Persons family provides exchange students American high school experience


Courtesy of Dana Persons

Dana Persons (center) and husband Mike Persons (far right) have hosted exchange students at Grady for nearly 15 years.

Dana Richie

International students experience the life of an American high school student while walking the halls of Grady. 

The foreign exchange program benefits students by introducing global perspectives that stimulate education and social interactions. This program, however, wouldn’t exist without host families like Dana and Mike Persons who turn their home into a cultural microcosm by hosting an international student for a semester. 

“We really love it,” Dana Persons said. “We’ve always had really good luck. [The exchange student] always pairs up with at least one of our children, and it’s always been interesting which one it is; they always find something in common.”

The Persons have hosted exchange students for nearly 15 years, and Dana formerly served as the local coordinator of the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). When she was in high school, her family hosted exchange students, so she passed that unique experience down to her children. It didn’t take a lot of convincing to encourage her to begin hosting exchange students, she said.

“Once I got to Atlanta and we were having children, I basically got an email, and it was on a Friday night … it said, ‘Do you want a Brazilian daughter for two weeks?’” Dana Persons said. “Two weeks turned into full time, so she, you know, stayed with us a semester.”

Persons hosted her first exchange student when her youngest son, Cal Persons, was learning to walk. They decided to keep hosting, making the Persons boys’ childhood unique. Cal is now a junior and said he continues to form close bonds with his exchange students. 

“Last year I had one from Nigeria, and he was my age; so, we were pretty close,” Cal said. “We lived in the same room. I like having someone to hang with every day at home.”

Dana acknowledges that hosting exchange students isn’t for everyone. She describes the type of people who are the most willing to host as the ‘why-nots.’ She reasons that typically they have three or four kids pulling them in different directions, so throwing another kid into the bunch wouldn’t be too overwhelming; their life is chaotic already. This was the Persons’ mentality when approaching the exchange program.

“My friend called my family a bunch of tumbleweeds,” Dana Persons said. “We’re not very organized; so, we just kind of roll with it. We’re always going in 20 different directions, whether it’s soccer practices or games or tennis matches or whatever. The student pretty much gets thrown into the mix, and if he can’t find a friend at our house, then he can’t find a friend, period.”

Thanks to the friendship and openness of Grady families like the Persons, exchange students have had the opportunity to have the full American high school experience. Dana Persons said that though sometimes it takes a bit of encouragement to get the exchange student to go to football games, school dances and pep rallies, they always end up participating in the American culture and interacting with American students.

“I’ve seen kids come in really really shy and, for better or for worse, get ‘Americanized’ while they are here,” Lee Pope, U.S. History teacher said. “Most of the kids that participated in the exchange program were already kind of adventurous themselves, so they had either been a host family to an American exchange student in their country or were excited by the prospects of meeting new people.”

One of the Persons’ former exchange students, Vit Madle from the Czech Republic, fondly remembers what it was like to be a temporary member in the Persons’ household. 

“My time in America is a hard year to explain,” Madle said. “It was the best experience of my life.”

The bonds formed with exchange students aren’t temporary. Dana said her family has visited many of their former exchange students. Pope also said he plans on visiting Madle when he goes to Europe. The experience impacts everyone involved.

“[Exchange students] are like a brother, like family,” Cal said.