Jerry and Tracy Schaffer were almost empty nesters when they decided to host teenagers from around the world. They have found opening their home and hearts has broadened their cultural horizons, added friendships, and introduced them to new youth sports and activities.
They also found their own kids have grown from the experience.
The Schaffers, who live in Stansbury Park, had always talked about having foreign exchange students while their two children, Tyler and Tori, were growing up. But they never got around to it. Then, Tracy’s friend, Janna Roberts, asked if she would host foreign exchange student Nick Zhang from China for the 2015-16 school year.
Roberts had been working with the group, Council for Educational Travel in the USA. After placing Zhang with the Schaffers, a few weeks later, Roberts asked Tracy if she would be willing to host another student, Alex Celsing from Sweden.
“I was immediately interested since my family was from Sweden and I have always been interested in Swedish culture,” Tracy said. “I went home and told Jerry he had five minutes to make up his mind.”
The Schaffers’ oldest child, Tyler, had already moved out and their daughter, Tori, just graduated from Stansbury High School and planned to attend Weber State that fall.
Tracy and Jerry started the application process with CETUSA and the program conducted a background check and home inspection.
Before school started in August, the Schaffers picked up their foreign exchange students from Salt Lake International Airport and the adventure of having teenagers again in their home began. For the next three years, they would host students.
Immediately, the Schaffers found there was a language barrier with their 15-year-old Chinese student. Nick Zhang often nodded that he understood, Tracy said, but he actually didn’t.
“Little did we know there was going to be a big challenge because Nick spoke very little English,” Tracy said. “We spent many nights reading the Tooele paper. He would hear me speak and would try to repeat the words.”
But by the time he left their home in May, Zhang’s English had significantly improved.
During the same time, 16-year-old Swedish student, Alex Celsing, played soccer on the Stansbury High team. The Schaffers learned to support a new sport that they knew nothing about. Both of their children played in the band and didn’t participate in sports.
Jerry spent time watching soccer on TV with Celsing, and Tracy spent time during the spring — under an umbrella — cheering Celsing on from the sidelines as he played.
The Schaffers had a hard time saying goodbye at the end of the school year because they felt that Celsing and Zhang were now part of the family. Fortunately, this last summer, Zhang came to spend 10 days with them.
The family says they have enjoyed hosting students and they were willing to have two more boys come stay with them the next school year in 2016-17.
Julian Wagner, 15, from Germany came to stay at the same time as 16-year-old Andreas Mynster from Denmark. Julian enjoyed hiking with the Schaffers and was on the high school swim team. The swim team’s parents also opened their hearts to Tracy and explained this new sport to her.
Mynster only stayed with the Schaffers for two months and then flew home.
“He was homesick,” Tracy said. “This is a huge adjustment for some of these kids.”
The Schaffers have stayed in touch with all of their foreign exchange students. This past summer, they flew to Frankfurt, Germany and spent time with Wagner’s family.
They rented a car and drove to Copenhagen to visit their first girl foreign exchange student, 16-year-old Frederikke Biehe, who would stay with the Schaffers for the 2017-18 school year.
During their European trip, they also spent time with Celsing’s family in Sweden. After visiting Celsing, they flew back to Copenhagen and met up with Mynster.
“Our students asked us what we wanted to do and we told them that we just wanted a chance to see what a day in their life is like,” Tracy said. “We got to see some really cool places that most tourists don’t get to experience.”
High school sweethearts, the Schaffers moved to Tooele County over 20 years ago from southern California. At home in Stansbury, 50-year-old Jerry, a math teacher at West Lake Junior High in West Valley City, enjoys working on projects around the house and painting. Fifty-year-old Tracy, director of Nursing at Tooele Technical College, enjoys running, baking and hiking.
“The rewarding part with hosting is learning about their cultures,” Jerry said. “We try to celebrate something that is unique to their culture while they are here. We have done Harvest Moon Day, lighting the advent calendar, and had a Swedish Christmas.”
Tracy will also make a traditional holiday meal from home on Christmas Day and celebrate all the holidays the students celebrate in their country throughout the year.
Biehe, who is a junior at Stansbury High, currently swims on the swim team and has enjoyed the Tooele Pratt Aquatic Center. She didn’t know what to expect when she found out she was coming to Utah, but has made friends and learned that she does speak good English. She said she enjoys watching episodes of “Friends” and taking in the different landscape that Utah offers.
“I’m not used to having mountains because Denmark is so flat,” Biehe said.
For the most part, the Schaffers try to treat their exchange students as if they are one of their own children.
“We pay for things just like if they were our own child,” Tracy said. “Day-to-day stuff, like food and entertainment, we take care of financially.” But, she added, “We don’t pay for them to come here or their school fees.”
There are certain rules the program also enforces, the Schaffers explained. The students can’t get a job while they are in U.S., they are discouraged from single dating, and they can’t drive.
As host parents, it is important to be respectful.
“You need to accept their culture,” Jerry said. “You can have your rules that they need to follow, but they have different beliefs and do things differently and so you have to respect that. If there’s conflict, talk to them about it.”
Tracy added, “Be very open-minded. Their families are there to help you.”
The Schaffers have talked politics with their boys, watched swim meets, and learned the rules about soccer.
“Soccer was difficult to learn,” Tracy said. “I got yelled at because I sat in the wrong bleachers and would jump up when I wasn’t supposed to.”
Roberts said she continues to place students with the Schaffers because they show they care about their exchange students.
“They have gone out of their way to give the kids a great experience while they’re here,” Roberts said.
At first, Tyler and Tori Schaffer struggled with having students come stay with their parents. Eventually, though, they learned that their parents weren’t replacing them, but adding dimension to their family.
“My kids have become much more accepting of people,” Tracy said. “We have always been very open to different races and cultures, but now my children have taken an interest in each of the kids and their cultures. They check up on all of the students and ask how they are doing.”
Looking back over the last few years, the Schaffers have been grateful for the opportunity to host students.
“We like doing it. It’s fun,” Jerry said.
The Schaffers’ foreign exchange students have taught them many cultural traditions that they hope to keep. When the day comes the couple stops hosting, they say their hearts and home will always be open to their students, and they will forever be part of their family.