Opening their home to an international exchange student was a foreign idea for one Columbus family, but their experience has been eye-opening and has created a friendship they treasure.

Brian and Amber Payne, and their sons Colby, 6, and Dawson, 4, are hosting Eunseok Lee, of Seoul, South Korea, for the 2016-17 school year.

It has been a learning experience for both for the Paynes family and Lee, they said.

When Lee met the Paynes at Indianapolis International Airport in August, no one knew what to expect and there were some rough patches as everyone got used to the new experience.

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“(Lee) just didn’t know a whole lot of English or speak a lot of English,” said Payne, the Columbus Municipal Airport director. “(He was) very shy, very quiet and I think about a week in he got homesick for about a week and then, ever since, he hasn’t expressed any kind of homesickness, so that has been great. And they (exchange program staff members) explained to us that that was really more Asian culture; they are very shy, very quiet. They don’t want to make mistakes.”

The Payne’s were approached by Debbie Gray, the exchange coordinator for Council on International Exchange (CIEE) and host mom to Hassathorn “Sa” Phongam of Thailand, about being a welcome family after she read the profiles of two South Korean boys — one of whom was Lee — who were interested in aviation.

A welcome family typically houses the student for the first six to eight weeks, but another family is found for the remainder of the school year unless the welcome family wants to continue hosting the student, Gray said.

Finding people willing to host an exchange student is always difficult, mainly because of misconceptions about what they are supposed to do, Gray said. People tend to think they won’t have enough time and that they have to travel with the student, when in fact students have their own money, are here for the cultural experience and host families are not expected to travel with the student, although they can if they choose, she added.

Families have to pass a background check and two or three references are checked to host, Gray said. An interest in other cultures and in sharing their own culture is a big plus, too.

Amber and Brian Payne decided to take the leap while at dinner in France.

“We read through both profiles and both of them were from South Korea and interested in aviation,” Brian Payne said. “But Eunseok wanted a family with small kids because he wanted to be a big brother, he liked soccer, he liked to cook and it was like all of the things that we love to do.”

Lee got his wish to be a big brother with the Payne’s two sons.

The first few weeks of hosting went by quickly with the beginning of school. Lee, a junior at Columbus East High School, and the Paynes grew closer, so another family wasn’t needed to host Lee for the remainder of the school year.

That allowed them to celebrate Lee’s 17th birthday in November.

The sharing of cultures (and food) has been one of the biggest highlights for the Payne family, which has learned about Korean cuisine and bought a couple Korean cookbooks.

They were surprised at the amount of rice consumed, as it is used for breakfast, lunch and dinner in South Korea. Lee’s mom keeps a large rice cooker on and ready to go all day, Payne said.

The Paynes also have had the opportunity to learn from other exchange students who often come to their house to spend time with Eunseok and the family.

On Jan. 13, the Paynes invited all the exchange students in Columbus to bring a dish from their home country and share it with one another in an evening of fun and friendly banter in foreign accents. Sa Phongam of Thailand, Ahmad Mohiuddin of Bangladesh, Lina Schaefer of Germany, Lia Yunqing of China and Gonzalo Pindea of Spain all came and enjoyed the tastes of the world — including some cupcakes and brownies from a Columbus grocery store to celebrate Mohiuddin’s and Phongam’s birthdays.

The Paynes also have a wall dedicated to learning and sharing cultures; a map of South Korea and a map of Indiana adorn opposite sides of one wall, complete with sticky notes to denote important places, such as cities where family members live. One mark is in Pyeongchang, the host city for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“(Lee) is talking about coming back and finishing high school in the United States and then going to college here as well,” Brian Payne said. “If not, we’re going to go to the Winter Olympics to see him in 2018.”

In between the maps is a large pad of paper detailing every new thing Lee has seen or done and the date it was completed. Some of those items include the day he started school at East, his first soccer game and wrestling practice, the first time he watched Colby and Dawson, a trip to King’s Island, first Halloween and Thanksgiving, and driving a car.

Another new experience for Lee — and one he enjoys — was mowing the lawn. Lee lives in an apartment in a town of 10 million people back home, and residents don’t have grass except in parks, so mowing grass was something he had never done, Brian Payne said. That first time mowing the lawn, Lee nearly ran into the house, he added, laughing.

Lee described his experiences so far as great, and added that he hopes to visit New York City before he leaves in June.

The Paynes said they would consider being a host family for another student in the future because hosting Lee has been a good experience.

For anyone who is hesitant about hosting, Amber Payne suggested speaking to host families, having another family’s student over to their home or giving it a shot by being a welcome family.

Hosting Requirements and Information

The requirements for hosting an exchange student include, according to the Council on International Exchange:

  • A room with a bed (they can share a room with a host sibling no more than four years difference in age)
  • Three meals per day (student pays if they want to go off campus for lunch or buy a school lunch)
  • A quiet place to study
  • Assistance coordinating transportation
  • Love and support
  • Volunteers must 25 years of age or older

CIEE looks at the amount of money a family makes to make sure it wouldn’t be a hardship to add another person, Gray said.

CIEE also offers opportunities and scholarships for American students to go abroad.

Anyone interested in hosting an exchange student or seeking additional information should contact Debbie Gray by email at debgray@sbcglobal.net or calling 812-764-4433.

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Kaitlyn Evener is an editorial assistant for The Republic. She can be reached at kevener@therepublic.com or 812-379-5633.