A Host Family Finds Their “Lost” Son

Ken and his Swiss host family. Photo courtesy of the author.

Ken Wagner is the Founder and Executive Director at The Swedish Program. He founded the program in 1987 while he was a professor at Hamilton College. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology in 1982 from the University of Pittsburgh and first went to Stockholm in 1984 to do research on workplace democracy at Swedish companies such as Volvo, Ericsson, Saab, and Electrolux.

After losing contact for some thirty years, my host family did some digging and last week found their “lost son.”

I spent my study abroad year in Basel, Switzerland in 1973 living with a wonderful family. That year was one of the best years of my life. My Swiss family made me part of their family.  As a result, I learned a great deal from them and about their culture and society. It provided me with the kind of cultural immersion I was looking for. I will forever be grateful to them. I had kept in touch with them for quite a few years after college graduation, but then we lost touch.

We spoke yesterday on the phone, recalling all the experiences – some challenging, some funny, some inspiring, but all of them rewarding.  The sum of all our memories together made us feel like no time had passed. They were surprised that I remembered so much.  But that is why study abroad is so transformative: you don’t forget.  Living and studying abroad does change your life.

Confronted with different ways of thinking and living forces you to reflect on your own life and society. The cultural and political lessons learned stay with you. And the people with whom you share these moments – be it your host family, teachers and staff, or friends – cement relationships that endure.

Thinking back on when I founded The Swedish Program in 1987, I know my own study abroad experience was crucial to my thinking and motivation.  My conversation with my host family  was both inspiring and moving, and it reinforced my life-long commitment to the ideals and purpose of study abroad.  We also agreed not to lose touch again.