For those curious and adventurous students willing to stretch their wings and fly far from the nest to live in the land of their choosing for a spell, a foreign exchange program is just the ticket. In the world of cultural exchange programs, learning transcends the walls of classrooms. Bilingual students don’t make the trek merely for the academics, but also for the bevy of activities and freedoms for which America is renowned.
A foreign exchange adventure is enriching, and by many accounts, one of the hallmark experiences in a student’s life. By becoming immersed in another culture, each foreign exchange student gains a new perspective on life while acquiring a new language, meeting new people, and appreciating multi-cultural diversity.
While students enjoy the excitement of a lengthy visit to America, the majority of families who host the foreign exchange students cherish the experience, as well. Host families choose to share their home for as little as three months, a semester or an entire school year. The visiting student is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reside in an American family’s abode and reap the benefits of learning the language, customs and culture. In return, exchange students offer glimpses of their homelands to the host families for a whole new learning experience.
Perhaps flying in the face of what many would expect, the number of foreign exchange students coming to the U.S. is quite disproportionate to the number of American students choosing to go abroad.
“We’re really trying to boost the profile of the American student overseas,” said Youth For Understanding (YFU) Huron Valley Area Representative Anne Lehker. “There are a lot of scholarship opportunities available and various programs.”
YFU provides 4-week, 6-week, and semester-long programs, in addition to gap programs, which are intended for the recently graduated high school student who delays college to spend time overseas.
“We’re trying to get the word out for (not only) hosting students but (also) opportunities for our students to travel abroad,” Lehker said.
U.S. student participation
in study abroad dwarfed
The ASSE-International Student Exchange Program recruits students from Europe, Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East, the Americas and South Africa every year. According to ASSE Eastern Regional Director Sandra Eisenmann, of the 1,300 foreign students who annually bid adieu to their home country to spend time in the U.S. as part of the program, only a fraction of that figure — about 10 percent, or 130 American students — opt to enroll in a foreign exchange program.
“There is not as much of a demand to experience the cultural exchange for our American students,” Eisenmann said. “Foreign students want the American school spirit because it’s very different than their home countries. The students want to realize their dreams because they’ve heard so much about life here and want to experience it for themselves.”
Foreign student exchange programs are regulated by the U.S. State Department, which establishes the criteria. Each host family and student must go through a rigorous screening process including a face-to-face interview and criminal background check, as well as answering questions pertaining to religious affiliation, hobbies, interests and other personal information. The paperwork can take up to six hours to complete.
Students must provide for their own health insurance, expenses, and miscellaneous spending money while residing with a host family in the United States.
Host families, in exchange, are required to provide a room with a bed, three meals per day, and a caring, nurturing environment. Students are placed once a host family selects their profile from the many presented.
“They are expected to open their homes and share their life, family, and culture with the student,” Eisenmann said. “Through it, we’ve heard great stories of building international connections and long-lasting friendships.”
Host families receive no compensation for their commitment and many are generous. For example, several have bought webcams so visiting students can Skype with their families back home.
YFU leads the way in
W. Oakland County
Of the different student exchange programs nationwide, only a handful are operated as non-profit organizations. In the lakes area, YFU is the program of choice.
YFU Field Director Barb Kilkka oversees between 30 and 35 volunteers, 80 exchange students and their host families.
“We are the preferred agency by school districts and are truly a not-for-profit organization,” she said.
A foreign exchange program is a learning experience of a lifetime, according to Kilkka.
“Ninety-percent of what these students learn is outside the classroom,” she said. “While language learning is the main goal, that’s just a smidgen of what’s learned, like personal discovery, culture, the similarities of rights and wrongs and cultural differences.”
There is a consensus among host families that students change dramatically between the time they arrive and the time they depart.
“We often hear the child we get in August is so different than the one we send home in June — there is a growth in confidence,” Kilkka said. “There isn’t anyone who wouldn’t say the program isn’t one their most life-changing experiences.”
Most kids stay for the duration of the academic year, arriving in August and departing in June. At times agencies have been challenged to find host families who are willing to commit, so in the interim, a student may stay with a “welcome” family for the first few months.
“We’re always looking for more (host) families,” Kilkka said. “A welcome family would house a student initially until we find another placement.”
Opening their homes to
Walled Lake resident Lee Nuznoff said he and his wife decided to open their home to Jessika Schilling of Germany once it was time for the welcome host family to fade out of the picture.
“Jessika was in one of my daughter’s classes so we still had to go through the screening, but it happened a lot faster because they were frantically trying to find someone to house her,” Nuznoff said.
The Nuznoffs, like many whose children are fleeing the coop to pursue their own dreams and lives, fill the void in their lives by inviting foreign exchange students into their homes.
“The timing was right because (we) are close to being empty nesters now that our two older children left for college and only one is at home,” Nuznoff said. “This is a trial run for us.”
Huron Valley Lakeland High School host parent Pam Barckholtz committed to the foreign exchange program for the first time this year. Philipp Schiller, a German exchange student, has helped her expand her own cultural exposure, and at the same time, has realized a dream.
“We need to be aware of the global community and I wanted to promote that,” Barckholtz said.
Still, she noted that the transition has been difficult for Philipp, a sophomore, in some respects.
“He’s a wonderful, studious kid, but the school has not been as welcoming as it could because in many instances, school groups and teams were already formed by the time he arrived,” Barckholtz said. “He didn’t make basketball, and marching band was too expensive, but he’s on the swim and dive team and he’s never done that before.”
Barckholtz has been so impressed with the foreign exchange program that she now volunteers for YFU to recruit more host families.
“I would host again,” she said. “I raise my grandson also and the two of them are one year apart. They get along very well and refer to each other as brothers. It’s been very positive.”
Likewise, a few years ago, West Bloomfield resident Sharon Lundgren stepped up to host a German girl who was in one of her daughter’s classes after the visiting girl’s situation didn’t work out with the initial host family.
“Clara was with us for seven months and it was a wonderful experience,” Lundgren said. “It resulted in a long-life friendship — she’s coming back this spring for my daughter’s graduation from college and my daughter spent two summers with Clara’s family off the coast of Denmark. The two also traveled through the Netherlands and France together.”
‘I’ve learned how much one can
actually love someone else’s kid.’
This year, there are five YFU high school exchange students attending Walled Lake Consolidated Schools; six attending West Bloomfield Schools; one in Waterford Schools; and five attending Huron Valley Schools.
West Bloomfield parent Suzanne Fogarasi has been hosting foreign exchange students for three years now. Her own parents hosted an American teen when she was a child living in Denmark.
“As a result, I wanted my kids to have the same experience of having friends around the world,” Fogarasi said.
Laura Fazi, the Fogarasi’s exchange student from France, said she is enjoying all the pleasures of living in America.
“I discover something new everyday,” Fazi said. She added that people here have been welcoming and kind — more so than in Europe.
“Even if they don’t know you, like in a store, they ask how you are doing,” Fazi said. “That’s a big difference from Europe.”
She also pointed out that school in America is vastly different from school in France.
“There you stay all day at school and here you stay for a shorter period of time and have time for other activities,” Fazi said.
The overall experience, Fogarasi said, has been rewarding in a variety of ways.
“My daughter has a sister for life and I’ve learned how much one can actually love someone else’s kid,” she said. “I’ve been taken aback by how much you care about this person. They’re like my family. When you say goodbye it’s like saying it to my own child — that’s what surprised me more than anything.”
Fazi was a bit reticent when she first arrived, but has since grown accustomed to her way of life in America.
“I miss my family and friends, but I’m not really homesick and want to stay here until the end of the year,” Fazi said. “I wanted to become bilingual and discover America because in the movies it’s such a different place and I wanted to experience that.”
Like many host families, Fogarasi said it’s amazing how many similarities there are between teenage girls, no matter what country they are from.
“They have so many things in common,” she said. “At first they expect the grandiose of America, but when it comes down to it, teenage girls are teenage girls.”
Lundgren echoes her sentiments.
“They have the same concerns, joys, and sorrows as Americans — it’s all about boys and clothes at that age,” Lundgren said.
A staunch difference in
American, foreign schools
Commerce Township resident Kim Markowitz wasn’t ready to host a foreign exchange student this year given her rigorous schedule.
“YFU kept calling us and wore us down,” Markowitz said. “At the beginning it was a timing issue, but it all came together and it’s been awesome. ”
Now she’s one of the program’s greatest advocates.
“You get a choice of profiles,” she said.”There were certain countries we weren’t comfortable with (hosting a student from) and we knew we didn’t want a boy because we have daughters. We let my 14-year-old pick out the profile she was most comfortable with.”
Once the selection is made and confirmed, the bonding started.
“The most exciting thing for these kids is to get matched to a family after waiting a year,” Markowitz said. “Once we were cleared, we received permission to e-mail Anna and within hours she was Facebook friends with our kids.”
The Markowitz’s home now includes 15-year-old Anna Widdermann of Germany.
“She’s brilliant,” Markowitz gushed. “It’s been great for us.”
Markowitz said she had to lay down some ground rules at the onset.
“Anna wanted to join every group after school, so I told her I would take her once a day up to the school — otherwise she’d need to carpool,” she said.
Still, the Markowitz family has accommodated Anna’s wishes for the most part, introducing her to powderpuff football, French and German clubs, and strings class.
Like most host families, reasonable chores are expected.
“I have no problem handing out chores and YFU asks you to,” Markowitz said.
Widdermann, a senior attending Walled Lake Northern High School, knew she wanted to come to America early on and threw caution out the door to realize her dream.
“My cousin did an an exchange program and so I wanted to go,” she said.
After a brief period of feeling mildly homesick, Widdermann’s life has been full and happy.
“I like school and all the clubs and school spirit,” she said.
According to Widdermann, in Germany and many other countries, there are no extracurricular clubs or sporting events tied to school.
“After classes you just go home. We have no school clubs or school spirit. I love the football games,” Widdermann said.
Some other amenities she appreciates in the U.S. are the “big back yards and the landscaping.”
“I’m so happy with my family here,” she said.
‘It takes a big leap of faith to
bring someone into your home.’
YFU recruits host families via word of mouth, school and church announcements, and presentations.
Area representatives are integral in making sure the student and host family are on track.
“Once the student arrives here, there’s a minimum of monthly contact to make sure all is going well,” said YFU’s Lehker. “It takes a big leap of faith to bring someone into your home for the entire school year. If a problem arises, it may not be anyone’s fault — just not a good fit and we don’t want anyone to be unhappy.”
Huron Valley Milford High School Principal Kevin McKenna said the infusion of culture makes for a diverse and interesting learning environment. He notes that the school has received the majority of its recent exchange students from Germany.
“We receive between seven and 10 students on average every year from YFU, predominantly from Germany as well as parts of Asia, but have had a few from Spain, Vietnam, and China,” he said.
The main goal is to integrate the students into American life, so the focus is not specifically on academics.
“When the students return to their home schools, their credits are not accepted,” McKenna said. “It’s a holistic growth out of culture vs. earning academic credits, per se.”
High school principals primarily screen the applications, conduct visits with host families and exchange students before passing the torch onto high school counselors who design a curriculum and game plan tailored to the student’s needs.
“We want to get them involved in something other than just academics,” McKenna said. “Many engage in leadership, yearbook, robotics and sports.”
West Bloomfield High School Principal Tom Shelton limits the number of foreign exchange students to six per year.
“We control the numbers in the classrooms and keep them at a manageable level,” Shelton said. “Sometime these students require special support, so we don’t want to be stretched too thin on the resources.”
That said, Shelton is a proponent of fostering the program to enrich other students.
“We enjoy each student — they bring a richness to our community,” he said.
YFU isn’t the only player
in foreign exchange game
Other programs include Nacel International, a global federation of organizations, companies and representatives working together to deliver a culturally-immersive education around the world.
Nacel has different programs to meet the varying desires of international students who are interested in exploring the world. For students who want a full year of study in another culture, Nacel offers academic programs in both public and private schools. For those students more inclined to participate in short-term programs, Nacel offers tutorials, home-stays and touring programs.
In addition, International Student Exchange (ISE) is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing people of the world closer together through student exchange and intercultural education.
ISE has 44 fully staffed regional offices that are strategically located in the United States and cooperates with over 100 independent foreign agencies in over 45 countries around the world.
Creating global thinkers,
Milford resident Susan Black has opened her home twice to foreign exchange students, once as an enrollee with ISE and the second time with YFU.
“Our first student was from Spain,” Black explained. “The experience was different in that there were weekly organized trips with other families and it was great fun.”
The overall experience, according to Black, is dependent on the personality of the student.
“I’m enjoying Serena,” she said. “She’s very personable, eager to learn the language and culture.”
Serena, whose given name is Sawoul Moon, is a high school senior from Japan living with the Black family.
“I wanted to learn English and felt this was the best way to do so and, secondly, I like to meet many people and like to learn different cultures,” Moon said.
She also noted some contrasts between Tokyo and America, such as modes of transportation and the beauties in nature.
“We used trains or the subway, but here we use a car, so that’s a big difference,” she said. “Secondly, nature in Tokyo isn’t really nature because there are so many buildings. Here you see so many trees, greenery, grass and I like the sky — it’s all very beautiful.”
Apart from the aesthetics, Moon said the most memorable aspect of American culture is spending quality time with family.
“I really like that Americans spend time with their families a lot,” she said. “I go to many places with my host family like Mackinac Island and the movies, and spending that time makes for happy memories.”
The Black family continues to host foreign exchange students in part to exemplify tolerance to their own children and others in the community.
“I want my kids to be global thinkers and not have prejudices or biases about other nationalities,” Black said. “We can all learn from each other.”