Exchange students experience personal growth while exploring new country, friends and future
By Dana Trumbull
“You can make friends; it’s not difficult here,” Valentina summarized her experience as a foreign exchange student attending Apache Junction High School. “It’s the same – with different language, food and habits – but underneath, everybody is the same everywhere you go. I’ve learned to be a citizen of the world, not just my little Italy.”
Valentina and Leah are exchange students who have been in Arizona for 7 of their 10 months in the Ayusa exchange program. They will leave in May.
Valentina, from Milan, Italy, has lived in Apache Junction during that time. Leah, from a town near Amsterdam, Netherlands, spent her first months in Casa Grande, attending CGHS. After her host family decided to move to Washington State, Angel Rogers volunteered to host Leah at her home in Apache Junction. Leah now attends Desert Ridge High School in Mesa.
“It’s really more of an exchange of cultures, than an exchange of kids,” clarified Angel Rogers, the Ayusa community representative for a large segment of the East Valley. Angel has been hosting or coordinating foreign exchange students for Ayusa (www.ayusa.org) since 2001. “Host families open their homes to these students and give them a chance to live in a family like a local,” she explained. “Many of these students go on to be leaders in their countries. The first student we hosted, for instance, went on to start a Rotary Club in her home city in Taiwan. That club now has 80 members.”
Angel spends the majority of her time recruiting host families, interviewing them, helping them with their applications and checking references. But she also conducts orientations for students and families and keeps tabs on the welfare of the exchange students while they are here.
Angel plans and coordinates group activities, too, making sure the students get involved in events and take in the many attractions of the state. In addition to sightseeing, last month, about ten of “my kids,” as she refers to them, and some of the host families marched in the Lost Dutchman Days parade.
Leah’s favorite thing here has been hiking, whether with the group or with her host family. “The Netherlands is pretty boring when it comes to landscape. It’s really flat. AZ really has some beautiful landscape, and I really like exploring it and learning more about the state and the country.”
“It’s a good experience, because I always travel everywhere with my family [in Italy],” Valentina elaborated. “When you come here, you live a life like you’ve always been here. It’s a completely different thing.”
Although both students are seniors, when they return home, they will each have one more year of high school to complete in their countrys’ 5-year high school programs.
For now though, they are enjoying the differences in the education systems. “America has a lot of different subjects that we don’t have in the Netherlands, like astronomy and psychology,” explained Leah, whose reason for participating in the exchange program was to try new things and gain a better idea of what she wants to do with her life. In the Netherlands, students choose their career focus after three years of high school and follow a prescribed curriculum for that goal. “Here, every year, you can choose something else,” said Leah. “It‘s really fun to try stuff out.”
In Italy, students choose a career focus in middle school–approximately age 12–and their classes are assigned accordingly. If a student realizes at any point that he or she wants to change career paths, they have to wait until after graduation to refocus their area of study when they attend university. “I really love business and economics here,” said Valentina. “I’m taking a lot of classes about that, because in Italy, I’m going to psychology school. So, here, I’ve had an opportunity to find out what I really want to do.”
Another big difference the girls have noticed: “Here, it’s normal to get in a car and drive for four or five hours. For us, it’s so weird, because, five hours – you’re in France,” explained Leah. “If my parents have to drive for more than 3 hours, we take a plane. It’s too long. And here, it’s so normal.”
What has been the biggest cultural adjustment for them? Dinnertime! “Here, it’s more like: ‘You have to eat.’ There, it’s more like a ritual,” said Valentina. “You sit around the table, and you eat and enjoy it.”
Leah agreed, “It’s all about coming together and talking – just really taking your time to talk about your day and what you’ve done and tell jokes.” Both girls had some difficulty adjusting to their first host family this year, because dinnertime was also TV time. Now, however, they are with hosts who prefer family time around the table. “If someone in your host family asks you, ‘How was your day?’ then it’s because they care about that. It’s really cool. You feel at home.”
The overall experience, however, has been life changing for both of them. “I think what I learned about the most is not about the country, but more about myself,” explained Leah. “I think it’s a really good way to discover what you want to do and discover who you are.”
Valentina nodded, “For me, I learned a new culture that I’m in love with. I think I will come back here for a part of my life.”
Photo above: Ayusa exchange students & hosts prepare to march in the February 23 Lost Dutchman Days parade