer, I walked across the kitchen and around the corner, and found him hunched over his suitcase, shoulders heaving, tears running down his cheeks.

He’s 15 years old, and I’m sure it wasn’t easy, having me catch him in tears, but he let me hug him and comfort him and by then, I was waterlogged, too.

In a mere 4 weeks, this teenager from France had become family. That’s what hosting an exchange student–even for a month–can do. We had a mere month to get to know this boy, but in one month, we learned so much about him.

We also learned a lot about ourselves, lessons that surprised us.

Lesson: Your Family Has Strengths You Take For Granted

One day, after a trip to the swimming pool and the wonderment that is a Dairy Queen soft-serve, we decided to play a rousing game of HeadBandz. Our family plays board games a lot; we also take no prisoners, so there was plenty of playful teasing and arm-punching and banter back and forth. Later, after the game and familial jousting/barbfest was over, Valentin (our student) turned to me and said, “Your family–you are so funny with each other always.”

It took a few minutes of back-and-forth to get the exact translation, but what he was trying to tell me was that our family is unabashedly playful with one another. We find each other amusing and humorous and our family tends to rest on the more lighthearted side of things. Sure, there are times for serious stuff, but for the most part, our family runs on laughter. That’s a gift we give each other.

A gift I sometimes forget to appreciate.

Lesson: Goals are Good.

Before Valentin arrived, we sat down with the girls and talked about things we thought it was important for him to see and do in our fair state of Colorado. Items ranged from the small (experience a large American supermarket, plant a garden) to the large (whitewater rafting in the Rocky mountains). We also emphasized to the girls that taking someone into the family–one who may or may not understand what we’re saying very well–was going to be a process of adjustment. There was going to be patience and empathy and yes, sacrifice involved.

So, what was our goal, here? We decided that our goal was to show him a wonderful time and try to make him as comfortable as possible.

Translation? Everyone gives a little and makes an effort to be on best behavior.

Articulating that goal really helped us focus on what was important, and it also came in handy when someone had to sacrifice what they wanted for the “common good.”  The littlest Minx, for example, had to push herself our of her comfort zone (the house) and go on outdoor adventures. I had to put down the novel and join the boys in watching the World Cup. My husband had to sacrifice his day off to take Val shopping for gifts to bring home.

Having a goal and recognizing that everyone was working hard to make that happen made everything go a lot more smoothly. And it made me wonder what would happen if we took this experience and tried to work more goal-oriented planning into our daily lives?

What if we sat down and talked about our family goal for say, the first month of school? What would our goal be? A mission to get settled and organized and adapt to a new routine? A schedule of a few stress-busting activities on weekends to get over the starting-school blahs?

What about the last few weeks of summer? What would our goal be? To have more cookouts in the back yard? To make that epic (and parentally dreaded) trip to the giant water park? To begin a few pages of homework a week to ease into academics again?

Our family really benefitted from having a goal to work towards this past month, and I’m determined not to squander what we learned. When we work together, good things happen. More goal-setting is in store for our family.


Lesson: Articulate Your Gratitude

This is related to the lesson I mention above. When sacrifice was made, we were certain to do a couple of key things: a) acknowledge the sacrifice being made and b) express appreciation to the family member who went the extra mile for the group.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many “thank-you’s” or “hey, I really appreciated that’s” in my life. We were really, really diligent about this during the 4 weeks we had Valentin with us, and it had a big impact. Just taking the time to say, “I know this may not have been easy/your first wish/convenient, but I want you to know that I’m grateful” means a lot. Too often, we take these small acts for granted or view them as expected, and that’s a mistake.

I found this to be true especially with the girls. Just the simple act of saying, “I saw what you did. I appreciate it. Thank you,” worked wonders.

Particularly powerful was the “I see you” part of the message. When my kids were toddlers (and when I still read parenting books in volume), I made a concerted effort to “catch them being good” and to comment on that behavior. As the girls have grown, however, I’ve gotten lazy or complacent or maybe just oblivious, but I forget to give them kudos when they show grace or perform acts of kindness. This month was a potent reminder that kids still crave that praise; no matter the age, we flourish under positive reinforcement.

My eyes are open again.


Lesson: No Matter the Language, Some Things are Universal

We lucked out with Valentin–his grasp of English was pretty darn good. He was here in an English immersion program, so he wasn’t allowed to speak French, so all communication was in English.

Well, not really. We found many ways to understand one another: futbol, food, action movies, dogs.

I was shocked to learn how true it is that futbol is a universal language. I have always had ZERO interest in soccer, but with both the US and France participating in the World Cup, I thought it would be a great way to spend time with Valentin. I was right. Especially in those first tentative days, asking Valentin to explain the game, identify the star players, tell me why a certain call was “bullshit!”…it was golden. He was eager to share his expertise, I wanted to learn, and we got to share the experience of rooting for our respective teams.

Speaking “World Cup” with Val was one of the highlights of his month with us.

We also made his mother’s chocolate cake, which you hopefully already read about (and you’ve made it, right? You really should make it). We also fed him Thai, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, Italian and Vietnamese food. Sitting down to a meal connects people, and nothing delighted me more than watching Valentin gamely stick his chopsticks into pad thai or try to wrap his jaws around a Chipotle burrito. Watching him taste those things for the first time made me appreciate it with a new eye, too.

And of course, there was Mozzy. Valentin wasn’t sure what to make of the Mozzerator at first–such a white, wiggly, assault-via-tongue kind of creature. It took maybe two days for that small dog to worm his way into Valentin’s heart. Without a doubt, Val fell for Mozzy far before he fell for us. Soon, he wanted to help me take care of him, so he joined me for walks and helped me give him baths and soothed him after one particularly taxing trip to the vet. The Language of Mozzy was probably the easiest of all to speak.


Lesson: Leave the Comfort Zone Once in a While

I am a huge advocate of the comfort zone; so much so that I rarely leave it. Adding another family member put the kibosh on comfort and lazy routine. It just did. We pushed ourselves to do new things, keep an open mind, and stretch our already full lives and hearts this summer. All for one earnest, sweet and adorable boy. It was hard work, but also so laced with joy and compassion and hilarity and camraderie. It reminded us that no matter how set in our ways we are, there’s room to grow.


Thank you, Valentin, for sharing your life with us. You taught us more than you know.











{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Jamie July 23, 2014 at 10:48 am

He sounds amazing, and so do you guys! I live for board games and am ruthless, too. Do you guys every play Cranium?


Dana Talusani July 24, 2014 at 6:50 am


We do? It’s a great one, isn’t it? Our current family favorite is Whoonu. Have you played it?


C. Troubadour July 23, 2014 at 12:34 pm

I teared up reading about Valentin’s departure — so surprising and yet not. He won the lottery when he got matched with your family for his stay.



Dana Talusani July 24, 2014 at 6:51 am

C. Troubadour,

We got lucky all the way around!


Pamela July 23, 2014 at 6:57 pm

I am so so glad you shared this. I love this and am going to put some more goal setting and out of m comfort zone in place. Thank you!!!


Lisa @ The Meaning of Me July 23, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Sounds like this was a wonderful experience for all of you – that’s the great stuff you just can’t trade for anything.
I love your lessons here – I know that in this house, we could definitely express appreciation more. Even when we feel it, we don’t always say or show it and that really does mean a whole lot. Thanks for the inspiration!


Dana Talusani July 27, 2014 at 7:34 pm


Yeah, we are guilty of not appreciating over here as well. It was a good wake-up call for us.


Shannon July 24, 2014 at 4:54 am

Sounds like a great experience for all of you! I love the lessons and that you had your eyes open for them. Thanks for sharing Valentin with us!


elizabeth July 24, 2014 at 5:51 am

Tears upon leaving are usually a pretty good indicator that someone enjoyed themselves (says someone who gets at least a little verklempt when we’re leaving Spain or Italy), so it sounds like you were all excellent hosts.

Futbol really is a universal language, and as problematic as FIFA and the World Cup can be it’s still so much fun to follow it and even more so when you’re able to watch it with passionate fans who can get you sucked into it all. (I’m still bitter about that last-minute diving on behalf of Germany in the final, but it’ll all be forgotten once La Liga starts, I’m sure.) France surprised me with how well they did after falling apart in the last few tournaments–it gives me hope that Spain can bounce back from their own epic fail this time around.


Dana Talusani July 24, 2014 at 6:54 am


Spain was a SHOCKER. Couldn’t believe it! I also was stunned at how far in the tourney Costa Rica got! I wanted desperately for France to win for Val’s sake, but my $$ was on Germany.


Dana July 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

What a wonderful post! It sounds like you all had a fantastic and heartwarming month, with lessons to hang onto. Thank you for sharing it! And I have to take a look at that cake recipe.


Erica July 24, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Wow, you did win the lottery with Val and he with you.

I really like the goals. I think this is something my family should more actively do with our very-soon-to-be, n0t-so-motivated, stay-at-home college student.

Thanks for the inspiration!


Tinne from Tantrums and Tomatoes July 25, 2014 at 3:55 am

Valentin sounds wonderfull !
This has me thinking that perhaps I should leave my comfort zone more often…


Dana Talusani July 27, 2014 at 7:36 pm


You would be a terrific host to a young person–truly!


Annette July 25, 2014 at 2:43 pm

I, too, have a reluctant heart when it comes to welcoming a stranger. How lovely that you were able to welcome him into your home and heart! I love the lessons and the family goals idea — wish we had done that.


Alison July 26, 2014 at 6:52 am

He sounds like such a wonderful person!
And you guys are an amazing family (obviously).
I like the lessons, especially the last one, because I am also one to get overly comfortable in my comfort zone.


Dana Talusani July 27, 2014 at 7:37 pm


We did get so lucky with our little guy. If you get the chance to host one, I really do recommend it. xo


Virginia July 28, 2014 at 1:04 pm

This was a great post. What a lucky experience for all involved.


Annie July 29, 2014 at 12:38 pm

This was beautiful all around. I’m so glad that it was a positive experience for everyone involved. He lucked out when landing with your fun loving and high spirited family. I’m sure it will be a trip remembered by all for a very long time.


Tiffany August 5, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Sounds like both of you…Val and your family…lucked out. What an amazing experience! I’m stealing the goal idea…love it. Also, I haven’t made the cake but I did make the pasta and it was heavenly!!


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: