By: Victoria Erdel
NSHSS Scholar, Penn High School, Indiana
Reading about a foreign country in your textbook and living there are two completely different things. That’s why programs like AFS-USA (partner of NSHSS) make it their mission to send students to experience what a blurb in a book can’t give you. However, if you can’t make the trek to another country, foreign exchange students can bring their world to you. You just have to reach out to them.
This past year, there were nine (mainly AFS-USA) foreign exchange students at my school. Each of them brought their unique personalities, dreams, perspectives on the world, and prior knowledge. However, I noticed that their unique experiences were going untold. No one would talk to them to find out about their lives and views on the world. No one would befriend them.
That all changed when my best friend and I met Oom, a student from Thailand. Through her we eventually met the other students. They hailed from Germany, Japan, Finland, Serbia, Ecuador, Czech Republic and Albania. They came to America with the mindset that Americans would be very open and excited to meet them. After all, America has the reputation of being a melting pot of cultures. In the context of my school, however, they were sorely mistaken. They even told us that if we hadn’t reached out to them, they would’ve had virtually no close friends.
While these students appreciated our friendship, my best friend and I gained a lot from them as well. As we took the students to football games, birthday parties, restaurants, and more, we got a sneak peek into their world. I learned simple phrases in Thai, Japanese chopstick etiquette, a Serbian’s perspective on recent history, and much more. In return for friendship, each student gave me a piece of their culture that I will carry with me into the future.
Although the students have now gone back to their home countries, we still keep in touch. My friend and I were so inspired by their time with us that we had the idea to create a Foreign Exchange Student Ambassadors program at our school. Since we are seniors and will be leaving after this year, we want to ensure that there will always be students at our school to befriend, support, and learn from the exchange students. If there isn’t a constant cycle of ambassadors for them, we are afraid that the foreign exchange students will feel stranded at our school. We are even more afraid that the remarkable capabilities and experiences these students bring with them will go unnoticed, unappreciated.
That is why I encourage high school students to reach out to foreign exchange students. These students have a lot to offer, and they are looking for someone to listen to them. To get a head start on exploring the world beyond your community, consider befriending the foreign exchange students at your school.