Expanding doors to an even more diverse population
Juniors Beatrice Walker is sitting in Pre-calculus, attentively listening to the teacher explaining the material that is going to be covered on the test the following day. A handbook is lying on her desk with "Germany" written on it. She also has two binders with pictures, of her family in Germany, taped onto them. You would never be able to distinguish her from her classmates, but there is a difference. She is one of the three foreign exchange students, along with junior Peart Wiwitworakit and sophomore Phuong Le, who are attending Blair this year.
Thanks to foreign exchange programs Blair is able to open its doors to three more students from other countries.
The first step: getting selected for the program
Foreign exchange programs bring students from other countries to America to enrich their cultural experience. American Field Service (AFS) and the Youth for Understanding (YFU) are the two programs that operate at Blair this year. Students are selected on the basis of their grades, work in the community and other factors that may be appealing to host families. Then they come to America, with the help of the afore-mentioned programs, and live with their host families for 11 months.
According to Michael Sklaar, president and co-director of the World Exchange Program, the foreign exchange programs go much deeper than tourism. "When somebody stays in the [host family's] house they really get to know the country," says Sklaar. World Exchange, in contrast to the AFS and the YFU, brings students to America for only three weeks.
Wiwitworakit came to America and her host family from Thailand on Aug 7 through the AFS. She got selected by chance. "My friend just wanted to try and get into the foreign exchange program, and I just went with her," she says, smiling. Though her friend did not get in, she did.
Unlike Wiwitworakit, Walker came to America Aug 15 through the YFU program. She underwent an ordeal of filling out papers, asking teachers for recommendations, doing an interview and writing a letter to her host parents. Only then was she selected.
Le, who hails from Vietnam, has a completely different situation. "My case is a special case, because my host parents already knew me," says Le. He had visited his host parents on previous occasions, since the family knew his father. "I always wanted to come to America," he says, a smile creeping onto his face.
Options, options, options
One thing that the foreign exchange students agree on is that the school offers many options. There is something for every student.
Le is interested in computers and decided to expand his expertise through the extra curricular activities offered at Blair. He is involved in Robotics Club, Computer Team and Networking. In Vietnam he had very few choices. There he could only concentrate on school work, because he had a six day school week. "You don't get to do anything but study," says Le.
Wiwitworakit likes the variety of classes that she can choose from. "Since I won't graduate from here, I don't have a requirement. I can take anything I want," she says. Her classes range from different arts classes to Calculus with Applications A. She is also taking a dance class, which she had never done. This is very different in contrast to her country. "In Thailand you can't choose classes yourself," says Wiwitworakit. "There are about 11 classes that you are required to take and you just take them."
Walker has other interests besides academics. "I like the school sports [in Blair]," she says. She plays JV volleyball and plans to join the track team as well. In Germany schools have no sports teams, and students usually go home right after classes.
A strong basis for their future
The three foreign exchange students are far from home, and immersed in a different culture, yet they are still enjoying their experience and developing their characters. "It's a life changing experience," says Bob Rushing, volunteer at AFS. "They make friends and start living their American life."
Before Walker came to America she was very nervous. "On the plane I thought: What am I doing here? I want to go home," she explains. But eventually the system helped her become more self-sufficient. "I have to write how much money I spend during weeks," says Walker, describing the way she manages her small monthly allowance.
Dorothy Wiseman, Walker and Wiwitworakit's counselor, was impressed with the girls and has only positive things to say about them. "I really admire them for taking this big step. I would really encourage people to get to know them, because they are very interesting kids. A real asset to Blair," said Ms. Wiseman.
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