By Jill Draper
There are two main reasons that Leo (Hei Ting) Cheng, age 16, left family and friends behind in Hong Kong and journeyed to the United States last summer. The first is to improve his English skills, and the second is to find out why Americans think the way they do.
What he’s found as a foreign exchange student at Center High is a learning environment that’s more creative and less high-pressured than at his own school, where he often studied past midnight and rarely spent a weekend without homework. The stress is so heavy in some Asian schools that suicides are not uncommon, he says. At Center he sees students who enjoy coming to school and exploring their interests.
But he also finds that Kansas City lacks the vibrant street life and busy markets of his native land, with a public transportation system that’s hard to access. And (a minor gripe) he’s a little tired of eating potatoes and toast.
Cheng is glad he came, however, and recommends the experience to any student who is adventurous—a thought that’s echoed by three other exchange students at Center High this year. According to Sharon Ahuna, principal, it’s the largest group the school has ever had.
Julien Lens of Belgium, Arissara Suvarnasuddhi of Thailand and Paola Vaccarossa of Italy all came to experience a new culture and perfect their English while they live with a host family through programs like Educational Foundation High School Exchange and AFS-USA. It started when Jeanne Jewell, who has hosted exchange students at Ray-Pec High since 2012, noticed that Center High was not involved in the program. After speaking to the superintendent, she received approval to begin placements.
Jewell, who teaches a combined 4th and 5th grade class at Red Bridge Elementary, also works as an independent coordinator for the Educational Foundation, one of several placement agencies in the U.S. She has three college-age and older children of her own. But as a frequent exchange student host, she claims to have additional “daughters” in Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Italy—former students who lived with her family during the last five years. And although she has never been farther from her Peculiar, Mo., home than Mexico or Canada, she keeps in contact with the girls and one day hopes to visit them overseas.
The exchange experience is not just about academics and speaking another language. At Center High this year’s foreign students have participated in swimming, wrestling, chorus and art programs. “Here you can join many clubs,” says 18-year-old Vaccarossa, who notes that high school sports are uncommon in Italy. Lens, 18, hopes to become an architect and particularly enjoys his art class. He says subjects like art and cooking are not offered at his Belgium school. Suvarnasuddhi, 16, says her classmates in Thailand are not allowed to choose any subjects and remain in one room throughout the day while teachers rotate. All four students describe their math classes here as easy.
Jewell says a careful screening process helps make sure the exchange students arrive with basic English skills and are “a little bit more mature” than usual. “Some think it’s going to be like ‘High School Musical.’ Those are the unrealistic ones.” Still, she says the teens typically are thrilled to come here and experience homecoming, football and prom—extracurricular events that may not be available to them back home.
Besides attending high school and participating in activities with their host families, exchange students from the metro area get together every month or so. Jewell plans outings for them like ice skating at Crown Center, shopping at Oak Park Mall and group potluck dinners with participating host families. “That’s one of my favorite things,” she says, explaining that students often bring dishes cooked with recipes from their native countries.
Curiously, there are few (at least Jewell doesn’t know of any) Kansas City-area students who study abroad for the year at the high school level. “In the U.S., most students just go for two or three weeks. It’s not as encouraged in America, which I think is a real shame,” she says.
Host families for the EF program are not required to have children of their own, but they do need to provide a bed, meals and help with local transportation. Students bring their own spending money and manage their own activities. For more information, contact Jewell at 816-716-2388 or visit efexchangeyear.org/host-a-student.