Roni Coghill couldn’t have children of her own, but by hosting foreign exchange students she now has 6
Roni Coghill learned early on that she would never be able to conceive and give birth to children. It was news, she said, that left her with "an empty place inside."
But now Coghill has six children she thinks of as her own, and her family is likely to keep growing. She is a host mother for foreign exchange students.
"When I heard about the program to host foreign exchange students [through the EF Foundation for Foreign Study], I inquired about it. It all happened very quickly, and believe me, it has been a life-changing experience," Coghill said.
Coghill took in her first foreign exchange student seven years ago, and has hosted six students since then. One was from Italy, and the other five were all from Germany, including her current "daughter," Sassi.
Coghill said she decided to focus only on students from Germany because it helps her keep in touch once their year of study here in the U.S. is done and they go back home.
"Each one of these kids is important to me, and I want to be able to visit them later," she explained. "I am only able to go visit every other year, and if they are all from different countries, then I have to make a hard choice about who to go see when I get the chance to go. But since all but one are from Germany, I don’t have to choose. I can go and see them all in one trip."
Usually, Coghill makes her biennial journeys in the summer, but her first trip to Germany was at Christmas. The student she was hosting that year was in the U.S. only for the first half of the school year, so she accompanied the student back home, she said.
This year, Coghill added, she is heading to Germany to visit her kids in July, and she expects one student will be coming back with her.
"My second kid comes back every year to spend most of the summer, and the rest have all come back to spend at least a week with me," she said.
Many LGBT individuals and couples might think that they wouldn’t be accepted as foreign exchange student host families because of their sexual orientation. With EF Foundation, Coghill said, that isn’t the case at all.
"A same-sex couple would have to have the approval of the student’s family to host a student, and a single man couldn’t host a female student. But for single people, being gay or lesbian isn’t an issue at all for EF," Coghill said.
"I am single, and I don’t really date much, so it really isn’t an issue for me," she continued. "But I make it an issue. I want that student and his or her family to know before I host a student that I am a lesbian.
"Once I pick a student to host, I fall in love with them, the way any parent falls in love with their child. And if they know I am a lesbian before they come here, but we make the agreement, I don’t have to worry about it being any kind of problem later. But if they don’t know before they get here, and then they find out and decide they don’t want to live with me because of that, then it would break my heart," she said.
Coghill said she has never encountered any resistance from the families of students she has hosted. In fact, she said, "the first boy I hosted, when we talked about me being a lesbian, he said that was one of the main reasons he wanted to live with me. He said all the gay people he had known were very nice, and so he thought I would be nice, too. They are a little more open-minded about things like that in Germany."
Coghill also had some advice for LGBT people — or anyone, for that matter — considering becoming a host family: Know what you’re getting into, and be prepared for everything.
"You have to go into it knowing that you are dealing with teenagers, and teenagers like to test boundaries and push buttons. You have to go into it expecting there will be times when things are all wonderful," she said.
But, she added, the advantages — the pure joy of sharing your life with these teenagers and having them share their lives with you — "is just so much greater than any of the problems you might have. It’s worth it, completely."
Some people might see hosting a foreign exchange student as a short-term commitment, like having a house guest for 10 or 11 months who will then leave and not really have any more impact on their lives.
But for Coghill, each hosting agreement is a long-term commitment, and each student becomes a member of her family.
"Once they’re in your house, they’re in your heart. And once they’re in your heart, they never leave," she said. "When I got to a reunion or see someone I haven’t seen in a long time, they’ll ask if I have any children. I tell them yes, I have six. It always gets me some funny looks, and then I explain.
"The thing for me is that these students and I, we choose each other. It’s not like I am their biological mother and they have to love me because I am their mother, or I have to love them because they are my children. We choose to love each other," Coghill said.
"This isn’t a love affair you’re born into. It’s one you choose. And it is wonderful."
For more information on hosting a foreign exchange student, go online to EFFoundation.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 7, 2010.