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Spotlight on Neighbors: The Farris Family

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Sharing their Gainesville Life: Meet the Farris Family

On a spring morning about three years ago, Greg and Susan Farris were walking through the local Haile Farmers Market when they noticed a booth representing the Education First (EF) High School Exchange Year. The coordinator there was giving information about the purpose of the program – setting up families to host foreign exchange students from all around the world. Both Greg and Susan passed by, but didn’t make it past the fountain before they stopped and looked at one another. “You ever thought about doing that?” Greg asked. “You know,” replied Susan, “I think that would be pretty interesting.” And so they walked right back to booth, and after discussing the idea with their daughter Madelyn, who was in 6th grade at the time, they decided to host a girl from Japan, at Madelyn’s request. She was, and still is, quite a fan of Japanese Anime.

Susan, who was not working in her professional field at the time as a respiratory therapist, thought it would fun to learn more about the program and expand it in Gainesville, and so she became an International Exchange Coordinator that year as well. Since then, the Farris family has hosted young women from Japan, Switzerland, Norway, and Germany, and is currently hosting a young man, Olivier van Noort, or Oli for short, from Holland. Susan also oversees four other exchange students from Germany, Italy, and Japan, being hosted with families from Gainesville to Jacksonville. In addition to coordinating exchange students with their families, Susan is also a representative for Cultural Care Au Pair, where she oversees and supervises foreign au pairs who come to live with American families to serve as caregivers.

Each year, EF High School Exchange Year program connects thousands of international exchange students, ranging in ages 15 to 18, with families across the United States. Currently they have 2,700 students in the United States on J-1 visas. They come for a calendar school year, and enroll in the local high school. Students who stay with the Farris family attend Buchholz. They simply provide them a regular American lifestyle. “We are not compensated in any way. It’s purely a cultural experience,” explains Susan. “We just absorb them into our family, feed them three meals a day, let them experience life in America, holidays, sports at school. They just become a part of your family.”

Greg Farris is a Gainesville “life-er.” He moved here when he was three years old and finds he can’t quite stay away. He attended the University of Florida, left Gainesville for a time afterwards, spent some time in California, but made his way back, and currently owns his own business, Employer’s Remedy. He jokes, “Gainesville’s like the mafia. You try to leave and it pulls you back in!”

Susan came up from South Florida to go to college. She received her Respiratory Therapy degree at Santa Fe, got a job and stayed.

The two met on a blind date. Susan was working at North Florida and said to a friend, “You must know some nice men!” Turns out, her friend knew the sister of a nice man, and Greg and Susan had their first date at Gator Growl that year. They married two years later. That was 18 years ago.

And they are still here and loving it. According to Greg, “Gainesville just kind of does that to you!” The small town with a big town feel, the university, the Gators, the theater, the culture, all the small town fairs and festivals, the quick drive to Disney, the beaches, St. Augustine. In fact, one of the things they love most about hosting is sharing their love of Gainesville with their exchange students. Greg jokes, “Susan likes to share ‘theme park Florida’ while I like to share ‘natural Florida.’ There is just so much to do and see here.”

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As a family, they especially love to float down the Ichetucknee River, tour St. Augustine, go to the beach and take daytrips scalloping with their good friend “Captain Nita” Chester. Some of the most fun they’ve seen their students have is at the beach. And, of course, going to a Gator game is an experience. In truth, it’s an experience for anyone, but to a young man or woman who’s home town size caps at 30,000, being in a stadium full of 90,000 screaming fans is one they will never forget. And viewing “A Christmas Carol” at the Hippodrome every year is a tradition. Greg says, “We simply love to share what we love to do.”

And though the Farris family does the hosting, they receive even more in return. The sons and daughters they host culturally enrich their family. These students are going on an adventure. And meanwhile, the Farris family gets a glimpse of the culture and family life of their exchange sons and daughters. They have conversations about why they’ve come to America and what they’re looking forward to doing with their lives.

“It opens your mind and your world up…that it’s not the United States, its globally, we all have to get along,” explains Greg. “It’s interesting to share and see what these young people want to do with their lives when they go back home, too. And you get so much of a better feel for their culture, their country, by just talking with them, spending time with them, than you would in a geography book.” He adds, “And just a question like, ‘What would you be doing at home right now?’ can open up a whole conversation of their lives there. How it’s different and many times how it’s so much the same. It’s been really enriching.”

The entire family absolutely loves it. It allows Susan and Greg to expand their family for a time. Madelyn, who is now 13, attends Kanapaha Middle School. She plays the flute, still loves her anime and enjoys spending time with her friends. She continues to be largely involved in the exchange program; often selecting the country she’d like her family to host from. Right now, she especially loves having Olivier around as an older brother. The tag line for EF High School Exchange Year is “bring the world into your family.” The program does exactly that and allows Greg, Susan, and Madelyn to be a part of the world’s family in return.

The Farris family stays connected constantly with the exchange daughters they’ve hosted, usually through WhatsApp. They are now planning a trip to Europe next summer to not only visit some of their exchange daughters, but also to visit with the families of some of the au pairs that Susan oversees.

They’ve become very close with their exchange daughter Jessica, who is from Switzerland. “Her father and sister came and visited and we’re very much looking forward to visiting her as well. And we’ll go through Holland and meet Olivier’s family,” says Susan. In three years time, they plan to take Madelyn to Japan to visit their first exchange daughter, Ikuko. “We adopt them and they adopt us,” Greg remarks. The relationships created by exchange last a lifetime.

Welcoming exchange students into his home came naturally to Greg. For over ten years, Greg’s father served as the Foreign Student Advisor at the University of Florida. “We kind of grew up in our house with students from all over the world,” Greg explains. “This reminds me of those days. Of having kids from around the world in our home. And celebrating that with them.”

And a celebration it should be. Creating family around the world and appreciating cultural differences and similarities is an outlook that the Farris family has rooted within their home, and their view of the world will never be the same.

To learn more about hosting an exchange student, contact Susan at susan.farris@efexchangeyear.org.