Exchange Student Program Enriches Lives of Guests, Hosts and Those around Them
Juniata Sentinel, Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, May 6, 2020
by Paige Smith / writer
I have always been fascinated by other cultures. Their traditions, their communities, their cuisine. I just never realized that I could learn all about these things firsthand without traveling the world. It turns out, I can, and I made some pretty great friends along the way, too.
I can still remember how excited I was when I found out that an exchange student from Japan was coming to East Juniata for my sophomore year. Shin and I became friends quickly, and we sat together at lunch every day. I asked him all sorts of questions, and I even found out that I knew the family he was staying with. His host mother turned out to be the daughter of my fifth grade teacher. Mrs. Buffie Grundon taught me geography, and she had talked about the various exchange students her family had hosted over the years, so it made perfect sense that her daughter would follow in those footsteps.
Shin and I didn’t end up having any classes together, but lunch was always fun. The first few days were a little interesting, navigating his thick accent and learning what “American” words I had needed to explain, but once we got past that, we had a great friendship. I learned about Japanese culture, and another girl that sat with us was interested in learning Japanese, so I even picked up a few words!
Around Christmas each year, I go to Mrs. Grundon’s house to make my own gingerbread house. That year, I got to make mine with Shin while he made his, and that was a really great experience. I helped him decide what candy to use for the roof and taught him how I make my paths and my ponds. When we finished, I gave him the gift I had bought for him: a snowman holding an American flag. After Christmas break at school, Shin was switching schools, so this was the last time I really got to spend time with him. Of course, we added each other on social media to keep in touch, but it was hard saying goodbye to him.
Then, towards the end of the school year, Mrs. Grundon invited me to go along on a trip to Niagara Falls with her and Shin. The trip ended up being cancelled due to car troubles, so we never actually went, but we still stayed in touch after he went back to Japan. He told me that he wants to come back to America eventually, so hopefully we can catch up if he does!
But Shin wasn’t the only exchange student I met my sophomore year. Gabe is from Brazil, and he was in my geometry and gym classes, as well as one of my study halls. I didn’t get to know Gabe right away, but our friendship began a few months into school when we got new seats in geometry and he sat right across from me. Not only did I get to learn about him and his culture, but his math skills also came in very handy! Lucky for me, he told me that he had already taken a geometry class in Brazil, so he knew what he was doing with all the theorems and proofs we had to do. What a blessing this was! If I ever needed help with the homework we were assigned, all I had to do was sit beside him in study hall and he knew exactly what to do.
Gabe wasn’t entirely innocent, though. He had a mischievous side that once stole my phone while I was in the bathroom during geometry and took a few photos with my camera. Now this is just a silly, little thing that a lot of friends do to each other, so when I found the pictures, we just laughed about it. Little did I know that Gabe had another trick up his sleeve. He had also set an alarm to go off at what he thought was 1:30 p.m. that day, so that my phone would disrupt our geometry class. That was his plan. In actuality, Gabe had set the alarm to go off at 1:30 a.m. the next morning! When I made him aware of his mistake, he thought it was much more entertaining than I did! I wasn’t actually upset about it, and I found it funny, too, but I had to tease him about it and make it seem like I was furious!
Like I said, we also had gym class together. My first memory with him in gym isn’t necessarily a good one! It was towards the beginning of the year, and we were playing flag football. I was taking my turn as the quarterback, but when I was tossed the ball, I dropped it, tripped on my shoelace, and fell flat on my face. The only thing I can remember about this moment is Gabe, who was on the opposing team, running up beside me, grabbing the ball off the ground, and heading towards his end zone. This was before we were friends, though, so it wasn’t quite as embarrassing because he wasn’t able to tease me about it later.
The playful teasing didn’t start until we began playing volleyball and eclipse ball towards the end of the year. Gabe was much more of an athlete than I am, and he was always sure to give me pointers. Once, my team was playing against his in volleyball, and it was my turn to serve. I messed up, and the ball bounced off the top of the net and came back towards me.
“Try to hit it over the net!” he said, smiling.
A few serves went by, and then it was his turn. As luck would have it, he, too, failed in getting the ball across to my side, so, of course, I had to retaliate.
“Hey, I think you’re supposed to get the ball over the net!” I couldn’t pass up the opportunity!
Gabe could also be quite encouraging, too. I remember one time in particular that I was struggling to get a good hit on the volleyball. I forget what shirt I was wearing, but it had some type of inspirational message on it. He shouted the words from my shirt across the gym, motivating me to keep trying. Gabe was like this with everybody. When my teammate Margaret or anyone else was having trouble, he was there to offer an encouraging word. On our last day of gym together, Margaret and I got a picture with Gabe to commemorate our year of fun gym classes.
Even with all these stories of my experiences with Gabe, I think my absolute favorite memory is being in the room when he saw snow for the very first time. I’ve seen snow so many times over the years that I don’t think of it as anything special, but for Gabe, this was a memorable moment. He was so enthralled, continually looking out the window at the falling flakes. Being there for Gabe’s first snow made me realize how much I take it for granted. I’m not a huge fan of winter weather, but I can’t imagine what it would be like if I never experienced it.
Before Gabe left, we connected on social media, and we’ve talked a few times since he went back to Brazil. It doesn’t seem like it’s been two years since he left!
Last year, I was fortunate enough to become friends with three more exchange students. Lívia was also from Brazil, and she was in my Spanish class. I met her in homeroom on the first day of school, and we sat beside each other during the “welcome back” assembly. I even explained to a teacher that she needed her schedule switched from having Spanish I third period to having Spanish IV second period because her fluency in Portuguese made her Spanish skills deserving of a higher level. So, she became a part of my Spanish class. We even had a whole class period in which we read a short story in Portuguese and she helped us all with our pronunciations and translating. Lívia only stayed until Christmastime, so before Christmas break, our class had a Secret Santa party to say goodbye to her. I didn’t get her as my Secret Santa, but I still got her a mug with an American flag on it filled with her favorite candy, Snickers. Before she left, we got plenty of pictures together, and we added each other on social media, too.
I also was invited to her birthday party in late November, and that was a lot of fun because all of the guests wrote messages to Lívia on a flag, had a snowball fight and even built a snowman in the yard!
Thi was an exchange student from Vietnam, and he is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He was in my music elective class and was really quiet at first. Once he got comfortable, though, he was cracking jokes left and right! He was also quite technology savvy, so his expertise was beneficial when no one else in the class knew how to get the programs we were using to work.
At the end of the school year, Thi left for a while, but he came back to enroll in college in Harrisburg. I got to catch up with him in December after my Christmas chorus concert at school, and he greeted me with a big hug. He asked about my plans after graduation and managed to work in a few jokes while we talked, even though it was only for a few minutes. Thi and I also recently became friends on Facebook.
I befriended Celia in civics when we were assigned a group project and my friend Kylie and I invited her to join our group. Celia is from Spain, and I discovered through that project that she was a talented artist. She was also in my advanced biology class, so I enjoyed seeing her reaction when we had to dissect pigs. She wasn’t a big fan of that project!
Celia’s knowledge of the Spanish language came in handy when I had to write a paper for my Spanish class. She helped me out with a couple sentences and even proofread one of my paragraphs. We sat together at lunch every day last year, which made us become even closer friends.
When it came time for Celia to go back to Spain, I was invited to her farewell party. We played card games, messed around with a badminton set, had a delicious meal and made s’mores at the end of the night. I think out of all the exchange students I became friends with, Celia was the most difficult to bid farewell. I gave her an American flag pillow as her going-away gift, as well as a note inside of a card telling her how much I was going to miss her. When I couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer, I gave Celia a hug and we both shed a few tears. We still Snapchat each other every day. She was planning to come back for a visit this summer, so I really hope the COVID-19 pandemic does not cancel her plans so we can see each other again.
This year, my senior year, I didn’t become close with any of the exchange students. I had advanced chemistry with Jacapo, a boy from Italy, and we talked a few times, but we weren’t exactly friends. Oddly enough, the most I spoke to him was on his last day, when he came to my club during our activity period to see what Stained Glass Club was all about! We still became friends on social media, though, so I can talk to him again any time.
All of these friendships would never have been possible without the program that places exchange students in American high schools. Learning about other cultures and having the opportunity to make connections with teenagers from around the world is something I know I will never forget.
Becoming friends with all of these people made me curious about the process of getting exchange students to Pennsylvania. International Cultural Exchange Services Regional Administrator of Pennsylvania and New England Gabby Fisher, a Juniata County resident, works to place students from around the world in host family homes in order to “create lasting cross-cultural bonds of friendship and understanding and make a powerful difference in the lives of ICES youth.”
ICES is a non-profit youth exchange organization which offers students aged 15 to 18 the opportunity to live with volunteer host families and to study in local high schools for an academic year or a single semester. The organization will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2021 and has relationships with over 30 countries.
There are over 350 students waiting for host families in the United States. Candidates are selected for the exchange program based on the strength of their academic record, written and spoken English skills, personal motivation and the maturity necessary to adapt to life abroad. Students who come to study in the United States arrive with medical insurance, their own spending money and proper visa documentation.
Hosting an exchange student is a great way to personally experience other cultures, and is an especially important decision now, during a worldwide pandemic. ICES says that there are still teenagers all across the globe hoping to study in America during the next academic year. Students involved with this program have studied English since they were young and have dreamed of the opportunity to be welcomed into a host family in the United States. Most importantly, ICES stresses that exchange students will not be arriving until the government deems it safe for international travel to resume and schools to reopen.
In order to qualify as a host family, you must be at least 25 years old, pass the ICES OneSource background check (which only takes five minutes to complete) and have an extra bedroom or a room that can be shared with someone 12 years or older. You cannot be on any government assistance except insurance and must be able to provide meals and transportation for the student.
Host families are able to choose their student based on gender, country, interests, etc. and can have any type of make-up, meaning the family can be a single person, a married couple, have children, not have children, be younger or older, etc. The role of a host family is completely voluntary, and the host and student are provided with ICES support throughout the stay of the student.
Fisher says that ICES urges all of their host families to make solid connections with their students ahead of time. “This is especially important right now! It helps so much to know who you are getting, and it helps the students have a better idea of what to expect,” said Fisher.
Fisher, herself, is also familiar with being a host for exchange students. Her family hosted my friend Lívia in 2018 and also hosted Chloe, from Australia, during the second half of this school year until she had to leave in late March due to COVID-19.
ICES has brought 15 exchange students into Juniata County schools since 2017. Currently, there are five scheduled to come in August for the 2020-2021 school year, including one full-year German female, one full-year Swedish male, one first-semester German female and one first-semester Italian female, all at East Juniata High School, and one full year Spanish student at Juniata High School. EJ can still take second-semester students that would arrive in January, while Juniata and Juniata Mennonite School can both still take full-year and one-semester students. Slots are also available at other area high schools, including Greenwood, Newport and Mifflin County.
I was also curious about the appeal of Pennsylvania as a destination for exchange students. Fisher says the biggest reasons students want to come to Pennsylvania is because the state is central to places like New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, the beach, Washington, D.C., etc. She says many students coming from cities want to experience something completely different.
The girl Fisher hosted this year, Chloe, lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she can literally see the train station from her front porch. Living in Juniata County was a totally new experience for her. “Here, our front porch looks into the meadow, and it’s so quiet we can hear the birds and animals play. She loved it!” remarked Fisher. “We live in this rural community, and all too often, we take the beauty and calm for granted. It’s so refreshing to be reminded of the goodness from an outsider’s perspective.”
Consider giving the opportunity of a lifetime to a teenager by becoming a host family. Contact Gabby Fisher at [email protected] org or 717-554-1712 or visit www.icesusa.org to learn more and take the next step towards changing a student’s life forever.