Exchange students, host families talk about experience

By Beth A. Birmingham | Jun 07, 2018
Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham AFS exchange students, from left, Johanna Sandin of Sweden, Jun Narita of Japan, and Ignacia Gomez Vega of Chile attended Oceanside High School this year. Not shown is Oda Eckhoff of Norway.

Rockland — Crossing cultural lines and borders can be difficult for many, but for four local families hosting foreign students, this year has been an amazing experience.

This year, Oceanside High School and four local families have hosted exchange students through the American Field Service from Chile, Japan, Norway and Sweden.

Ruth Ann Hohfield of Rockland is a host parent and liaison to students placed at Oceanside.

"I began hosting because I thought it would be great to have the Oceanside students exposed to other cultures," she said, explaining that many Oceanside students will never leave Maine and will not be exposed to other cultures or ideas.

"All of the students I have hosted are bright, talented young people who have added to our community," Hohfield said.

She said finding host parents is very difficult, because of preconceived ideas about hosting or lack of knowledge about the program.

AFS assists in finding students who have interests that fit with those of potential host families and helps give them time to get to know their exchange student by email or Skype prior to their arrival in August.

Each of the host families is very different, Hohfield said. She and her husband have an older, childless home; another family has a young son; another family is headed by a single mom; and the fourth is a more traditional home.

"The definition of 'family' is very, very broad for AFS," she said.

Hohfeld and her husband of South Thomaston didn't think they would be good host parents because of their age, location and the fact that they didn't have children at home.

"I had more reasons to not host than to host," she said.

Now hosting their third student, Hohfeld said it has been a wonderful experience.

"The students that AFS has brought to our lives has enriched our family and theirs," she said. The first student was from Thailand. The second, from Belgium. And this year they are hosting Jun Narita from Japan -- their first boy.

"Each of our exchange kids are unique, wonderful people and I love seeing the growth that happens during their exchange year," Hohfeld said. "It means the world to me that they will be in our lives for a long time"

She said the students bring a wonderful perspective to their home life, and she loves their willingness to try anything.

"They are all members of the family and the goal is to have them live life as a member of a Maine family, not as a visitor that must be catered to," she said, as AFS says it is an education program, not a travel program.

She said her only regret is that they didn't host when their daughter was young.

"I see what these students bring to the families with children and wish I had known about AFS," Hohfeld said. "I do believe that the exchange students bring so much to our school community and hope we can continue to find families to host students from far and wide."

Chelsea Kidd, whose family is hosting Johanna Sandin of Sweden, was an exchange student herself, and her family began hosting when she was a senior.

"I knew that I wanted to host as soon as I could," she said of her experience. "I'm so thrilled that you're doing this story! I'm one of the local volunteers and am very passionate about student exchange."

Noting that theater kids are a great fit for Oceanside, and visual artists thrive in Rockland's art scene, Kidd said Johanna talked in her letter about various arts interests, but what really caught her attention was something else.

"She talked about speaking up for what she believes in without silencing other people's voices," Kidd said. "It's a more nuanced view than we expect from 17-year-olds, which I thought was impressive."

She said that each of her AFS kids has enriched her life in different ways. For instance, she learned that Swedish kids dress up as witches for Easter and go door-to-door asking for candy, and in China it's common to give apples on Christmas Eve, and she learned a lot more about Day of the Dead than she'd ever learned in Spanish class.

"I've gotten a pretty good idea of how people in these countries interact with others, and what their cultures value," Kidd said.

She said the toughest adaptation for her hosting a student is when they leave and the house is quiet. "I really feel their absence," she said.

As for contact with the student's family, Kidd said some catch up or interact on Facebook or via email. "They all like updates, but none of them have tried to parent from afar. They respect boundaries," she said.

Kidd recommends getting involved in AFS to enhance cultural exchanges, and would like to see more parents of young kids, as well as young adults without children, host. She said the experience has made her more connected to the community.

She said anyone interested can simply volunteer as well, as a student-family liaison, event or presentation coordinator, or helping with the website.

"Hosting is a unique situation, in that it makes the local global and the global local," Kidd said.

Molly Patten, who spent a semester abroad in college, is hosting Ignacia Gomez Vega of Chile.

Patten said the experience has been amazing and she will probably do it again. She said Vega and her own teenage daughter, Delia, are like two peas in a pod.

"She really likes showing Ignacia different parts of our family traditions and places that are important to us," Patten said.

Not knowing anything about Chile, she said she has learned a lot, especially about earthquakes that plague the country..

"It is so great to open yourself up to the great wide world," Patten said. "It is far too easy to get caught up in our own little corner of Maine. Hosting an exchange student makes you stop and look around at other people and places."

From the students' perspective, the experience has also been exciting.

Vega said her sister was also an exchange student, and would tell her stories about it.

"It’s been such an amazing experience," she said. "I’ve made so many new friends and got to know myself better."

Vega said she has learned lots of new holiday traditions, like painting hard-boiled eggs for Easter.

"The cold is definitely a big change," Vega said. "Also, I’m used to living in a city, so not having everything as close to my home has been hard, but I got really used to having peace."

Narita said he wanted the opportunity to change his thoughts on the world.

"The experience has enabled me to think globally and understand another culture easily," he said.

He said it was like living another life -- with different people to hang out with and a totally different language.

"I had to have conversations with strangers and be a part of another family, which is not usual and requires a lot of effort, but was so much fun," Narita said.

He said one of the biggest reasons for being an exchange student for him was getting to know others and making the bridge which connects each other's cultures.

"That might help to solve problems like refugees, immigrants and conflicts between countries," he said.

Oda Eckhoff of Norway was hosted by Rebecca Ferland. She said she decided to become an AFS student to experience something new, learn about different cultures and meet other people with a totally different background.

She said she chose the United States because it seems like a very fascinating country with a lot of diversity.

"I didn’t know that a lot of teens are politically active and keep up to date on the new topics within politics," Eckhoff said. "This brings a good variety in discussions regarding their community."

She said that experience will make her more interested and engaged in politics in her home country.

"More people from this area should definitely consider going on exchange," she said. "You will meet people and learn about cultures you may never have the chance to experience."

Sandin said she chose AFS because of its support system.

"Being an AFS student is about more than going abroad for a year -- you get to be an ambassador for your country and share your culture, as well as meet people from other cultures and see what an impact it makes," she explained.

"The American culture is in a league of its own, and I wanted to see it firsthand," she said.

Sandin said her experience has been absolutely wonderful, and everyone has been friendly and open, both at school and in the community.

"Something I’ve learned about Americans is that while they take great pride in their nation, they are also proud of their heritage," she said. "Almost everyone knows where their family originated from and they will have some story about a distant relative to tell, which I find really fascinating."

Sandin said adapting to the American way of life has felt surprisingly natural, and while it is strange to be so far away from her family and friends back home, she has a phenomenal support system here, "which has been really helpful in integrating into the community and making this feel like, and become, a home."

"Going on exchange is an amazing opportunity – immersing yourself in a different culture is a whirlwind, but it’s so educational and fun and just all-around amazing, and will give you a much bigger perspective of the world, as well as connections that last a lifetime," Sandin said.

Jesse Bartke, assistant principal at OHS and a two-time host, said having exchange students at Oceanside brings diversity.

"Not everyone will always have the chance to travel, so having exchange students exposes the community to other cultures without having to leave Maine," he said. "It also creates lifelong connections to the Midcoast."

All of the exchange students participated in Oceanside's commencement ceremony June 5.

AFS is still looking for host families for this next year and for future years. Anyone interested should visit afsusa.org.

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at bbirmingham@villagesoup.com.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jun 07, 2018 15:42

Such a wonderful exchange and enriches the students immensely.



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