The lifelong impacts of being a host family

Meet Joanmarie Weiss, a lifelong IFYE host to international exchange students, and learn how being a host family and impacted her and her family’s life.

Weiss family and Sandra Wefer, 2015 IFYE participant. Left to right: Lydia, Roger, Joanmarie, Sandra Wefer, Bethany holding granddaughter Lilly, Scott and Margie.
Weiss family and Sandra Wefer, 2015 IFYE participant. Left to right: Lydia, Roger, Joanmarie, Sandra Wefer, Bethany holding granddaughter Lilly, Scott and Margie.

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a host family to an international exchange student? Do you have a family in your community who seems to host every year? Have you ever wondered why or what they receive in return for hosting all those delegates? Here is a glimpse into one of those host family’s life to help you better understand what motivates them each year.

The International Cultural Exchange Program, also known as IFYE, offers an opportunity to experience another way of life by living it. IFYE is truly a “learn by doing” experience. It is a chance to see new places, make new friends and soak in another culture.

IFYE representative programs are for individuals 19 and over and typically last three to six months. Participants in these programs live and work as part of the family, moving to a new family every three to five weeks so they can gain a broader perspective about life in their host country.

Michigan 4-H International Exchange Programs coordinates host families for IFYE participants, known as “IFYEs,” traveling to Michigan. IFYE has a big impact on the exchangees, but they aren’t the only people who are changed for a lifetime through this experience. Joanmarie Weiss is a Michigander who has been opening her home to international exchangees as part of the IFYE program for almost 20 years. The following is her thoughts on the impact being a host has had on her and her family’s life.

Why did you start hosting IFYEs?

We did not travel very far or very long back then [1998], so hosting young adults in our home was an excellent way to “travel” through the experiences of others.

Tell us about your first IFYE.

Our first IFYE was Tien Yu from Taiwan. Tien Yu spoke almost no English, and we spoke absolutely no Taiwanese! But, our desire to welcome him and make him feel at home was real. In three weeks, he was quite fluent in American English! Tien Yu is the first of more than 30 young people we’ve hosted each year since then. He’s been back to visit us in 2005 and 2013.

How has being a host family impacted your family?

Our own kids have grown up with IFYEs and other guests in our home. Lydia, now 23, was just 4 years old when our first IFYE came. Who knows what motivates a child? She studied German in school since she was 5. In 2011, she lived with a family in Hannover, Germany, attending gymnasium through another exchange program. In 2014, she did a baking internship in southern Germany. This spring, she got engaged in a castle in Germany while she and her boyfriend were visiting the site of the Battle of the Bulge!

Scott, our only son, was six in 1998. He has lots of IFYE brothers around the globe! Margie, who just turned 27, works with my husband, Roger, on our farm. She traveled to Europe in 2012 to visit some of her IFYE brothers and sisters’ farms.

Each spring our adult children ask me, “Who is our IFYE this year, Mom?” It’s a family tradition we treasure; hosting a fellow farmer from another country.

Sandra Wefer and Joanmarie Weiss

Sandra Wefer and Margie Weiss. Both young women are working side-by-side with their fathers, and both intend to be the next generation to operate the family farm. 

Which countries have you experienced through being an IFYE host?

We’ve hosted IFYEs from Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and Northern Ireland. At Christmas time, I send updates of our family and look forward to the dozens of cards and letters from our IFYE kids. I am old-fashioned and love the postal service; now, Facebook, email and inexpensive phone service let us exchange news more often!

How has being a host impacted you personally?

In 2008, we left Margie and Scott in charge of our farm. Lydia went with Roger and I to visit northern Germany and three of our IFYEs: Hendrik Luebben, Suntke Damm and Thilo Icken. We were guests at the Luebben Easter Fire, a tradition that all three young men had told us about. In the USA, there is no similar tradition, though when we hosted our version of an Easter Fire in 2013, a man in Frankenmuth, Michigan, contacted us because he remembered them when he was a child in Germany in the 1930s. He had moved to the USA after WWII and he was surprised we knew what an Easter Fire was! So, the IFYE program has helped us meet people in our own community, too.

In 2010, we traveled to Germany to attend Hendrik’s wedding. Neither Roger nor I were IFYEs when we were young, so our European travel is focused on visiting IFYE family farms. We learn a lot. In 2011, we purchased a LELY robotic milking system after seeing one in operation at Suzanne Marschall’s farm in Switzerland. During our trip in spring of 2017, we connected with eight of our IFYEs. We are proud of our IFYE kids; when you live with us, we come to love you. We wished you the best as you left our home for new adventures.

International awareness is the awareness of one’s own culture; the other is the awareness of another culture. It is the ability of standing back from our own point and becoming aware of not only our own cultural values, beliefs and perceptions, but also those of other cultures. There is no better way to gain intercultural awareness then by living with a family immersed in a new culture. The Weiss family has exemplified the full benefit of hosting international exchange students and the long lasting relationships shared between families and countries. Be that family who embraces the possibilities of international exchange.

4-H grows international friends. If you would like to learn more about International Exchange Programs here in Michigan, visit Michigan 4-H International Exchange Program or contact D’Ann Rohrer, state coordinator, leadership and civic engagement team member, at

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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