Brenda Hendrickson can hardly remember the day she became an area representative — after all, it was nearly a decade ago. She recalls seeing an advertisement on Craigslist, and can vaguely remember the job description: to help connect foreign exchange students with American host families, and all that entails.
Though the specific details about the beginning of her journey with ISE are fuzzy, one memory remains clear: her certainty that this was the opportunity she was looking for.
“To be honest, I didn’t have a moment of hesitation,” says Brenda who, at the time, was an educator working with students on the autism spectrum. She felt that her experience with this unique population put her at a distinct advantage in working with young people.
She laughs, “I figured, since I was already working with a challenging group of kids, this would probably be a lot easier!”
Fast forward to eight years later, and Brenda is now a full-time Regional Advisor, overseeing host families and other area reps in the greater northwest region. Despite the new level of responsibility, Brenda still does triple-duty as an area representative and a host parent — to date, she’s hosted 19 students.
So what is being an area representative really like? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? What are the challenges new area representatives should expect, and what kinds of qualities make the “perfect” area rep? We caught up with Brenda to get the answers from someone who truly knows!
The trick for getting first-time host families to make the leap? Find common ground.
Brenda is the first to admit that being an area representative comes with its challenges. The challenge of finding families ready and willing to open their hearts and homes to a foreign exchange student.
“For better or worse, we live in a ‘me, me, me’ society. And [prospective host families] sometimes have a hard time looking at the bigger picture,” she says. “Finding the families that are willing to open their home to a student can be difficult but once you [successfully recruit a family], it’s incredibly rewarding!”
Brenda’s strategy for helping families see the rewards amidst the challenges of hosting a student is simple: find common ground.
“I find out first what drives host families to begin with. Are they family-oriented? Are they sports fans? I try to find common ground with them and help them see [the opportunities] in helping a student experience American culture through their eyes. Only then do we talk about the global aspect of things, and how [this experience] helps bring global awareness to their schools, their communities and even their family.”
The challenges of being an area representative pale in comparison to the rewards.
If you ask Brenda what the most rewarding part of her job is, she struggles to settle on a single perk. “There are just so many!” she laughs. But for Brenda, an unabashed people-person with a knack for connecting with others, becoming an area representative provides extraordinary opportunities to connect with people far outside of your social circle.
“I have been able to develop relationships that I never thought I would,” she muses. “The networking [aspect of the job] is such a great challenge and an even greater opportunity!”
Among the many rewards of being an area representative for ISE, Brenda remembers one particular experience that stands out. It all happened after placing a young German exchange student with a host family in her hometown of Davenport, Washington.
“He had Googled Davenport and saw how small it was. He expressed some concern about being in such a small town. The student came from such a large city in Germany,” she explains. “But quickly after arriving, he became such an integral part of the school and the community as a whole. He was the starting kicker on the football team, he played basketball. He even joined the track team and went to the state championship!”
Even years later, this student continues to travel back to Davenport to visit his former host family (he’s been back twice since his time living in the US). His host family even made a trip all the way to Germany to finally see his hometown as well!
“Seeing those relationships between host families and their students that you helped build… that is very rewarding,” she says with a smile.
The travel perks don’t hurt, either.
Area representatives aren’t only rewarded in extraordinary connections among their students and host families — for reps that successfully place a certain number of students each year, they have an international trip to look forward to.
Dubbed the ‘Celebration of Success’ trip, this annual all-expenses-paid excursion visits destinations in far-flung locations like Europe and South America. While Brenda stops short of saying this is the best benefit of being an area rep, she will admit that the yearly trip is the cherry on top of the cake.
“The travel opportunities with this company have been astounding,” she says. “Frankly, I would never have been able to travel to the places I have, had it not been for my role with ISE.”
So far, Brenda has traveled to Spain, Germany, and Ireland with ISE, with new destinations slated for the near future!
The recipe for a great Area Representative: self-motivated, open-minded, and consistent.
Even Brenda admits that not everyone is cut out to be an area representative. The essential qualities for an area rep come down to three simple things: motivation, open-mindedness, and consistency.
On self-motivation: “You have to be self-motivated because, well… you’re working from home! It’s easy to get distracted and even easier to say ‘oh, I’ll get to that tomorrow’. In order to be successful [in this position], you have to be the type of person that can buckle down and do the work even when someone isn’t there to hold you accountable.”
On open-mindedness: “To be a successful area rep, you need to be open-minded because there are so many differing beliefs, religions, and personalities [in respect to the families and students you work with]. It is important to be tolerant and understanding when dealing with people from so many different backgrounds.”
On consistency: “Being consistent is not only advantageous for student behavior, but it also helps your host families as well! If you’re consistent with your host families, they’re more likely to trust you and more likely to host for you again. For me, consistency translates to keeping the line of communication open with a regular check-in email or message.”
Brenda stresses that the job requires representatives to wear many hats within a day. You may be leaping from business development and networking one minute, to digital marketing and social media management the next. She is quick to remark just how rewarding this can be for the right kind of person.
“For me personally, being able to wear so many hats and do so many different things at once is what helps me stay focused,” she says. “It has been such a wonderful opportunity year after year!”