Foreign exchange students experience life in rural Michigan

OSCEOLA COUNTY — It can be a frightening experience to leave your home, family and friends at a young age to travel across the world to live in a foreign country for almost an entire year. But despite the stress and concerns, 30 students placed within the Mecosta Osceola Intermediate School District have chosen to embrace the English language, explore American culture and immerse themselves in an unfamiliar way of life.

Each individual school district works with a student exchange program, identifies students looking to study abroad and also identifies host families. Families, after going through a background check, are paired with students and are responsible for providing basic living essentials, though many offer more experiences.

"The big item for me is their ability to speak English at a high level and an appropriate fit with the host family, school and community," said Reed City High School Principal Monty Price. "The student’s biography is extremely descriptive. My goal is to connect them to a perfect match with regard to host family to ensure success. The companies we work with do a great job creating a good pairing as well."

Each foreign exchange student goes through a different experience of living and learning.

Lara Oelke, 16, is from Schiefbahn, Germany, close to Dusseldorf, but is studying at Chippewa Hills High School. Traveling to America to attend school was a goal she's had for years and it's her first time in the country. She arrived in August and will stay for 10 months.

"It was a dream for me since I was young," Oelke said about studying abroad in the U.S. "I have a fascination with the country and I love to travel and experience other cultures. I don't regret coming here."

At Chippewa Hills, she's taking classes including English, U.S. history, algebra, Spanish, art and creative writing — some of which are not offered at her school in Germany. Because she does not want to fall behind once she returns to her home country, she said she will repeat this year of education.

"I think it's a high risk if I don't, and I don't want to fail," Oelke added. "I'm trying all these subjects here I don't have in my German school. I've never heard of some of them before, but I really like them."

Her English has improved immensely, she said, and she is picking up words and phrases more easily, which helps with school and interacting with others.

Though she lives and spends time with a host family in Canadian Lakes, she keeps in touch with her biological family in Germany through Skype and texts. A shy girl, Oelke said it took time to open up and make friends.

"During the first trimester I almost always just spoke with the other German students, but I like making friends with people from other cultures and now I have people in my classes who I talk to. You're lonely for the first few weeks, but I'm not really homesick, unless something doesn't really work out the way I want it to," Oelke added.

She also has joined the girls' basketball team, so between studies, practice and being a member of the international club she keeps busy.

Ni Jin Hong, 15, chose to study in the U.S. for one year away from his hometown of Wenzhou, China.

"I like the education here," Jin Hong said. "American school has been much better than Chinese school because it's much more relaxed here. In China we do hard work. We don't have a lot of free time because we have a lot of homework to do. I think here in America you have a lot of choices because you don't have a lot of homework. Here, I play basketball after school, but in China I can't because I have a lot of homework. Grammar is easy for me, but not speaking skills or listening skills, but my English has improved. Daily, it's not a big problem."

He said though he missed his family when he first traveled, his host family treats him so well it's easy to consider them more like family.

"My family and I send video messages or just text," Jin Hong added. "I think sometimes it's pretty hard to make friends here because everyone has known each other for nine or 10 years, so I think it's a challenge, but they treat me like a friend. I think America is pretty friendly."

He said there are many differences between America and China besides the language and culture, but has enjoyed them.

"In Reed City it's like countryside, but in China I live in the city," Jin Hong said. "I think the countryside life is much more relaxed because the city is always busy. I think the Chinese work harder."

In the future, he hopes to become a computer programmer and possibly come back to the U.S. to work for Google or Microsoft.

"I'd probably want to create video games because I like playing video games," he added. "I think America is a better place to develop those abilities for programming."

Unlike Oelke and Jin Hong's experiences, the temporary new way of life isn't too topsy-turvy for 15-year-old Chloe Carbis, who is attending Morley Stanwood High School and living in Sparta with her host family, thousands of miles away from her home in Shepparton, Australia.

"This is my third trip to America," she said. "I just liked it so much and went to school for one day before. I just liked it so much, I thought I'd like to do an exchange. Michigan is a lot more spread out, and it's colder, but I'm really comfortable here.

"It's probably easier that I speak English and I'm not struggling with that like other foreign exchange students. For them it's about learning a language, but for me it's for the experience and to meet new people and learn new things."

Adjusting to an American school schedule was a major difference for Carbis, who is used to attending classes from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. with longer breaks in the day, and a different school-year schedule.

"We start around Feb. 1 and then have four terms which are about 10-weeks long each," she added. "We have two weeks off, then start the next term, then we get Christmas off and don't go back until February."

The different accents and use of language are other details of studying abroad she had to adjust to, and she's discovered new likes and dislikes when it comes to American food.

"I love Chex puppy chow," she said with a laugh. "I don't like pizza anymore, and in my family we always had meat a lot. My host mom is a good cook so it's not like I'm eating anything strange. It's similar food."

Fortunately for Carbis, her host father is a native Australian as well, and the pair have found they have visited the same areas. She said it's nice to have someone she can relate to on a cultural level.

"I think when it comes to familiar surroundings I get a little homesick, but we're supposed to expect that. But I have a really good host family and a really good coordinator and I've made good friends here as well. Every few weeks I call my family back home and get kept up to date."

Morley Stanwood High School Principal James Nelson believes having a foreign exchange program is beneficial for the local students and is the school's part of creating a sense of global acceptance and awareness.

"I believe anytime we can offer cultural experiences to our students, our school needs to take advantage," Nelson said. "Some of our students may never leave the area and this might provide the only insight to how other countries may operate. It could also be the other end of the spectrum where our students make strong connections with a student from abroad and may take an opportunity to explore other countries in their life."

As to be expected, arriving and living in a new country offers some surprises to those who had no idea what to expect.

"It was really warm in the beginning coming here," Oelke said with a laugh. "Everything is really big and the food is really sweet. There are a lot of differences, but I like differences from time to time."

Carbis, Oelke and Jin Hong also have been able to travel to other parts of Michigan with their host families and out of the state with groups of area foreign exchange students. Mackinac Island, Lansing, Detroit and Chicago have been popular points of interest.

"I went to Chicago with seven other exchange students with my organization and coordinator," Oelke said. "It was cold, but it was good. It was too short, but it was good to see something different."

Carbis said she recommends studying abroad for American students, but believes those individuals need to be ready to leave, adapt to new things, and not expect it to be like home.

"It's so different and it's an opportunity to meet new people and learn all these new things about a different place," she added. "I'd recommend it to anyone."

Here is a list of all of the foreign exchange students attending an MOISD school:

Big Rapids High School

Laurine Berjano — Bucy-le-long, France

Matus Fitos — Pezinok, Slovakia

Kornelia Tryzno — Janow, Poland

Hinano Higuchi — Isahaya, Nagasaki, Japan

Chippewa Hills School District

Caroline Agnevik — Enskede, Sweden

Maja Ajdaric — Subotica, Serbia

Cristina DeMiguel Rodriguez — Madrid, Spain

Lara Oelke — Schiefbahn, Germany

Sarah Kneuper — Berlin, Germany

Roberta Mercante — Quartu S.Elena, Italy

Luka Obradovic — Nis, Serbia

Bruna Ribeiro — Fortaleza, Brazil

Robin Pietschmann — Eibau-Neueibau, Germany

Gonzalo Rubio — Cordoba, Spain

Crossroads Charter Academy High School

Eskander BenAissa — Hamburg, Germany

Louise Bodé — Chamalierès, France

Yumeng (Adele) Du — Shanghai, China

Fabian Kreutz — Hamburg, Germany

Evart High School

Meron H. Kebede — Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Maddi Orue — Mitriko, Spain

Morley Stanwood High School

Chloe Carbis — Shepparton, Australia

Joachim Emdorf-Pedersen — Solroed, Denmark

Murilo Farias — Sao Paula, Brazil

Ben Geissler — Seeheim-Jungenheim, Germany

Elvio Gentile — Catania, Italy

Ahtziri Guzman Cardenas — Naucalpan, Mexico

Matyas Psenicka — Praugue, Czech Republic

Paul Sticher — Berlin, Germany

Daichi Suzuki — Aichi, Japan

Reed City Area High School

Ni Jin Hong — Wenzhou, China