Happy surprises when a host family becomes an extended family

Photo courtesy Emma Quintana/ Emma Quintana (l.) with foreign students Anh Tuan Alain Dao and Virginia Cristina Catalano.


By Jennifer Vazquez

Observer Correspondent


Globalization is a reality of modern times. People from all walks of life, ethnicities and cultures are intertwined in this seemingly “shrinking” world, thanks in part to the Internet, traveling and modern technology. Nonetheless, it seems to be that the best way to get to know a group of people, their culture and their way of life is the old fashioned way –getting to know them.

Opening one’s eyes to the beauty of each and everyone’s cultures is paramount. Many find this to be true – in particular, young students who want to broaden their horizons and future educational prospects by polishing up their second language, social and communication skills. After all, it is because of this reasoning that the presence of foreign exchange students and host families is a common phenomenon in many places.

Case in point: Emma Quintana. This Kearny woman took on the duty, of not only inviting into her home one young foreign student, but two, for roughly three weeks in August – a feat in itself. However, what makes her personal story a tad more interesting is the fact that both these adolescents came from different countries: a 17-yearold boy and a 17-year-old girl from Italy. The fact that Quintana is Peruvian made her house an eclectic cultural haven for the period that she, along with her family – husband Jorge, 23-year-old daughter Diana and 21-year-old son Jorge “Al” – hosted the two students.

Quintana’s social journey began in July on a day when she visited a farmer’s market in Summit.

“I saw a banner that said ‘International Students’ and, for me, anything that has to do with students and education grabs my attention,” Quintana enthusiastically recalled.

Intrigued, Quintana approached the table and started speaking with two young women who explained to her that they were there to promote being a “host family” for an exchange students during their stay in the U.S.

After giving her contact information to the two representatives of “Education First (EF) Language Travel” program, Quintana assumed she would hear back from them, if at all, in the upcoming months. That was not the case.

“The very next day I received an email asking me to fill out an application,” she said. “I filled it out thinking (the program) is something I’d like to do in the future.”

She figured she’d explore “what requirements they are looking for because they have to take many precautions since these are (minors) – high school students from different countries.”

After filling out their application and subsequently being approved, the entire Quintana family had to go through a background check. After the family successfully passed that step, EF staff came to visit the Quintana residence.

Within a few weeks, Quintana was notified that she and her family were chosen to host a young girl from Italy named Virginia Cristina Catalano. They accepted. A short time later, they were asked if they’d be willing to accept a French boy. Anh Tuan Alain Dao, whose plans with a previously assigned host family did not come to fruition. Quintana accepted.

“I couldn’t say no,” she said. Amid laughter, Quintana remembers how the whole family had to scramble and plan sleeping arrangements to accommodate the newly “extended” family, particularly since her son and daughter were going to be back home from college.

“Virginia slept in Diana’s room,” she said. “Anh in my son’s room. My daughter slept with me in my room, while my husband and son slept downstairs in the basement!”

The young students had a set schedule – with English classes Monday through Friday at The College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown. They were picked up around 7:30 a.m. from a Harrison bus stop and dropped off there after classes around 6 p.m., according to Quintana.

“We would pick them up, come home and have dinner,” she said. “Then I would hurry them up so we could go on our own field trips. The family took them to New York, Hoboken, all over.”

The host family has a specific role in the program, according to Quintana. They are supposed to provide a safe environment for the students, provide them with breakfast, lunch and dinner and make them feel welcome. EF provides the host family a weekly stipend of $100 per student for food –no monetary gain.

Quintana said the EF Language Travel program is very well organized with a smooth communication flow between host families and coordinators; students and coordinators; host families and biological families; and students with their families.

“If we had any questions or concerns, the coordinator was always there to help us,” she said.

The experience of having these young students stay with her and the rest of her family was an entirely positive experience, according to Quintana.

“We were supposed to welcome and teach them,” she said. “But they taught me a lot too. I’m grateful everyday that I had the chance to participate in this experience.”

The students’ stay at the Quintana’s was so memorable and impactful that Quintana has no hesitation in sharing some of her fondest memories, such as going to Central Park for a Peruvian folk music concert.

“I got up and started teaching Virginia how to dance that type of music,” she recalls. “She got up and the two of us were dancing like crazy women… The last day that they were here was a Sunday, and I am a very upbeat and positive person, so I put on a song from Celia Cruz — La vida es un carnaval. All of a sudden I see Virginia coming down the hall dancing!”

Quintana attributes part of the program’s success with the fact that EF carefully matches up students with their host families.

The application process includes a section where everyone in the host family lists their interests and hobbies.

“They find similarities so you have something to build on,” Quintana said.

Quintana’s son practiced karate – aiming for a black belt. Dao also enjoyed this martial arts form. Quintana’s daughter studied abroad in Florence and speaks some Italian, so she and Catalano formed a bond because of this fact, according to Quintana.

Quintana notes that the foreign exchange students come to live with the host family already equipped knowing “an intermediate level of English.”

This program was such a fantastic experience that Quintana hopes to take part in it once again. In the meantime, she still keeps in contact with not only the students she and the rest of her family warmly welcomed into their home, but with their parents as well. She hopes that her family, the students she hosted and their families can one day get together because they are “now part of each other’s families.”

According to an official EF guidebook, the company was founded in “Sweden in 1965 to bridge cultural gaps and break down barriers of language and geography by promoting educational travel, intercultural exchange and language learning….EF Language Travel is a nonprofit organization which encourages international understanding through cultural exchange.”

The organization started in 1979 and brings student groups from over 15 countries to the United States and Canada for language study programs lasting between two and eight weeks.

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