By Luciana Chavez
Special to Merced College

We think of young people doing academic foreign exchange programs as becoming citizens of the world.

We rarely think of the host families who welcome them, but the truth is the families come away just as enriched as their young guests.

“The students are young adults, but after a while, they do become family,” Merced-area host parent Debbie Bier said. “We do the parent things — make sure they’re not out too late, tell them to check in, make sure they eat. I just appreciate the joy of them becoming a part of us, and them feeling the same way.”

Heading into 2022, the YES ESL International Program at Merced College is putting out a loud call for local families to volunteer as short-term hosts to Japanese high schoolers visiting in February and March. They also need long-term hosts for Merced College kids each academic year.

“We’re looking for people who are very open and friendly,” said local YES manager Isamu Nagano. “This isn’t room-sharing or renting rooms. … When families are engaged with their students, it can make such a huge difference.”

Host families in the Homestay program provide a private room, regular meals, a desk, a chair and wi-fi. Students pay $850 for the full short-term duration or $700 per month for a long-term stay. That pays for a room, breakfast and dinner each weekday and three meals per weekend day.

Bier has been hosting foreign students for several years. Her family’s first Merced College student hadn’t bonded with her initial host family, but wanted another shot. That was in 2015. She last visited the Biers in 2019, is now studying for a Ph.D. in Kentucky, and still keeps in touch.

The Biers are hosting two long-term students right now — one with a good grasp of English, the other still learning. All foreign students who come stateside need to eventually pass the TOEFL, an English fluency exam that American universities use in their admissions process.

The Biers encourage their students to make at least one American friend. They also only speak English at the dinner table, watching movies, on family vacations, and trips to Costco or grocery shopping with their charges.

“I love bonding with them and getting to know them and sharing our lives together,” Bier said.

Students like current Merced College sophomore Ayumi Kaga, 21, want to go on to four-year schools in English-speaking countries, since English fluency is a coveted job skill in Japan.

“In Japan, most people are Japanese,” Kaga said. “We do not have many foreigners. Here you can see the diversity. Not only with race, but in thinking, with food, with languages. Learning abroad is the best way for me to gain life experience.”

Now she lives with Sal and Rachel Garcia and their son Cruz, 12, in Merced.

“They’re so sweet, and I love their food,” said Kaga. “I didn’t eat Mexican food in Japan so I get to try many new dishes. … Understanding the culture and climate of a country is a shortcut to learning English.”

Nagano said prospective families should plan on receiving a home visit, as part of the YES Program’s responsibility to the student and their parents to make sure everything is OK. Kaga said foreign students should plan to work hard, and to communicate in English as much as possible.

Bier said families should plan to bond.

“Don’t do it for the money,” she said. “Do it for the kids.”

Anyone interested in hosting foreign students should contact YES Program Merced College at 209-386-6664 or


YES Program