Maricopa mom Nicole Polk has one daughter at home and an extended family of daughters around the world.
Since 2018, she, husband Stephen McElhose and daughter Katie have hosted high school students from Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Kenya. This school year, they are hosting Elsa Hedén from Sweden, who is spending her senior year at Maricopa High School.
It’s become a family tradition for the Hedéns. Elsa’s mother, Charlotta, was once a foreign exchange student stateside.
Polk explained how her family was drawn to hosting exchange students.
“My daughter really wanted an older sister and since science has proven that’s not an option, we decided to host,” said Polk, an international coordinator with the San Francisco-based Aspect Foundation.
Katie, an eighth grader at Legacy Traditional School, “feels like she has sisters from all over the world,” Polk said.
Polk works for Aspect in Maricopa, finding and recruiting host families, and placing them with foreign exchange students in their senior year.
In her role, she is a bit of a matchmaker, finding the right family for the right exchange student.
It all starts when families abroad complete an online form and Aspect runs a background check. Questions asked of families and exchange students cover everything from religion to food allergies.
“I help get families through the background application process,” Polk said.
Finding the right family-exchange student chemistry is an important step.
“It’s for a whole school year so there are a lot of emotional rollercoasters,” Polk said.
Polk recalled their first experience with an exchange student.
“The first time, we were really nervous and we didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But there is so much you can learn from a teenager in your home. We have loved the variety of personalities.”
Foreign exchange students become fully immersed in the English language, a unique experience in the U.S., Polk said. It boosts the visiting students’ confidence as a result.
Elsa, who is visiting Maricopa from Stockholm, is the most Americanized student Polk’s family hosted in Maricopa.
Much of that comes from her mother, Charlotta, who was an exchange student in Mississippi in the 1980s.
Elsa said it was her mom who inspired her to spend part of her education in America.
“I think I always wanted to be an exchange student since mom was hosted,” Elsa said. “It just came kind of natural to me. I wanted the experience. I really wanted to experience the things that are really typical for a high school student — school spirit and all the activities.”
Elsa is very active with the student council at Maricopa High School, assisting the council with planning and producing school events, including prom, homecoming, spirit weeks, pep assemblies and concessions at sports games.
Once she graduates from MHS, Elsa is required to return to her country and finish her senior year in Sweden.
She said she likes the academic offerings at MHS because it allows her to take creative courses, such as art. In Sweden, students must focus on their major, even in high school.
At MHS, Elsa said she can hang out with students of all academic interests. In Sweden, students of the same major spend all their time together, limiting her ability to make new friends.
Elsa said she has loved her stay so much, she seriously considers returning to an Arizona university, where she could be supported by scholarships. Her mother has encouraged her to consider college in Sweden because the price is right — it’s free.
While in Maricopa, Elsa has acquired a passion for drive-thrus such as Dutch Bros Coffee. Such options do not exist in Sweden, where public transit is the most popular way to get around.
Of her overall learning and cultural experience in Maricopa, Elsa summed it up: “It’s not a year in your life, it’s a life in your year.”
Charlotta said, like herself, she wanted daughter Elsa to realize the world is more than the society in which she grew up.
“I want her to see that she can create a life anywhere in the world and build new friendships,” Charlotta told InMaricopa. “I want her to see that there are families and cultures different from ours because it makes her more tolerant to differences. And I want her to have fun, get new experiences and create life memories.”
Charlotta’s Mississippi exchange sister has visited her in Sweden since she left the U.S.
Elsa’s mom will first see Arizona when she visits her daughter next month at her Maricopa exchange family’s home.
While Polk and her family have travelled to visit their exchange daughters on their own soil, she said having an exchange student also spurs a host family to explore more of their own backyard.
“It’s a great opportunity for your family to travel and do the local things like you don’t do normally,” Polk said. “You make more of an effort to go on a road trip, or see a baseball game, or go to the Grand Canyon.
“It’s a great way to create memories and bonding experiences that you wouldn’t normally take time to do.”
Polk said true to the Disney song, it is indeed a small world, after all.
Two Italian exchange students who stayed with Polk and her husband in separate years in Maricopa coincidentally met each other in Italy two years ago.
Polk has recruited eight families as exchange student hosts in Maricopa. Currently, she said she is looking for four more families to host.
Since the pandemic has passed, MHS is allowing more exchange students to enroll, which creates more of a demand for host families, Polk said.
The exchange program today allows “empty nesters” without children at home to host exchange students.
Charlotta said she looks forward to her visit to Maricopa in the coming weeks and hopes Polk and her family will return the visit at her home in Sweden someday. That is one of the greatest benefits of the exchange program.
Said Charlotta: “Exchange programs create an amazing possibility to meet new friends from other countries, bring us closer, create understanding and travel. Elsa’s friends and family are welcome to Sweden any day.”