BY KATIE MATTESON
“Here’s what I’ve learned from being part of the Racine Founders Rotary Club Youth Exchange Program for the past four years,” said Steve Donovan, former host parent and current youth exchange officer. “I’ve gotten as much or more from the program than the students did.”
“If there’s crying at the end, it’s been a good year,” said seven-year veteran Scott Jung, who’s hosted nine students in the AFS program and serves as a local coordinator.
“It’s a great way to get out of your bubble,” said Nicole Zoe Miller, third-year exchange program coordinator and host mom from SHARE! Student Exchange Program. “It helps me and my young kids understand different cultures and experience what’s outside of our day-to-day life.”
“Open your heart, open your home – there’s nothing to be afraid of,” said 10-time Rotary host parents Mark and Dawn Patzke. “A teenager in America is the same as teenager from anywhere else – they’re all messy, roll their eyes and leave the lights on.”
This school year, 10 foreign exchange students attend Racine area high schools through three programs, Rotary (Nick Retief from Brazil), AFS (Roope Fernstrӧm from Finland, Paul Pilard from France and Mateo Sigot from Argentina) and SHARE! (Maria Lopes from Brazil, Luisa Perez from Spain, Nayeon Kim from Korea, Charlotte Froening, Stefan Willinghoefer from and Ali El-Rasatmi, all from Germany.
Nick, Paul, Mateo, Stefan and Charlotte attend Case, Maria and Ali go to Horlick, Luisa is at Park and Nayeon goes to Union Grove.
With half the school year under their belts, several of the students reflected on their experiences so far.
Charlotte said that it was hard to find friends at first, but after a few months she’s developed close friendships with other classmates at Case. She said she’s also realized that she’ll always have two families – one in Germany and one in America.
For Nick, the holidays were hard and sometimes he misses his home in Brazil, but he really appreciates the experiences he’s had here that aren’t available back home – specifically art and science courses with fully equipped facilities and the school’s robotics team.
Mateo is grateful for the opportunities to participate in afterschool activities like clubs and sports. He also enjoys watching American sports like baseball and football. He’s also learned cultural differences, such as people here seem to need more personal space than those in Argentina.
Paul’s advice to other future exchange students: be able to adapt yourself. His entire school in France, from kindergarten through high school, had only 400 students. He’s now one of 2,000 students at Case.
Roope said the best thing about his experience so far is all the people he’s met, noting the kindness of the other students in his school. He’s also observed that people here seem more serious about politics than in Finland.
Christine Bohn brings the perspective of a first-time host mom and art teacher to many of the current and past foreign exchange students.
She loves getting to know the students in class, but as an empty nester she didn’t think she would be the best host mom for a teenager. With the encouragement of Scott, she gave it a try and now describes her relationship with her student from France as “two peas in a pod.” She’s planning a trip to visit him and his family in July.
Scott expressed appreciation to the Racine Unified School District for welcoming the foreign exchange students. For example, at Case the principal brought all the new students together on the first day of school so they could get to know each other right away. Those friendships have continued through the school year.
On Friday, March 29, Case will host its second International Fair, which will be open to the public. The event, held in the fieldhouse from 4-8 p.m., will feature food and cultural booths, along with performances of dance, music and poetry. To get involved, contact Jason Ottmann at email@example.com.
Nicole and Scott agreed that the youth exchange programs are great for the community, noting their frequent visits to local restaurants and other attractions.
“It’s fun to get out and show off our hometown,” Scott said.
“I’ve lived here for a short amount of time and participating in student exchange has given me even more reason to explore the place I love and call home,” Nicole said.
While programs differ in their organizational structure, lengths of stay, fees for students and types of support for host families, the coordinators agree that the experiences are enriching for the foreign exchange students and host families alike.
All the local programs will begin accepting applications and making arrangements for next year’s placements in March, so those interested in getting involved should contact Steve from Rotary at SDonovan@communitystatebank.net, Beth Clemence at firstname.lastname@example.org or Theresa Ness at email@example.com from AFS or Nicole from SHARE! at firstname.lastname@example.org.