For a semester or more, exchange students find out what it's like to be American

New language, new food -- and American football!
For a semester or more, exchange students find out what it's like to be American
Posted at 7:00 AM, Sep 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-05 07:00:50-04

As the school year begins, some students have a little more adjusting to do than others.

In addition to the usual acclimating to new teachers, classes and buildings, exchange students must adjust to a new language, schedules, food and even family life.

For German exchange student Noah Fels, studying at Milford High School via CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange), getting up at 5:30 a.m. has been part of that adjustment.

"I don't really like the time school starts," Fels said. "It's earlier than in Germany."

Despite the early start time, he's been pleasantly surprised about most differences he's encountered -- like having Chromebooks in every classroom.

"The school in general is very modern, and you have a lot of technology that you don't have in Germany," Fels said.

He also said he likes the variety of subjects students have to choose from in American high schools.

That sentiment is shared by students from other countries, as well, including a student from Taiwan.

"They were amazed by how many choices they had," said Yu-ming Cheng, who teaches Chinese and helps coordinate a Taiwanese exchange program at Milford High School.

Although exchange students are given discretion to select their classes based on their interests, like American students, they must take certain courses to receive credit from their home schools.

"As far as classes go, that is directed by the individual student … but there may be some classes they're required to take while they're here," said Nancy Aniskovich, guidance department chair for Turpin High School.

Exchange students are often eager to take advantage of extracurricular options, too.

"I would like to try American football because I have never played the sport," said Alan Senderak, a Slovakian exchange student in 12th grade at Talawanda High School.

Teens who study abroad are faced with numerous options long before they select their courses and activities. Depending on where they live, they may have multiple exchange programs to choose from.

Forest Hills and Talawanda school districts partner with multiple agencies to host international students and send their own students abroad. Some exchange agencies bringing students to local schools include AFS-USA (formerly American Field Service), CIEE, EF (Education First) and CCI Greenheart.

Once students choose an exchange agency, they often have multiple programs to choose from. Teens coming to the U.S. through AFS, for example, have the option to participate in a five-month semester program or a 10-month school-year program.

"It seems like we're getting more semester students, but traditionally most of our students do stay for the entire year," said Kristi Campbell, Coordinator of the Oxford AFS chapter.

Senderak is one who has taken advantage of AFS' semester program.

Unlike the programs Senderak and Fels are participating in, some exchange programs also pair students whose families who swap hosting duties.

Jennifer Goff, who teaches German at Milford High School, coordinates a German-American Partnership Program with a teacher in Germany. The program offers a middle ground between long-term study abroad and week-long tours.

"They get a little bit of extra time versus the more traditional bus tours," Goff said.

The program runs on cycles that last about two years. In Milford, a new cycle is beginning this fall with an informational session and an application process. By the time participants are confirmed and matched up, there will be about 20 students in each of the two countries.

Next fall, the German students will stay with their American host families for three weeks. In June of 2018, the American students will stay with their German host families.

"When they go to their host country, this relationship that they form becomes their personal partnership for about a year-and-a-half," Goff said.

While adjusting to cultural differences can be challenging, both the visiting students and the coordinators say the experience is valuable for everyone involved.

"I think it really broadens their perspective on the world and other cultures," Campbell said.

"It really opens up students' world," Cheng agreed.

Fels said he thought American students would be "more superficial."  

"Americans in general are very open," he said. "It's not just superficial.  You have, like, real, deep conversations. I've got to know so many awesome people and really enjoyed being on my own in another country."