DeKALB – Sycamore resident Brandy Overhaug has invited international students into her home so many times, she has lost count.
On Sunday, she welcomed a Laotian and a Singaporean student, both high-school-aged girls, who will spend the next few days at the family ranch with Overhaug, her husband, three children and pets – dogs, cats, horses and chickens.
“Our house is probably overstimulating,” Overhaug said. “We have a lot of animals...”
The Overhaugs are among 31 local families hosting about 50 high school students and 10 adult leaders from 10 countries in Southeast Asia through Northern Illinois University’s Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program, which is funded through the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Although this is the seventh year NIU has participated in the program, this year is the first time students from 10 countries are all being housed at once. Typically, NIU welcomes students from five Southeast Asian countries in the fall and students from a second group of five countries in the spring, said Liz Denius, communications manager and host family coordinator.
The program teaches students a variety of topics from civic engagement to cultural orientation. Some were paired with Sycamore High School students Monday to follow their class schedule for the day.
The students and adult learners will be in the DeKalb area until April 22, when they will travel to Washington, D.C., for a tour of the U.S. capital before leaving for home.
Denius said the experience is rewarding for all involved.
“What is great about being a host family, we say it’s the cheapest trip to Southeast Asia you’ll ever take,” she said. “They call you mom and dad. It’s really very touching.”
Overhaug, who also houses foster children, always tells the international students to call her mom.
“Loving other people – no matter where they’re from or what their background is – having the opportunity to love other people is the biggest thing,” Overhaug said.
Eric Jones, assistant director at NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, knows firsthand the crucial role played by a host family.
When he was 19 years old, Jones spent time studying with a host family in Indonesia, where he was teaching English. Since the students are relatively young, the study abroad experience can be a transformative period in their lives, Jones said.
“I would send every kid abroad if I could,” Jones said.
The university will consider hosting 10 countries in Southeast Asia in the future to bring all students’ diverse traditions together at once, said Maria “Rai” Nihei, administrative director for Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program. Many of the students don’t often travel outside their own countries, so they often have never met someone from a neighboring country, Nihei said.
Sycamore resident Russell Bishop is still learning new things from the two high-school aged boys he is hosting, one from Singapore and the other from Cambodia.
On Sunday night, the boys showed the Bishop family their homes, schools and the markets where they shop on Google Earth. Bishop said he learned much about the economic developments in each country.
But there is one thing Bishop, a clinical psychologist, considers most important no matter where someone is from: Family.
“An appreciation of family life is very important no matter what,” he said. “Loving relationships with kids is very central to their growth and development.”