For the Ryan family, the host experience has never been just a way to make $1,000 every month. In fact, when they first signed up, they had no idea that a monthly stipend was offered. After years of taking care of international students, the family earned their trust and, consequently, discovered how UC Educations operates.
“(Seniors Kevin Huang and Jesus Galindo) will be a part of our family for the rest of their lives,” host mother Patty said. “I know I’m going to be grandma number two when Kevin and Jesus have kids.”
Before signing onto Country Day’s international student program, David Ryan, his wife Patty and their daughter, former SCDS student Catherine, had had experience hosting students. David said that they had previously hosted exchange students and taken in au pairs, students who live with families and provide child care while taking classes at local schools.
Before taking in students, David already understood why the prospect of studying in America appeals to many Chinese students and their parents. He said that in the last several years, Chinese parents have sought ways to westernize and globalize their children. They are also enticed by America’s stronger athletic and visual arts programs. In contrast, China has only recently introduced physical education.
David also said that the process of tracking down an American high school, applying, organizing the necessary paperwork and finding a host family is sophisticated, and overseas families are not familiar enough with how to manage it all. So third-party agencies are convenient.
“(International students) have so much riding on being successful, so it’s very easy to take advantage of them,” David said.
Patty agreed that international students’ dreams of living in America can be used against them.
“The kids work so hard to get here, and they’re serious students,” Patty said. “They’re really good kids. But if they’re in a bad situation, they live in fear that if they say something bad, they’ll get sent home.
“So they suck it up.”
Patty said that UC Educations works hard to convince parents that they care about their students.
After living in Beijing from 2012-14 as a part of David’s job at Intel, the Ryan family wanted to continue their exposure to Chinese culture by taking in an international student from Country Day.
The Ryans went through a paperwork process and then hosted a local representative at their house for an inspection and interview.
Because of the national shortage of host families and the fact that Country Day was already familiar with the Ryans, David said that their application process was expedited. So a former SCDS student signed on to stay with the family for the 2014-15 school year.
But as the Ryans became more familiar with the agency, their initial impressions changed.
“There’s an element to this agency where they’re just being neglectful,” Patty said. “They’re really just about money. They would willingly put a child at risk.
“Money is their sole priority. That is it.”
After a year, the student left Country Day, and the Ryans went back to UC Educations to request another international student.
The Ryans then welcomed Huang and former SCDS student Steven Wang in 2015, followed by Galindo in 2016, into their home.
David said that everyone at UC Educations, some Country Day administrators and other host parents told him that it is unusual not to send international students back immediately once their situations become problematic.
Patty also noticed how the international students have few people to turn to when they face problems with their host families.
“The kids go to the school and complain and say ‘We don’t know what to do! Please help us!’” Patty said. “And the school says talk to your agent. And then the representative says ‘We’ve done everything we (are) supposed to do. Do you want to move? Do you know someone (you could move in with)?’ And the kids say no (because) they don’t know anyone, so the kids are stuck.”
Patty called it “inhumane.” And though she admits that there are people who live in far worse situations, she said that it’s obvious that UC Educations is taking advantage of vulnerable kids who can’t speak English well enough to communicate their problems.
David said that while UC Educations neglects completing their monthly host visits, there are certain rules that they take great care to maintain. For example, UC Educations prohibits students from rooming together.
When Galindo, who is not using UC Educations, came to live with the Ryans toward the end of his junior year, the Ryans turned their office room into a bedroom. When UC Educations found out about the arrangement, they gave the Ryans “a hard time” because they were concerned that Galindo was bunking with their students.
Later, when the Ryans began living in their leased duplex by school on weekdays and in their normal house on weekends, David said that UC Educations “went ballistic over the residential situation.”
However, the Ryans’ time with their international students has not totally been spent on grappling with the agency. David said that because his family takes their international students on vacation and do fun activities together, the monthly stipend of $1,000 does not cover all of their costs. But that does not seem to put a damper on things.
Patty said that she enjoyed Wang immensely before he left SCDS.
“Steven was a blast,” Patty said. “He was very, very funny. He wanted to move (back) to China to be a professional basketball player.”
Patty said that she remembered one time after Wang moved in with her family, he had gone to take a shower. Just a few minutes later, Wang returned.
“Kevin joked, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen such a short shower!’” Patty said. “(And Wang) said, ‘It’s in the contract that we can’t waste the host family’s water!’ Kevin had never heard of such a rule. I told him to take a 20-minute shower for all I care!”
But the Ryans said that they have made much deeper connections with their two remaining international students.
“We have a great relationship with these boys,” David said. “We are so glad we did it again. They are great kids. (Living with Galindo and Huang) was what you would hope a host experience would be.”
In fact, the Ryans plan to move to Berkeley in June. They didn’t relocate earlier, even though David’s corporate office moved to Santa Clara in September, because they wanted to allow Galindo and Huang to finish their senior years. But the Ryans will not take on another international student once settled in Berkeley.
“We would never take another child from this agency,” Patty said. “We will no longer contribute to an agency that profits off of vulnerable kids.”
David said that in the coming years there are many ways to solve these problems. One would involve federal legislation to completely shut down this type of activity that takes place across the nation. David said that the foreign resident student visa program that many agencies have dialed into would have to be changed to have a long-lasting impact.
Another option is for the school to create its own program that bypasses UC Educations. David said that he has heard of schools that buy houses in their neighborhood and allow their faculty to live in the houses as long as they host a couple international students. However, he admits that this is not a practical option for a school as small as Country Day and the cost of setting up an administration poses a challenge.
Patty said that the school could also end its policy of charging considerably more for international student tuition so that Country Day isn’t drawn to accepting students by the financial aspect. Patty said that many international students have to retake English or history classes during the summer because they can’t keep up, so in addition to their hefty tuition, they must pay for more classes.
Another solution would be to begin recruiting Country Day families. David said that in the 10 years that his family has been part of the community, they had never been asked to be involved in the program. Of the 500 or so families at Country Day, only a handful would be needed to host all of the international students, David said. This method would require making the program a community effort but would be absolutely worth it, according to Patty.
Patty said that local representative Russell McCollough, whom she calls a “salt-of-the-earth kind of guy,” recruits many host families from his Christian congregation; however, because many of these families are elderly, they have no way to get their students to extracurricular activities.
And the role of the local representative itself could be changed. Patty suggested that the local representative needs to speak Chinese and understand Chinese culture, so that the kids can explain any emotional or complex experiences.
“When a Chinese kid tells you ‘Things are not going well,’ that’s like an American kid telling you ‘Danger! Danger!’ and screaming ‘Help me! Help me!’” Patty said.
David said that because English immersion is difficult and most other schools with international student programs have an English as a second language class, it would also be best if the school had very specific programs that catered to that need.
Regardless of how Country Day chooses to solve this crisis, David, a former member of the Board of Trustees, said that the Board should care about what the school is involved in.
“This agency needs to be held to account and, frankly, the school does too,” Patty said.