If you didn’t know David and Sherry Rollins personally, you would be forgiven for thinking the couple had one of the largest extended families you’d ever seen. After all, nearly a dozen teenagers have come in and out of the Rollins household over the past decade, each staying in their home for just a handful of months before leaving, only to be followed shortly by yet another mysterious high-schooler.
But these teens aren’t nieces and nephews, grandchildren or even distant cousins in need of a place to stay — they are foreign exchange students from places as far away as Asia and Europe. Some barely old enough to drive, these adventurous young strangers arrive in the United States to spend a semester or more completely immersed in American culture. That experience includes living in an American household throughout the duration of their stay — and, in the case of the Rollins, becoming an integral part of an American family.
“For us, we don’t just treat our students like they are visitors — to us, they are our children,” says David, a retired Marine who lives with his family in a small town just outside of Austin, Texas. “I can’t imagine where we would be had we not hosted our students.”
Though the Rollins began hosting exchange students only nine years ago, you could argue that their journey toward becoming a host family began as far back as Sherry’s time at university. During her junior year of college, Sherry lived and studied in France — and returned to the United States with an enormous appreciation for world travel and cultural immersion.
So one morning nearly a decade ago, when the couple opened their local newspaper to find an ad inviting families in the area to host incoming foreign exchange students, it took no time at all for the couple to make up their minds.
“[My wife] swears that she saw the article and placed it by my cup of coffee, and I swear that I opened it up and showed it to her,” David laughs, looking back on the morning that would change the course of their lives forever. “Either way, within two weeks of calling [the number in the ad], we had a young man from South Korea sitting in our house. And, well, the rest is history!”
The Long Haul
To date, the Rollins have hosted 12 foreign exchange students over the span of just nine years. Their students have come from countries as culturally and geographically diverse as South Korea, Italy, Germany and Belgium — and for many of them, their time living with the Rollins family was just the beginning of their experience here in the United States.
Of the 12 students the Rollins have hosted, many of them have continued their studies in either an American high school or college. In fact, their very first student from South Korea returned to complete his studies just a stone’s throw away from the Rollins home, eventually graduating with his diploma from an American high school. He would go on to pursue his undergraduate degree at a university in Texas before returning to Korea for two years of compulsory military service.
But even for the students that permanently returned to their home countries after departing the United States, David and Sherry continue to connect with each of them via Skype at least once a quarter. Some have even returned to Texas to visit the Rollins family many years after their exchange experience. Next year, David and Sherry also plan to visit their former German exchange student’s biological family in their hometown.
These lifelong relationships with former students come as no surprise to David and Sherry, since the couple attests to forming very close bonds with each of their students. It’s these close bonds that make the inevitable culmination of each student’s stay in the Rollins home so bittersweet.
“Every time one of our kids leaves, we bawl on the way home from the airport,” David reminisces before adding with a laugh: “But, you know, we spend a few days feeling blue and then… it’s time to find a new exchange student!”
Part of the Family
Though the pair admits that being a host family for foreign teenagers can certainly be challenging, they insist that the experience is worth the emotional and logistical obstacles inherent to hosting. After all, from the moment they walk into the Rollins’ household, they are no longer strangers — they are part of the family.
“We treat each of our [students] like they are one of our own,” David insists. “I think one of the most important things a [host family] can do is treat [exchange students] not as a guest, but as their own child.”
In the case of the Rollins family, becoming a part of the family isn’t just about spending time together or congregating around the dinner table. According to David, the real family bonding starts when their students learn to take on their own household responsibilities — or, more simply, when they’re tasked with their first set of chores.
“I have [our students] picking up dog poop in the backyard or mowing grass or doing their own laundry,” David says with a chuckle. “They clean their room, they clean their bathroom. A majority of our students come here and don’t have experience doing these things for themselves, so it’s important that they adapt to the way our household runs.”
Of course, it’s not all chores with the Rollins. After picking up a new exchange student from the airport, the family doesn’t head straight home, but instead to their favorite local burger joint — a mom n’ pop shop called Moonie’s in Cedar Park. For many of their students, this is not only their first experience with authentic American cuisine but also the perfect introduction to the Rollins family way of life.
Each of the Rollins’ exchange students accompanies them on family vacations, trips to run errands and even church service every Sunday — a tradition that is not about adopting the family’s religion, but entirely about understanding and truly appreciating the family’s values.
All in all, both David and Sherry feel their approach to integrating a student into every aspect of their lifestyle is one of the reasons why they’ve had such positive experiences throughout their 12 years of hosting. It’s this crystal-clear understanding of what matters most to their family that helps David and Sherry choose the right students year after year. In fact, both David and Sherry make a concerted effort to begin looking for the right match sometimes as many as six months in advance!
Of course, not everyone in the Rollins’ social orbit truly understands what inspires the pair to invite new students to their home every semester. “When we would [tell] other families in our community and our church [about what we do], they would look at us like we had horns growing out of our heads!” David laughs. “It is such a foreign idea to [other people] to host a foreign exchange student.”
But for Sherry and David, hosting exchange students is nothing short of a calling — one that’s rooted in their faith as well as their personal beliefs.
“We’re nobody special — we just love opening up our home,” says David. “We open up our home because, in our view, what better way is there to share our faith, our love, and our family than hosting an exchange student here in America?”
This year, the Rollins are enjoying a year focused solely on their granddaughter, a talented student-athlete who will soon begin ninth grade. Despite the year sabbatical, neither David nor Sherry are ready to end their tenure as one of ISE’s most prolific host families.
“It’s really an addiction,” says David emphatically. “We just love hosting exchange students — and we’re certainly nowhere near done.”