Years ago at a past job, a former intern came back to visit. More surprising, however, was that she wasn’t the person I had imagined she would become. This was a good kid, a popular student, bright, a quick learner. But now, at age 19, something was different, something deeper, richer. What was it?
“I spent a year studying abroad as an exchange student,” she explained, calling it “life-changing.” Essentially, she discovered that people can live, think and believe differently, and not only get along, but benefit from the experience.
We Americans seem less interested in being a nation of differences. Indeed, too often, we denigrate those who are different. Student exchange programs foster an opposite universe, allowing participants to grow beyond their comfort zones.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” Bay Area native and family member Nick Davis told me. Newly graduated from Chico State, the 22-year-old spent his junior year studying in Spain.
You sense that living among people who are “super family oriented, way mellow,” has changed his outlook on life. Working at Ernst & Young in San Francisco, Davis said, “I’m much more interested now in maintaining a healthy work-life balance.”
AFS, a nonprofit organization, has been coordinating high school student exchanges worldwide for nearly 70 years. Their global network consists of thousands of volunteers, many who have hosted exchange students themselves or studied abroad with AFS. J. Christopher Stevens, the American diplomat killed in Benghazi, was an AFS exchange student.
“We’re involved in over 90 countries,” AFS councilwoman Kathleen McNabb told me. “And unlike other student exchanges, we are very involved, maintaining regular contact with students and host parents so that each has a very successful year.”
We sat down with three students: Laura Hohenberger, 15, from Stuttgart, Germany, attending Rosemont High; Latifa Lestari, 17, of Jakarta, Indonesia, attending Placer High; and, attending Yuba City High, Gadir Mamedov, 17, from eastern Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, which is closer to California than Moscow. All three spoke perfect English, which they could before coming here, but by now, at school year’s end, they’d adopted typical American teenage tics. Lots of “likes” and “ya knows.”
“I never dreamed about coming here,” Mamedov said, “but I knew if I did, it would change my priorities, my outlook.”
“I like intercultural learning,” Lestari said. “I wanted a new perspective, and this has helped me be more open-minded.”
The benefit is mutual, noted McNabb. “As a host mom, the changes I experienced in learning about other cultures – I wish I’d done this when I was younger,” she said. “I’d have had that much more to give back to my own family, my community.”
Typically, families in the Sacramento chapter, which also includes Reno and Chico, host around 25 students a year, though 43 applicants are seeking placement this fall. The organization welcomes anyone interested in hosting. Annually, AFS sends nearly 900 American students overseas while hosting about 2,500 in the United States.
All students and families are carefully vetted for compatibility, but cost is often a roadblock. “A typical school-year program runs around $12,000 to $15,000, depending on which country a student chooses,” explained Carol McCauley, the AFS hosting coordinator for Sacramento, “but it’s a shame how many scholarships we have for students to go abroad that don’t get used.”
The cost can be higher than tuition and fees for college – around $13,000 for UC schools and $6,600 for a CSU campus. But for many exchange students, it can be well worth it. Host families typically adopt their guests lovingly; students often call their host parents “Mom” and “Dad,” and the transformational experience is priceless.
“This past year has been way better than I thought, way more than I thought,” said Hohenberger, the German exchange student. “I learned so much about myself. I feel so much older.”
What’s that worth? More than grades could ever measure.
My first impression of the first person I met while attending Arizona State University ages ago was: What a hick – huge belt buckle, cowboy boots, tobacco tin branding that outline in the back pocket of his “britches.” He moseyed over, thumbs in his waistband, sized me up and said, “So, you’re from New York City, huh? I’m from Show Low, Arizona. We just got our first traffic light.”
It wasn’t a foreign country, but it was still a culturally jarring moment. And I was better for it. Despite our utterly different backgrounds, he turned out to be a great guy, one of many I would meet from places I’d never heard of before.
Over time, America has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, we don’t understand people who live just a few miles away. An exchange student program might be one way to reopen doors some of us have long ago closed.
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.