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June 1, 2014

Cultural Exchange: Students find homes away from home

Talk about stepping out of your comfort zone.

Four teenagers — three from Germany and one from Mexico — left their families, friends and schools to voluntarily study abroad for one school year in Terre Haute, Indiana. Did they get homesick? Yes. Were they fearful? Somewhat. Would they make the commitment all over again? Absolutely.

These youths embraced the cultural differences, immersed themselves in Terre Haute South Vigo High School and extracurricular activities that aren’t available in their home countries, and were happy to become part of families here where they were welcomed and appreciated.

Experience priceless

“The overall experience I’ve had is great,” said Dietrich Lamparth, a 16-year-old from the Bavaria area of Germany. “I have my friends in Germany, but to live here for a year and make new friends and connections totally amazes me. Classes are way easier here, so I focused on what I can try that’s not at home. ROTC, which is unusual for exchange students to do, has been fun and I’ve learned about patriotism and tradition. I got to do their honor guard and go to state competition. We don’t have anything like ROTC in Germany. I also played on the tennis team last fall. I was so darned busy, but I adjusted.”

Lisa Kohn, an 18-year-old from Gorlitz, Germany, said her year has brought much unexpected happiness and new adventures.

“Something is new every day to me,” Kohn said. “You have possibility to be here, meet people and get to know them. The experience is mind blowing. While I loved the times my host family — Terry, Susan, Lillian and Hayley Hayhurst — take me with them to Kansas City for a cattle show or to Indianapolis for special events, I really love living on their farm. My family’s sheep at home are good, but here I got to help calves being born. I want to be a veterinarian, so this is perfect to live here.”

Wrestling is not part of German school sports, according to 16-year-old Fabian Bachert of Berlin, so being on South’s team was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I’ve made lots of friends and the wrestling team and our coach are amazing. I even got to wrestle varsity a few times and got my letter. That was very cool.”

Being of Spanish background, 16-year-old Vania Guerrero, of Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico, said she was surprised at the attention she received. “Many people said, speak Spanish! I want to hear how it is supposed to sound. Teach me some cuss words in Spanish!’” she said with a laugh. “I loved playing on the junior varsity softball team, seeing snow for the first time was awesome, and I loved learning the guitar in class.”

Rigorous application process

No matter the exchange program a student goes through to study abroad, the process is intense, according to John Barton, local coordinator for the Council on International Educational Exchange. “These students who come to the U.S. really want to be here. They often must go through multiple page applications, essays, language proficiency testing and several interviews. Their parents must agree, and host families are vetted thoroughly just like the students are. Once host families agree to take on a student, then exchange programs like CIEE try to suggest the best possible match for student and host family.”

Barton’s family has hosted two girls in the past, one each from Brazil and Italy.

“There are hundreds of students waiting to have families host them each year,” Barton said. “People will say we don’t have enough room, don’t have the time, or can’t afford it. But the kids are flexible, they eat what you eat, and they just want a family experience.”

It’s not unusual for exchange students to have already traveled outside of their native countries. Bachert has traveled to Paris and Rome, each for a week’s program. Kohn has spent a week in England twice.

“I go on these programs to learn languages and to get a better worldview,” Bachert said, who is part of the worldwide Education First program and lives with his host mom, Susan Phillips.

According to Stacy Mason, Vigo County School Corp. director of secondary education, most exchange students are classified as seniors upon enrollment. “We feel there are many opportunities for our seniors, and that offers our exchange students a more complete experience. They are usually very bright and take classes like government, economics, U.S. history and advanced placement, which gives them a more global view.”

Kohn is proud of how Germany selects exchange students. “For over 30 years, the German and American governments have had an agreement for exchange students. Every year, 250 German students come to study in American high schools. One hundred from the 250 come to American colleges. For every German congressman, a student can be selected to study abroad. You apply, the application is read and determined if it’s good.

“From over 60, the number is narrowed to 30 then to five. The five have interviews and then one is selected from that congressman’s area. They are given a scholarship to come. My country is one that works with CIEE in the U.S. While Germany sends students here, the U.S. sends students to Germany.”

Guerrero, who lives with Jeff and Meg Leader, came through a private exchange program. “They interview you and give you both speaking and written English tests. I wanted to go to Europe, but my parents liked the program here. It’s also more reasonable costs to come here than Europe.”

Trust building

All of the students said their home families were cautious or fearful about sending their kids off for so long. Homesickness threatened, but new friends and getting involved made the difference. Zamora’s uncle passed away while she was here, and Kohn broke her ankle at softball practice, which necessitated surgery. “My parents now really trust me and know I can handle different experiences. My German mom really appreciates Terry and Susan taking care of me with my broken ankle.”

Having an exchange student in your home can definitely be positive, says Lamparth, who lives with Perry and Beverly Riley. “We don’t expect our host families to be a travel agency for us, we just want to comfortably fit into your lives. You get an automatic extended family, built in translators when you travel, and a home away from home. If there was a repeat button, I’d do this over and over and over again!”

For more information on hosting a student, contact Barton at 812-201-2079 or visit www.ciee.org.

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