By Colleen Lentile
Have you wondered what it would be like to learn about another country from someone who lives there, speaks the language, and knows all about its culture—all without going overseas? Thanks to the Program of Foreign Exchange (PAX) and Clarke County’s local community coordinator Tanya Barton that dream can be made into a reality.
Barton has been the local coordinator for 13 years and has hosted 13 foreign exchange students herself. She is assisted by her co-coordinator Olivia Lanham, senior at Clarke County High School whose family has hosted three foreign exchange students.
“I love how the program connects everyone,” said Lanham, who has travelled to Spain to visit her foreign exchange student’s family. Together Barton and Lanham arranged for eight students to stay and connect with families in Clarke and Loudon counties until June of 2014.
This year there are four girls and four boys staying in the two counties. The girls are Natalia, age 17, from Finland; Dania, age 15, from Jordan; Fanisyah “Fani”, age 17, from Indonesia; and Catherine, age 16, from Tanzania. The boys are Pierre, age 16, from France; Japheth, or “Jeff,” age 16, from Ghana; Javier, age 15, from Spain; and Laban, age 17, from Kenya. They all reside with families in the Clarke and Loudon County areas, and all but Laban attend Clarke County High School.
The foreign exchange students are not only placed under the care of host families, they become a part of their family. The host families play a large role in a student’s experience. To be chosen, they are interviewed by Barton before a student can be placed with them. The students become completely integrated into their host families and are supposed to keep limited contact with their families in their home countries.
Barton believes that since the students are so young, they could easily become homesick, so she tries to manage how much they communicate with their families without cutting them off completely. “I want them to embrace what they are gaining here,” said Barton about the students focusing on what’s going on here, instead of thinking about what they are missing out on at home.
The host family is required to have a separate bed for the student. If they are to share a room with another child, it is preferred that they are of the same age. Then, as with their own children, the parents provide the necessities and treat the student like a part of their own family—including having the student do chores and live up to certain expectations.
More often than not, students and their host families make a lifelong connection. “They are our sons and daughters for a lifetime,” said Julie Kerby, host mother to Jeff and Barton.
Besides becoming a family member, students are encouraged to join organizations and sports teams and to spend time with their new American friends during their stays. They are required to do community service as well. Some of the students volunteer at places like the local animal shelter or nursing home. “I want them to give back to their community and take back what they’ve learned. We want them to go back [to their home countries] and give back,” said Barton.
When the students first arrived in the United States, Barton and Lanham took them on a bus ride through Berryville with CCHS teacher Ed Novak. During their stay, Barton plans a weekend trip each month to attractions like New York City and Washington, D.C. They do spontaneous trips throughout the rest of the month that may include hiking, parties, or pumpkin picking.
Barton says the trips allow the students to “bond and become closer,” but she also considers the possible learning experiences that may come out of the trips. She takes the students to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., hoping they will learn about the free media enjoyed in the United States—some of the students come from countries where the media is restricted.
Among the observations offered by the students:
Typically, there are no problems with their fellow classmates making fun of their accents, but sometimes Americans have trouble understanding them.
Many students were surprised by the style of dance in the U.S., and that American students could dance with whomever they wanted to, even if they did not know them.
Jeff, from Ghana, has become fond of eating hamburgers, which he eats every day, according to Kerby. Some other popular foods among foreign exchange students were Chipotle Mexican Grill and pizza.
Jeff and Catherine are having trouble getting used to the cold weather, and are looking forward to seeing snow for the first time in the upcoming winter.
All of the students had trouble understanding the currency in the United States when they arrived. They wondered why the penny is larger than the dime. Most found sales tax a puzzling concept, and the prices of products either much higher or much lower relative to what they are used to. Importantly, all of the students plan to come back to the United States in the future.
PAX brings foreign exchange students into people’s lives and deeply enriches the lives of everyone that is involved in their journey in the United States. Kerby hopes that the students can give their fellow Americans a new perspective on diversity and hope that people remember that, “It’s just us, there is no them.”
If you are interested in being a host family or learning more about the program, contact the local community coordinator Tanya Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-955-9135 or visit the PAX website at www.pax.org.
Colleen Lentile is The Observer student reporter.