Part of the family
I didn’t give my children a brother, so I rented one for a year.”
That’s what Lewis Kalmans, a wealth advisor at Morgan Stanley and father of three teen girls, says of hosting a 17-year-old boy as an exchange student from Hungary for a year.
Except the Kalmans family got Laci (pronounced LA-tzi) for way more than just a year. Almost two years after Laci left Houston, he is still on the Kalmans group text. “He’s part of the family,” Lewis’ wife Elyse says.
AFS-USA is the nonprofit organization that brings these students to Houston (and to other locations across the country). The founders of AFS-USA were volunteer WWI and WWII American Field Service ambulance drivers who promoted cross-cultural and educational exchanges in order to prevent future conflict.
Elyse began thinking about hosting an exchange student after she heard another mother of three girls speak about AFS at a Kinkaid School Parents’ Association board meeting. “It was a similar situation and sounded cool,” Elyse says. The Kalmans girls were in 11th, 10th and 7th grades when Laci joined them as a high school junior in Aerin’s class. Kinkaid has a longtime relationship with AFS and pays for tuition, books and school lunches. Laci played on the football and soccer teams, with the Kalmans crew cheering on their new “son” and brother.
Laci’s family came to Houston at the end of his school year, and the Kalmans crew spent a Thanksgiving in Hungary visiting Laci’s family. “He and Aerin still FaceTime multiple times a week,” Elyse says.
Elizabeth and Paul Tepikian have hosted six exchange students – four boys, from Thailand, Norway and Germany, and two girls, from Italy and Germany. Paul, a retired ExxonMobil executive, moved the family to Guatemala for three years for his work. “We saw the impact that had on our kids, experiencing another culture, another language, which put us in a position to host when we come back to Houston,” Paul says. When their older daughter Emily left for college, leaving younger daughter Chantrea an “only child,” the Tepikians took the leap.
“Manuela, from Italy, was a year older than our youngest,” Elizabeth, an attorney, says. “So they were 15 and 14. It was a bit of work to get two teenage girls to get along, but they ended up loving each other.”
Another challenge? One of the boys from Thailand was named “Him.” “Made for very interesting conversation,” Paul says, “because it was like, ‘Where’s Him?’
The Tepikians brought their students on family trips, including scuba diving trips to Cozumel. “If you’re going to be a Tepikian, you’re going to learn to scuba dive,” Paul says. He says one of his favorite moments was watching Vagar, a tall, blonde Norweigan exchange student, leave the house with his daughter Chantrea, who is Cambodian, and her then-boyfriend, who was African-American. “Vagar came from a town where if one percent of the population wasn’t Norweigan, that would be a lot. Some of these kids come from towns smaller than Lamar.”
Tepikian exchange students have attended Lamar and HSPVA. “In the grand scheme of life, they’re not here that long, but you end up with a tight bond which is quite gratifying,” Elizabeth says.
Sarah Selleck and Brent Nyquist have made hosting AFS students a multi-generational affair. When Brent was a teenager in Montana, his family hosted Pancho from Chile, with whom they are still in contact. “That planted in my mind that I could go somewhere,” Brent, an architect, says, “so I spent my senior year in Finland. I had never been to a non-English-speaking country before, so this was fairly radical for a kid from Montana. I didn’t talk to anyone for four months, but for me that isn’t a tough thing.”
A generation later, Sarah and Brent host students here, and their daughter Kat spent an exchange year in Germany. “I learned so much, about how I react out of my element, how I deal with certain things,” Kat says. “I went from living in inner-city Houston to a town of 15,000 where I had cows outside my window.
“I’m not saying it was perfect, but I loved my year. You have to be okay with being yourself, and I’ve learned that. I can make it through those hard situations and come out even better.”
To anyone considering hosting a student or living abroad as an exchange student, Kat says, “Do it! It was the hardest but best year of my life so far in 19 years.”
If you are interested in hosting an exchange student or studying abroad, contact Kelly Nugent at AFS-USA Texas Gulf Coast: 832-627-7705 or [email protected].
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