Growing up in Asheville, Katie Wilson often dreamed of international travel. As a child she read countless myths and world stories, studied maps and always had a deep interest and admiration for different cultures. At 13, she took her first trip overseas to Ireland and was hooked.
She later went on to study Spanish and applied linguistics at Appalachian State, and in 2018 — following a stint teaching in Mexico as well as a brief run working for Visions USA, an international student exchange program — Wilson launched Grow Abroad. The company hosts weekly camps throughout July and August, bringing together local and international students from Spain, Germany, Cambodia and Vietnam to participate in multicultural activities, as well as community service. Western North Carolina families host the international students.
Susanna Saidi of Asheville was one of the first participating hosts to work with Wilson in 2018. At the time, she and her family welcomed two sets of German students over the course of the summer. The Saidis then invited two more students in 2019, one from Germany and one from Spain. Saidi says her kids, who are now 9 and 11, still keep in touch with some of the participants they’ve met.
“Katie’s a great role model for all of the kids — those in the exchange program and those who belong to the host families,” says Saidi. “[At 28], she’s just old enough to be a mentor and to be responsible for these students, but she’s also young enough to be relatable and to really become a friend,”
Xpress recently spoke with Wilson about what drives her passion and why she believes Asheville is just the place to bring the world together.
The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Xpress: Tell us about the ages you work with and why you selected this group?
Wilson: Grow Abroad is for teens from 12-16 years old because students are so open-minded at that age. They are excited to realize there’s a whole world outside of their bubble. It’s so impactful and meaningful when they also realize that they can work and live anywhere in the world. They’re old enough to travel and do critical thinking, but young enough to have fun. They’re the next generation of change-makers. They’ll be better world leaders if they have contact with people from other countries before they go out into the world.
Why is Asheville an ideal place to foster international understanding?
Asheville families create positive impressions about Americans. They break stereotypes and let visitors know that there is more to Americans than what they see on TV. And here in Asheville, we have great diversity in … socioeconomic levels, religions and politics. We’ve got traditional families, gay couples with families, elderly empty nesters and younger families.
I’ve placed kids in big houses in North Asheville and on farms in Sandy Mush. There is no one-size-fits-all in Asheville. I also think that people who live in Asheville are more community involved as a whole.
And finally, visiting students think Asheville is a cool city. So in addition to the outdoors stuff we do with them, we also spend time downtown and at the mall, which they love.
How do you decide where to place the students, and do they have a say?
Visiting students and host families alike fill out information forms that detail their needs and expectations. Based on these intake forms, I place students with what I deem to be an appropriate match. Students and families both have a say. For example, some families have a preference on gender or age, and students can ask to be placed in homes with other kids their age, if they choose. Most often students and families don’t have any specific stipulations and defer to my instinct.
Do you hear common concerns from international parents about the risks over sending their kids to the U.S. as it relates to issues like gun violence and racial profiling?
These topics have come up in discussion with my international students as points of interest about American life and culture, but no, it has never been an impacting force in the decision-making process for families overseas. Actually, to my surprise, many European families think the opportunity of sending their children to the U.S. is a great honor and privilege and value the chance to have their kids learn American English and experience American life.
What I’ve experienced is that Americans seem to have the worst opinion of America. And Europe is not exempt from political woes, often having similar right versus left dynamics at play in their countries. The feedback I’ve most received over the years is “people are so friendly! No one engages you in conversation at the grocery store back home!” So the welcoming, community-oriented vibe of Asheville definitely makes a deep impact on the cultural perception of our country worldwide.
What is the day camp, how is it associated with the exchange student experience and why is it so important to you?
The day camp portion of the program is just as important as the students who travel here. The main focus is for local kids to immerse themselves in the world community without having to leave home. So even those who may not have $4,000 to send their kids overseas for a month in the summer can spend $250 for a four-week day camp that’s involved with foreign exchange students. It’s just such a winning formula. Camp runs Monday through Friday from about 9 to 5 p.m. and we have activities planned all day, every day.
The camp is run out of Rainbow Community School where I work part-time in after-school arts and physical activities programs. Beginner language lessons, history and shared cultural programs, movies and eating take place on site. We rent a van to take the kids out twice a week to volunteer projects with program partners such as MANNA FoodBank, Asheville Poverty Initiative, Conserving Carolina and Bounty & Soul. And we do at least one or two trips a week to do things like hiking, tubing, swimming and shopping.
What advice would you give to families who may be interested but not yet ready to commit to housing an international student?
Email me and we can start a conversation about what you want to do. For example, many of our host families start out just taking on an exchange student for a week if the host family can’t do the whole month. Parents can volunteer when their kids come to day camp so they can see how the program works. We also always need help with the volunteer projects we do twice a week, where we partner with local nonprofits and get our kids involved. They don’t just sight-see — they learn about the local community by giving back.