Exchange students find families in Columbia

Sunday, February 17, 2008 | 5:00 p.m. CST; updated 9:43 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Danilo Leon, an international student from Ecuador, poses with his host parents, Judy and Jim Elliot, in their Columbia home on Feb. 5. The Elliots are active participants in the American LIFE program through the MU International Center.

The original version of this story incorrectly listed the Elliot's hometown.

Danilo Leon

From Ecuador to the United States: 3,365 miles

How to host an exchange student

To get involved with American LIFE, visit To contact the local Rotary Club, visit To volunteer with the Center for Cultural Interchange, visit


When Danilo Leon’s car broke down in the January cold, he called his American parents.

“They lent me their Ford Bronco,” Leon said, laughing. “They saved me because you can’t get around Columbia without a car.”

Leon, 29, is a third-year master’s student in language teaching at MU. His parents live more than 3,000 miles away on the Galapagos Islands, but he says Jim and Judy Elliot of Columbia have done a good job of filling in for the past three years.

American LIFE, or League of International Friendship Encounters, brought Leon and the Elliots together as part of an international program to match foreign students with local families. They get together informally for holidays, celebrations or just a casual family dinner.

“How many Thanksgivings have you spent in this house?” Jim Elliot asked Leon with a smile.

Leon is an avid MU sports fan and has been the Elliots’ guest at numerous MU football and basketball games in the past three seasons. Sometimes he just calls to check in or to ask if he can come swim in Hulen Lake.

The Elliots have been involved in international student programs at MU for 40 years. They came to Columbia in 1968 after a two-year stint in Panama during Jim Elliot’s military service. Judy Elliot was adamant that her two young children continue to sample the culture.

“I didn’t want them to lose the international element that I think is so important for them growing up,” Judy said. “So we just always signed up with the international center and usually were assigned Hispanic countries. We knew what it was to be a foreigner in another country. We just thought it was so important to make people feel welcome in our country. And I feel like some people don’t feel comfortable.”

The Elliots’ goal is to give their students a place to turn when their homes and parents are far away, not to Americanize them.

“You need someone to call when your car breaks down,” Jim said.

Judy Elliot, a member of the MU faculty for over 35 years, teaches a medical Spanish class for the School of Nursing at University Hospital.

She and Leon, a Spanish teaching assistant, share instruction ideas and techniques, as well as Spanish literature and videos for class. Leon has even substituted for her on occasion.

Recently, they were both students in a medical interpretation course. This shared passion helps keep their relationship strong.

“When Danilo was teaching at a Columbia public school, he had all this great literature, but how do you make it interesting?” Judy asked. “I gave him some ideas.”

The Elliots are also acting as the American parents of two other MU students — one from Puerto Rico and another from Kazakhstan.

“I started getting people who come to the house from different cultures to sign this,” said Judy as she held up a book, almost half full. “I have recipes from Palestine and poems in here.”

Nikolas Klein

From Germany to the United States: 5,032 miles


The Hanson family has three cats and a dog.

The dog is pretty quiet, and as Ed Hanson said, “low maintenance.”

Even so, he still barks once every time he sees the newest member of the family, a German exchange student who has been living with the Hansons for two months.

The boy’s presence is as new for the dog as it is for Kathy and Ed Hanson, who had never hosted a foreign student before.

It was Kathy’s father, a member of Rotary Club, who made the connection.

He was looking for Boone County families to host Nikolas Klein, an exchange student from Germany, and thought of his daughter and son-in-law. The Hansons and their youngest child Erin, the only of their three children who still lives at home, were excited about the idea.

“If we were going to do it before she left home, it had to be now,” Ed Hanson said. Erin is a senior in high school.

Nik came to the United States through Rotary’s long-standing international program. He has been here since August. During his exchange year, he will live with three different families in Columbia. The Hansons are the second family to host him. In March, he moves in with his third host family.

Nikolas and Erin are both 17, but Ed said they don’t hang out much.

“They are just like siblings,” he said. “They don’t spend a lot of time together.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t get along. It just means they have different interests.

Erin likes music and theater. Nik is more of a “sports type” and likes hanging out with friends and playing video games.

“He is very social,” Kathy Hanson said.

His way with people has made it easier on the family. He eats anything but raw tomatoes. He calls to let them know where he is.

His room is messy, that’s true. But, after all, he is 17.

“We don’t expect him not to be a teenage boy,” Kathy said.

The only difficulty, they say, is that Nikolas can’t drive in this country, and they don’t have a lot of free time to chauffeur. But he has been good at finding rides and getting around town.

Even with the positive experience, the Hansons aren’t sure they want to host another exchange student any time soon.

Ed is retiring from teaching, and Erin is going off to college, so they want to experience the “empty nest.”

But they don’t rule out the possibility.

“We’re not saying no, but we are not saying ‘give me another one real quickly,’” Ed said.

Sudkanueng Buranarachada

From Thailand to the United States: 8,321


Don’t let her call home every day.

Don’t let her use the Internet too often.

Don’t act like a tour guide.

These are the guidelines the Quade family tried to follow five years ago when Sudkanueng Buranarachada joined their Columbia household from Thailand.

The Quades hadn’t considered being hosts for a foreign exchange student until Dawn Glick from the Center for Cultural Interchange called their daughter Kelly four years ago.

She told them the family wouldn’t be up for it, Mary Ann Quade recalled.

Forty-eight hours later, they had signed up and were considering students to potentially host.

Kelly was amazed: “I definitely thought differently of my parents when they agreed to take in a stranger.”

They did have a list of requirements:

The student had to be a girl so she could share a room with Kelly, she needed to speak English, and she needed to fit in with their family interests as much as possible. Everything else was up in the air.

“Pinky,” as her close friends and family call her, had these qualities.

Mary Ann Quade remembers the first night Pinky was in the house. There was a meeting between their new “daughter” and the family dog.

In Thailand, dogs were outside animals, not inside pets. But it wasn’t long before Pinky and the dog were on good terms, as she was with the rest of the household.

The first lesson for the family: Slow down and communicate at a pace everyone could understand.

“She speaks very fluent English,” Kelly said, “but it took a while to figure out what she was saying and what she meant with her accent.”

Pinky had learned most of her English through American movies. She and the Quades actually shared an interest in film and theater.

“We took her to see ‘The Lion King’ in St. Louis,” Mary Ann Quade said, along with shows in Arrow Rock. This love for theater helped her to make friends in Columbia.

The passion might actually bring Pinky back to America, as she wants to attend film school in California.

It didn’t take the Quade family long to realize what a joy the newest member of the family was to have around.

“The attachment grew every day,” Mary Ann Quade said.

Although outgoing, Pinky had a quiet, thoughtful side. Often, she would sit out on the back porch and look at the stars.

“She and I solved the world’s problems just sitting on the back porch at night,” Mary Ann Quade said.

Everyone had to be willing to learn from each other while living together.

Pinky taught the Quades that touching a person’s foot was a serious offense in Thailand. The Quades taught her that it isn’t acceptable in America to eat off of another person’s plate without hesitation.

Even with opposite personalities, Pinky and Kelly became tight friends throughout the extent of her stay.

“In no time, we were like sisters,” Kelly said. “She’s still my sister and I miss her and love her.”

The family and Pinky continue to be close. Every five or six weeks they get a phone call from Thailand to catch up. Mary Ann Quade said that though Pinky was homesick for Thailand when she came to stay with the Quades, she was homesick for Columbia when she got home to Thailand.

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