Exchange program brings cultural understanding

Across Washington, high school seniors are celebrating their graduation while other students are getting pumped for summer vacation.

But around the world, some students are already gearing up for fall quarter — by packing their bags and traveling to America.

The ASSE International Student Exchange Program brings students from more than 30 different countries, from Brazil to Estonia and Moldova to Thailand, to Washington and other states every year.

The summer months are the last chance local families are able to sign up to host an exchange student, since they’ve got to be settled by the end of August for school to begin in September, said Margot Hoffman, the Washington state ASSE coordinator.

EXPERIENCING A NEW CULTURE

The goal of the exchange program is to share culture, Hoffman said. Students from abroad share their customs with their host family, while their host family shares American culture (or their own native culture) with them.

“The main purpose of the program is to bring cultural understanding to your community and to bring it overseas. We are hoping both students going both directions are going to be talking about their country, teaching other people in other countries about America, or if the kid is from Korea, coming over here and talking about Korea, so that we have a deeper understanding of each other and how similar we are and how all people around the world are pretty much the same,” she said. “We want to work together and make this world positive and have a peaceful world.”

Hoffman isn’t just a spokeswoman for ASSE; she’s also a four-time host mother, and is now experienced in helping exchange students feel at home in a new country.

She’s hosted a total of four students, three of them Muslim.

“I like to host them (Muslim students) because they have this wonderful personality of respect for adults and an adventurous personality. I really find them to be respectful of the teachers, respectful of the community. Really grateful to be here,” Hoffman said. “They sometimes come from countries where they are at war, and they come here and feel so much peace and love and community spirit.”

Speaking of spirit, one of the main reasons exchange students want to travel to the U.S. is to experience our world-famous school spirit.

“Lots of times… they’re anxious for the school spirit. They go to school and they go home, kids in all countries, they go to school and come home,” she said. “But in America we have all these extracurricular activities, all these clubs and teams.”

The last exchange student she hosted, for example, was thrilled about the idea of a track team, something his regular school didn’t have.

“They really enjoy the American school way of life,” Hoffman continued. “They take pictures of the yellow bus they ride and are very excited about assemblies and all the extracurricular that goes on in American schools.”

Beyond getting to experience a new culture, families often find themselves immersing themselves back into their community in order to show their exchange student the American way of life.

“You’re suddenly looking at, ‘what is the community doing that I want to get involved with?’ because you want to show your exchange student your community,” Hoffman said. “You yourself are becoming re-involved in your community and in your school and in your traditions, your holidays. Sometimes you go through life and those happen to you, but when you have an exchange student, you want to point those out.”

PUSHING THROUGH CULTURAL FEAR

The county’s current political climate has had an affect on the ASSE exchange program.

Hoffman said it’s sometimes difficult to place students that come from what seems like a vastly different culture, especially from Muslim-majority countries, which is why she feels its important for her to host kids from those countries herself.

Host families don’t see photos of their exchange student until near the end of the application process, and it’s not unheard of to have a family be 100 percent on-board to host a student until the host family sees their exchange student wearing a hijab.

Often, these families are frightened that their surrounding community won’t accept their exchange student, Hoffman said, and sometimes, it does take a community a while to warm up to a new face.

When Hoffman hosted a Muslim boy last year, “When he came, a lot of people at the school were reluctant to become his friends, because they were afraid of his country, really… But after the kids got to know him, they thought he was the greatest kid ever,” she said. “He made so many friends and so many teachers were proud of him, and he succeeded in classes and on the track team, he won first prize in something, and he’d never done track before.”

“He was coming from knowing an Arabic language and trying to do all this in English, and he was very successful,” she continued. “That was so rewarding for kids in this school to see this kid, a Muslim kid, and they are just like they are.”

Other difficulties that Hoffman discovered while hosting students revolved around differences in daily schedules.

“Because the students have such a different schedule than ours, it takes them a really long time to get used to our schedule,” she said.

HOW TO BE A HOST FAMILY

Applying to be a host family involves signing up over asse.com/apply_now/, going through a background check and having a home visit.

“We’re looking for people who are interested in teenagers and interested in cultural exchange. They don’t have to be a certain kind of family, but we are looking for families,” Hoffman said. “We want the kids to experience a family environment, where they have dinner together and celebrate holidays, that sort of thing.”

Single parents, Hoffman added, are also considered.

Families that host an exchange student are volunteers, and are not compensated by ASSE for their time and energy — room and board are expected to be provided, but students do come with pocket money to spend on clothes, toiletries and outings with their friends.

Beyond those requirements, Hoffman said all the program is looking for are people who “treat them like a member of your family.”

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