Meet West Hartford’s AFS Students and Hosts: Lesley Toutain

Lesley at a winter festival 1985. Courtesy photo

This is the fourth in a our series ‘Opening our homes and minds: West Hartford’s AFS foreign exchange students and their host families.’

Interviewed and edited by Jamie Cohen, AFS volunteer (now), host sister (1980s) and returnee from Japan (1984)

Lesley (right) with Ariane, her AFS student from Switzerland. Courtesy photo

Meet Lesley Toutain, one of our own here in West Hartford. She is hosting Ariane from Switzerland, and is also a “Returnee,” having spent an AFS year in Jonquiere, Canada, in 1985-86.

Hi, Lesley! Tell us a little about yourself and your family.

I’m married, with three children and have lived in five countries! I grew up in North Carolina, and am the only family member to leave the South – both by going abroad and living here in West Hartford.

When were you an exchange student, and why did you want to do AFS?

I spent my year with AFS my junior year of high school. I did it because I wanted to learn French, and my cousin who spent her junior year of college in England intrigued me.

Did you choose Canada?

No, I did not. I requested up to five countries. I chose France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Belgium – because I wanted to learn French. I didn’t even have a passport, but knew I wanted to travel. The farthest I had ever traveled prior to that was to New York City from North Carolina.

They sent me to Canada. And not just Canada, but about seven hours by car or bus north of Montreal.

What were the best and worst things about your high school year abroad? What did you learn?

I learned how to speak French. It’s a slightly different dialect – like the difference between UK and American English. When I first arrived, I wasn’t able to communicate – so I learned patience. Patience because I didn’t understand conversations … and then it took me time to formulate questions and participate in conversations. Things weren’t instantaneous with the language. Nor with establishing relationships. I didn’t have host siblings, so I had to learn how to make new friends for the first time in my life.

I also learned perseverance. I was taking physics and chemistry, French – a normal course load – and at the beginning it was really difficult. I remember starting to discern words within sentences, and then by Christmastime I remember being able to speak.

I think one of the best things was that I was exposed to a totally different way of life. For example – family dynamics: My “real” parents worked long hours, mom didn’t cook, we hired a lot of help. My AFS host family was different – my father was a Tech Ed teacher who literally built the house we lived in, my mom worked a 9-5 job, but made wonderful home-cooked meals every night often with ingredients from the vegetable garden back then. The climate between North Carolina and northern Canada was drastically different. I learned how to cross-country ski. One of my elective classes I remembered most was sewing – definitely not something I would have had the choice to take back home.

Most importantly, I discovered Nutella. Chocolate for breakfast! 

How did your family here in West Hartford decide to host an exchange student?

It’s something that Stephan and I had spoken about in the past. I wanted to “pay it forward” from my experience in the 80s. We had the fortune of a local host family bring it to our attention and to encourage us to make it happen.

How has it worked out for your family? What’s been the biggest challenge, and what’s been the greatest reward?

It has been a really natural fit, and has been a real blessing. She has really become a real part of our family. My daughter finally has the sister she always wanted. Honestly, the biggest challenge has been the “room shuffle” when all the kids are home and/or we have guests. We make it work, though, and we’re happy the girls are flexible.

We also have a bit more carpooling, but we’re relying on our friends, neighbors and the other AFS host families to help out.

What would you like people reading this to know about …

Hosting an AFS exchange student:

Quite honestly, I don’t find that it’s any more of a commitment than we have with our own kids already. Our AFS daughter does her own laundry, just like our own daughter, we expect her to help around the house like we do with all our kids. She has even started reading with our son who has special needs.

Being an AFS exchange student:

I really recommend that if you go abroad, you need to do it for a year. The first half of the year is mostly struggle. It’s exciting, invigorating, overwhelming. Not easy, but rewarding. Maybe like training for a marathon (not that I would know – can only imagine)? In the second half of the year, you get to reap the rewards of your hard work.

About AFS:

AFS is a mostly volunteer-supported international exchange program continuously running high school exchange programs since its founding after WWII. If you are interested in hosting an exchange student, or if your high-school aged student would like to participate in an AFS exchange, please contact Jamie Cohen at [email protected] or visit afs.org.

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Lesley (center) with her host family in 1986. Courtesy photo

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