International students get a lesson on America

LEICESTER — Imagine you’re spending 10 months in a foreign country, and you don’t know a soul.
Now imagine you’re only 16 or 17 years old.
Wouldn’t it be great if you had a host family to take you in and help you navigate American culture?
David Allan is hoping more families in the Addison and Rutland counties feel that way. In his second year as an area representative for World Heritage International, a non-profit student exchange organization, Allan is one of only two reps in the state of Vermont.
“We’re asking the host families to take these students in and feed them and house them and treat them like family,” he said. “My role is to support the family and the students and facilitate any problems, but so far, there haven’t been any.”
There are currently 300 WHI students in the U.S., and 21 in Vermont.
Area readers may recognize Allan as the local swing dance instructor who often holds classes at Brandon Music. He said his experience with kids made his decision to become a WHI rep an easy one.
“I’ve worked with young people all my life, through dancing, mentoring, Scouts,” he said. “So, when I saw this opportunity and that they didn’t have a rep in this area, I applied. No regrets.”
He currently has five exchange students under his wing, and next year hopes to get 10 students.
On a recent evening, we sat down with Allan and three of his international charges in his cozy Leicester home to discuss the program and the exchange student experience.
Francesca Palitta, 18, hails from Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea. Haruka Isayama, 17, is from Nagasaki, Japan, and Diana Kiykbayeva, 17, comes from the nation of Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
As they sat on Allan’s couch and talked about their interests and background, the cultural divides narrowed and the teenagers were front and center. Francesca and Diana attend Middlebury Union High School, and Haruka goes to Vergennes Union High School.
Allan said Otter Valley Union High School Principal Jim Avery has said he would accept three World Heritage International students at the school starting in September, so host families in the OV area are needed.
It’s not easy to be accepted into the World Heritage International exchange program. Although requirements vary from country to country, all students must speak English sufficiently. There are also personality tests to make sure students can handle the stresses and challenges of living abroad for so long.
“They have to have the personality to handle living in a different culture,” Allan said. “It takes a special student to adjust to all of this.”
It’s also competitive. In Kazakhstan, Diana went through three rounds of testing, three to four hours each round, including English tests, extensive interviews and applications. She is one of 127 students accepted into the program out of 5,000 in Kazakhstan who applied.
And then the wait for a host family begins. Diana waited for four months and was two days away from her departure date when she finally received word that she had a host family. Francesca and Haruka also waited for six months for their host families to be assigned.
Allan said there is an extensive screening process for host families that includes reference checks and a criminal background check, but the process can be completed in a matter of days. The families can choose the country of origin, age, gender and religious affiliation of the student they would like to host. The hard part is finding the families willing to host for an entire school year.
The students do not go home for holidays, and the girls acknowledged that there was some homesickness in the first few months.
“And at Christmas,” said Francesca, who is Catholic, “but now, it’s totally fine.”
Between the presidential election and this winter in Vermont, the girls have experienced America during a unique socio-political time. But like most teenagers, they are focused more on school and social activities.
While Diana said Kazakhstan’s climate is similar to Vermont with snow in the winter, Francesca and Haruka have found the Green Mountain winter a little hard to take.
“It’s cold!” Francesca said.
“We get a little snow in Nagasaki,” Haruka added, “but not like this. This is too much.”
The girls were asked if anything about America surprised them.
“Pineapple on pizza!” Francesca said, adding with a laugh, “It’s not legal in Italy. They’ll put you jail!”
Francesca also said she has been surprised by the somewhat negative social relationships American teenagers have with each other.
“It’s very different, the relationships American teenagers have with each other,” she said. “In my opinion, they don’t know what friendship is, they don’t know how to be friends. I was really surprised.”
Diana took the long view.
“I didn’t have time to imagine America,” she said. “It’s not better and it’s not worse, just different, but the people are the same.”
Haruka is focused more on her schoolwork. She is very quiet, but when asked about her host family, she couldn’t help but smile.
“They are so good,” she said beaming. “I have three brothers and two sisters. We go to the same church. They’ve been so good.”
All exchange students must do volunteer work while they are here. Haruka works in the preschool at Victory Baptist Church in Vergennes with the 3- 6-year-olds, and said she really likes it.
Francesca ran indoor track for Middlebury and is going out for lacrosse. She does her volunteer work through the school’s SCOHR club. SCOHR stands for Student Coalition On Human Rights. The club works to initiate change and making a difference as an individual/small group on global human rights issues.
Diana is all in at Middlebury. She played basketball and tried out for the tennis team. She was part of the group that organizes the community supper at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, helps with unified basketball for the mentally disabled, volunteered to wrap gifts during the holidays, and is on the prom committee.
“You get a lot of experience, and you get to be more mature,” Diana said. It’s a great experience. All people are the same, no matter what race, nationality, color of skin, they treat me here all the same.”
Francesca agreed, but added student exchange is not for everyone.
“You can’t be an exchange student if you’re not really sure,” she said. “It’s very different and if you’re not ready, if you’re shy, if you’re not outgoing, you’ll just sit.”
There are several exchange programs open to Vermont students and Vermont families. For more information about becoming a World Heritage International host family, contact David Allan via phone at 343-1475, or email [email protected], or go to www.whhosts.com.

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