We had the good fortune of connecting with Denise Winston and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Denise, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
I grew up in northwest Houston and came to Huntsville to attend Sam Houston right out of high school. I fell in love with the town and community and never left. My parents always taught us to value others and where they came from. When we went on vacations they always made a point to take us to lesser known places and to take us to see where the people lived rather than just the familiar tourist spots. Growing up we hosted an exchange student from Denmark for the school year and one from Guatemala for the summer. Both experiences, hosting a students and traveling, had a real impact on me and my love for other cultures. I have tried to raise my children with a global perspective and we have made a point to learn about countries and cultures around the world in our homeschooling. Although we are not able to travel as much as I did growing up, we have made a point to welcome students from around the world to our home through high school student exchange. It has been amazing to learn about so many cultures in the comfort of our own home.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
ASSE International is a 501c-3 non-profit. We have been in business since 1976 and are the only student exchange organization that has received an A+ rating with the Council on Standards for International Student Exchange (CSIET) since its inception. We work directly with the US State Department to bring students on three scholarship programs and from over 50 countries each year. We are happy to say that we the organization with the largest number of scholarship students each year. Our students are placed with volunteer host families across the United States and mostly in smaller communities like ours here in Huntsville. In addition to placing students with host families we also have a program that sends American high school students to study abroad. Our American students can choose from 4-6 week summer programs, semester and school year programs to over 20 countries across the world.
One of the favorite sayings of our scholarship students is “It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different.” I think this rings true for so may things in life. These high school students amaze me at how brave they are to hop on a plane to go live in another country with a family they have only spoken to for a few months thru email, text or FaceTime. They are fearless when it comes to trying new things and experiencing their new towns and communities. It doesn’t take long for them to feel like a part of their new family, new home and new town. Before we know it the school year is over and they are returning home to their country but they always leave a part of them with their American families. So many times we see students coming back for visits and American siblings and families going to visit their students in their home countries. I have learned from this that family is not made up of only genes but it is made up of many hearts that only miles can separate.
I would like to encourage more families to jump in with us and welcome a student to their home. Families can choose their own student from a list of those available. We will help them to find a student that shares their families hobbies or interests so they will have some things in common to share. It’s a very simple process and the family only needs to provide a bed for the student, meals and make sure they get to school. Students love riding the school bus since they don’t have them in their countries and a student can share a bedroom with a teen of the same gender. All of our students speak English, have medical insurance and their own spending money for personal and school needs. Host families simply treat the student like ones of their own children and our students jump in on chores and anything else that the family usually does. We encourage all types of families as long as there is more than one person living in the home. Empty nesters, those that have never had their own children, adoptive or foster families, single parent families, blended and traditional families all make great host homes.
We currently have 450 students that are available to host for just the Fall semester and for the school year. If families are not sure about jumping in to a long term commitment then we have a unique opportunity for families in the Walker County area as we are hosting an American Culture Camp for Japanese students before they go to their host families for the school year. We will keep them busy in a day camp setting and students will be with their host family in the evening and on the weekend. It’s just a 10 day commitment from Aug. 25-Sept. 3, 2021 and we are looking for 15 families willing to open their homes to these students.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
One of our student’s favorite activities each year is when they visit the Texas Prison Museum, Sam Houston statue and then Fair on the Square. Our local Area Representative, Patricia, always takes the students to visit these places as their first formal activity. It teaches them about the community that has welcomed them, its past and where we have come today. They also love looking at the local booths and sampling some of the food that is new to them from the street vendors. At the end of the day she always takes them to eat somewhere that is locally owned and shares her favorite spots with them.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I would like to thank my family for jumping in this with me. They give me the time I need to attend to all of our students across the state. Also, if it wasn’t for their willingness to open our home to our past four students then this definitely would not be possible. They have all joined me in learning so much about student exchange. Also to one of our local Area Representatives, Patricia Fisher. She is amazing with our students and local host families. Without her our program here in Huntsville would not be possible. Patricia is the face of our organization with the schools, families and students and makes sure that everyone is having a good school year. She plans activities for the students throughout the school year and makes sure that they have the tools to help them be successful. In addition to Patricia, our local families that open their homes to students. We could not share our amazing community and little part of Texas with students from around the world without them.
Instagram: ASSE South Texas & Louisiana
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/assetexas or ASSE International in Texas
Other: Families can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 936-714-7308 for more information about any of our programs or to welcome a student to their home.
Denise Winston, Nicky Harrell, Audra Locke, Loretta Williams,