When Heather Baxter, senior scientist at Harris Nuclear Plant, isn’t on the job monitoring radioactive nuclides and ensuring the overall health and safety of people and the environment, she enjoys spending time with her family.
It’s a close-knit family of five: Heather, her husband, their two teenage boys – and seven additional young people makes five.
It may sound like the math is off in this equation, but it actually adds up correctly – for ten months out of the year, a foreign exchange student fills the role of the third Baxter child. And that’s no exaggeration – according to Baxter, from the moment the student arrives, “That is my child. We are a family.”
For the past seven years, the Baxters have opened their home and hearts to a seventeen year old student from faraway places such as Italy, Sweden, Iceland, Germany, Denmark and Norway. Heather and her husband began this tradition when their two sons were eight and 10 years old, seeing it as a unique opportunity for their young children to learn more about the world and other cultures and to broaden their worldview from the comfort of their own home.
It has proven to be hugely successful – while many students may have difficulty even identifying certain countries on a map, her sons are intimately familiar with other countries and have experienced their culture firsthand; and they have developed an understanding of international affairs and understand political implications of world events. They now also have seven European siblings.
Raising children is naturally challenging, and there are definitely some unique challenges when it comes to caring for a teenager from a different country for nearly a year. Students often arrive with some misconceptions about the United States – most of what they know about the U.S. is what they’ve seen in movies and on TV. And as we all know, in most cases, Hollywood doesn’t always depict life in America accurately.
Cultural differences that require some getting used to can be as minor as differing body language and respecting personal space. But one of the biggest challenges is just the fact that these students are teenagers, and teenagers from around the globe really aren’t all that different – they have the same emotions, moods and quirks as American teens.
At the same time, the exchange students also have to adjust to habits, behaviors and ways of life that are commonplace to Americans but are, very literally, foreign to them. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for them to assimilate and embrace life in the U.S. – and every single one has developed a strong appreciation for Chick-Fil-A, Bojangles and sweet tea.
It has been an overwhelmingly positive and enriching experience every time a student has lived with the Baxters, as everyone makes a genuine effort to understand, accept and learn from each other’s differences and to live together as a family. According to Heather, if more people did this, the world would be a happier place.
As with any family, the Baxters won’t allow distance to prevent them from seeing their new family member and from keeping in touch once their stay in the U.S. concludes. In this digital world, texts and Skype conversations are common. In addition, the whole family has visited each student in their home country, giving them opportunities to travel and see the world that most people don’t get to experience in a lifetime. And many students have returned ‘home’ to visit over the years – one even surprised Heather and family with an unannounced visit on Christmas day.
But even knowing that their months together in North Carolina is just the start of their ‘forever’ relationship, it is still very emotional when it’s time for a student to return home and for the Baxters to say goodbye. Heather, in particular, is a crying mess at the airport.
Just like any mother would be.