Foreign exchange students who spent this past school year in central Illinois with their host families are bidding them adieu. Rachel Otwell recently attended a dinner where 14 exchange students from countries like Spain, Thailand, and Germany shared meals from their native countries as they prepare to return home… she brings us this story:
Chris Reid is mixing up a crockpot full of bright colored noodles and meatballs, food she helped her foreign exchange daughter from Toyko cook for tonight’s farewell ceremony…
OTWELL: “Can you tell me what your stirring up here?”
REID: “…It was supposed to be teriyaki pork meatball spaghetti…. it’s a recipe her mom does at home… she’s had it since she was a little kid….”
Reid’s from Sherman. For the past 9 months she’s hosted Kairi Kosaka, a 16 year old who came to the states to better her understanding of the english language and American culture. This is the second year in a row Reid has hosted an exchange student, last year’s was from Sweden. For Reid, it was a combination of a desire to make the world a better place and a personal tragedy that led to her decision to be a part of the foreign exchange program.
REID: “My husband died in 2010 and I’m a young widow … you know, when you have something like that happen, you’ve been married for 27 years, it’s a situation where you can either look outward or look inward. And I think inward makes you very sad, you get very depressed and lonely, and I started thinking, ‘What could I do that would create a situation maybe to help somebody else?’ Because a lot of time helping somebody else helps yourself.”
Reid also has a daughter she adopted from an Indian orphanage who’s now 26. Kairi became a part of her wedding. Kairi says her favorite American memory will be the wedding day.
KAIRI: “I was bridesmaid, it was my first time in a wedding. I was so thankful and grateful to let me be a part of it … my host sister was the most beautiful bride in the world…”
Kairi says she was expecting America to be more different than her home in Japan. But she found there to be similarities, she says in her classes at Williamsville High School, students work hard. One difference though? She says people are more welcoming in the US:
KAIRI: “People are so friendly to strangers… like (in the) hallway … something is stuck in my locker and I can’t open it – but there’s always someone to help me … and they don’t know me, and I don’t know them, but there’s someone who came up and help(ed) me.”
Kairi says she’s now considering coming back to the US to attend college. Reid says if she does, Kairi will have a place to stay in her home.
Back at the buffet line of food from all over the world, David Wirth who is with the foreign exchange program called AYUSA, which stands for Academic Year in the USA, is explaining what food’s on the menu:
WIRTH: “This is currywurst, German, very traditional… this is alpine macaroni and applesauce…”
Patti Good is also on hand with the AYUSA organization, she’s the regional director and oversees exchange students in central Illinois. Good became involved with the organization years ago when she hosted her first exchange student. Since then she’s hosted about 20 more with her husband. This year she hosted two students, one from Thailand and one from Taiwan. Good says there several other exchange programs in Illinois, all of which have to go through the US Department of State. Good helps students become integrated with the local schools, she says many are happy to bring in the international students:
GOOD: “The schools that I work with, they have all been very welcoming to my students and they are somehow treated like rock stars especially at the smaller schools like Pleasant Plains High School.”
But there can be challenges – like deciding which grade students should be placed in. Many host parents push to have their exchange students enroll as juniors or seniors so they can take part in events like prom, even if the students are not yet the regular age for thos classes.
Good says for her, the exchange program has become a personal mission. She’s especially interested in sharing with students a genuine glimpse of what American culture can be – not including McDonalds meals and watching television on the couch. Good says it doesn’t take a ton of money or a special skill-set to become a host parent or family:
GOOD: “Anyone can become a host family – single parents, people who are empty nesters, people with young children… so anyone can do it, anyone who enjoys teenagers can do it.”
Good says she’s enjoyed learning from the students as well, and having them share their culture with her family. The host families don’t get paid, but the exchange students are given allowance from their families back home and are expected to pay for school registration and other costs. And if the students and families here today are any indication, the experience is priceless.