Sweet Home Alabama Part 1 – Jennifer Hua
My husband and I have four children, all of whom have been educated in the French school system. When I’d hear them complain about school, I always wished that they could experience an American school, with its electives, school spirit, and generally more positive relationship with the teachers. They were not having the fun learning experience that I remembered. I also wanted them to experience more of American culture than what they got during our annual three-week summer blasts to visit family in the US. When I was in high school, I was an AFS exchange student to Australia, and my French husband had likewise experienced family stays in England and Canada when he was younger, so we envisioned sending our kids abroad via a family stay, where they could attend the local high school.
When our third daughter Katie entered 2nde, she was very insistent from the start that she wanted to spend a year in the US. At her lycée, we were told that the best time to do an exchange would be between 2nde and 1ère, due to the Bac. If she were only gone one trimester, the school would consider admitting her back as a 1ère, but if she wanted to be gone a whole school year, then she would essentially lose a year here in France. Our lycée, which is private, was willing to hold a spot for her the following year. Other lycées may be different.
Katie did not want to stay with relatives; she wanted an experience more like what we had had. We could have gone the easier route of applying through an exchange student organization, such as AFS or YFU, but we didn’t see the need, since our daughter had a US passport, and we figured our network of family and friends would surely put us in touch with families interested in hosting her. We were offering an eventual reciprocal hosting here. Plus, the cost of a program to the US was fairly prohibitive – nearly 12,000€. We started looking seriously for possible host families in December; I contacted old school friends, and some online friends. Since Katie was a kayaker, my sister in South Carolina also posted a notice on a regional kayaking board. One friend suggested that our daughter write up a letter introducing herself; I then distributed this to everybody I could think of.
We ended up with three to four good solid leads by the end of January, one being a university professor in Virginia who’d seen the kayaking board notice! After much deliberation and exchanges of emails back and forth trying to get to know the families, we talked them over with Katie, and in mid-February we decided on a family in Alabama that had two teenage daughters, one of whom was a serious kayaker. The mother taught French and English at the local high school. They happened to be friends of a colleague of my sister’s. We were able to meet the mother in Paris in the spring when she brought a group of her students to Europe.
In the meantime, we also contacted AFS, the Rotary Club, the US Consulate, the local high school near my parents’, and AAWE for any and all information that we might need, such as insurance and school enrollment requirements. We were trying to have all our bases covered, but we got quite a bit of conflicting information, which was very frustrating.
Katie’s future host family quickly began running into difficulty getting her enrolled in their local high school. The principal kept insisting that she needed a J-1 visa to enroll as an exchange student. I had to forward a written confirmation from the consulate in Paris that an American citizen with an American passport did NOT need a visa! Basically, since she was not with an exchange program, the school would not enroll her unless she could prove Alabama residency. I have since learned that this is a very common problem. The host family went to great lengths, up to meeting with the school district superintendent, to make this work, and after much back and forth it was finally decided that our only option would be to grant the host parents legal guardianship of Katie. Because this was Alabama, it would essentially be permanent guardianship. This was a huge step for us to take, but we really liked and trusted this family, and felt comfortable making this decision. We filled out a form that I’d downloaded from the internet and had it notarized at the consulate in Paris, stating that we were handing over our parental rights. Gulp. The host family then used this form when they went in front of the judge in Alabama family court to claim guardianship. This ended up costing us around $850 in attorney fees, plus $50 for the notarization. This whole process took until the end of May to finally get settled. We were on tenterhooks all these months, not knowing if Katie was going to be able to go or not. Finally, we were able to tell her that, yes, she was going to be able to spend a year in the US with a host family and experience an American high school!
I made up a Word document detailing all of her vaccinations in English, and attached a copy of her French carnet de santé to it. I had to fill out an Alabama health department medical certificate, which our pediatrician here then signed. The anglais bilingue office at our lycée prepared a school transcript, along with a description of how to read the French grading for the school. She was now ready to officially start school.
Look for Part 2 of “Sweet Home Alabama” in mid-April.
About Jennifer Hua
Jennifer is a stay at home mom to four wonderful children, all now young adults, two of whom were born in France. She also volunteers with AAWE on the Board of Directors – Executive Committee as our Treasurer.