Many have a desire to see the world, to experience the thrill that comes from stepping into a culture so vastly different from the one that they are accustomed to. They do say, after all, that you can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
Yet there is a way this can be accomplished without a passport stamp or a 10-pocket travel backpack: Each school year, many Plymouth families open up their homes to travelers from around the world. These visitors study in high school classes, take up afterschool activities and attend family gatherings—all while sharing their own culture with their host families. This month we’ve compiled glimpses into the foreign exchange programs at Fourth Baptist Christian School, Providence Academy, West Lutheran and Wayzata High School, and the lives of two students who now call Plymouth their second home.
Despite administrator Alan Hodak’s vast experience working with outsourced foreign exchange programs, last August marked the arrival of Fourth Baptist’s first self-sponsored exchange student. Hodak says the primary motivation behind bringing an exchange program to Fourth Baptist was as an avenue to increase enrollment, but he acknowledges the benefits have far surpassed his original thinking. “I think it’s neat for the students here. It’s neat to welcome someone in and reach out to them,” he says.
Hodak’s work began about a year before this year’s student (the student’s name is confidential, per school policy) who hails from Korea, stepped foot onto American soil. After several visits over Skype, he went above and beyond to ensure that the placement was a fit for both student and host family. Hodak’s primary goal was to ensure she stays at Fourth Baptist for the full school year.
Fourth Baptist was not the only Plymouth area school to welcome its first foreign exchange student this school year. Providence Academy took a different approach, seeking a partner school first. Through a long-standing connection with Pope John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel (the author was a speaker at Providence eight years ago), Providence found The Aquinas American School in Madrid, a school that the program’s coordinator (and Spanish teacher) Joelynn Lahr says lines up well with Providence’s values and Catholic background. Providence welcomed three students—freshman Beltrán Carillo Rubinos, sophomore Beatriz Jimenez-Carles Manzanera and junior Alvaro Gorde Garcia—from Aquinas this year. Lahr says Providence plans to continue this relationship with Aquinas and build upon the partnership before expanding to another host country, though more global options are the ultimate goal of the program.
‘You Learn Something New Every Day’
With two of their three children in college, Marcel and Lisa Gyswyt felt their house seemed a bit empty. (Marcel Jr. is a 22-year-old senior at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minn., and 20-year-old Corbin is a sophomore at the University of North Dakota.) Although their original reasoning differs—Marcel insists he wanted more company, whereas Lisa comments the “giving back” aspect of becoming a host family most intrigued her—they both agree that their foreign exchange experience has opened their eyes to another culture.
Yu Jin—affectionately referred to as Yu Yu by her new family—returned to the United States to stay with the Gyswyts; the China native also spent a stint in Rhode Island last year. Although her uncle lives in Maple Grove, a fact that originally led her to Minnesota, she says her prior visits had been few and far between. “It’s like having a fresh perspective, a fresh personality in the house,” Marcel says. “You can tell that Yu Yu wants to absorb so much and learn so much.” And learn she does. Jin joins “sister” Gabby Gyswyt at West Lutheran each day; Jin is a senior preparing for college, while Gabby is wrapping up her junior year. “The relationship between teacher and student is more [friendly] here,” Jin says, compared with those in China. “I do feel like I am more free to be myself.” Chemistry and political science are Jin’s favorite subjects—“I really want to get to know how American government works,” she says—noting that in China, the government is much more involved in education curriculum than it seems to be here in the United States. On top of studying and extracurricular activities, Jin applied to 15 colleges spread across the United States this past winter.
Jin joins eight students from three different countries in West Lutheran’s foreign exchange program, a number that continues to grow yearly. International student coordinator Melissa Baures says the program is a hit, for foreign exchange students and hosts such as the Gyswyt family, alike. In fact, three families who hosted last year were willing to host again this year.
In addition to her strict study habits, Jin has experienced many “firsts” during her stay with the Gyswyts. The family traveled to Idaho over winter break, where she skied her first hill. Jin gobbled up a turkey leg at the Minnesota State Fair in August and participated in American sports—she joined both West Lutheran’s volleyball and basketball teams. Jin also added student council representative, nursing home volunteer and children’s play volunteer to her resume. But her proudest “first” was when Marcel taught her to ride a bicycle. What is Jin’s biggest takeaway from her time here in Plymouth? “People are very nice here, truly,” Jin says.
Filling the void left by grown children seems a common connector between many host families. Jill Kohler and her husband Jack always have been interested in international travel—after all, they met in the Peace Corps. So when empty-nest syndrome snuck up on them in 2012 (the couple has three kids—Kate, 27, Sheila, 26 and David, 22) they offered their home to a foreign exchange student. Paula Myrhha from Brazil stayed with three families during her stay—she capped off her time in Plymouth with the Kohlers. They saw her through prom, graduation and her 18th birthday. “We had a great experience the first year. We really enjoyed having Paula—she was a delightful young lady,” Jill Kohler says. “We thought it was an easy thing for us to do,” so much so that the couple decided to do it again during the 2013–2014 school year. The Kohler family is the third home for Anita Bello, a senior at Wayzata High School who hails from Paraguay.
Bello found out her destination just a week before departing. “Not everyone in my country has the opportunity to leave,” she says. From snow tubing for the first time to a trip to the Mall of America, Bello says her time in Plymouth has been memorable. She cites chemistry as her favorite subject. Unlike Jin, she struggled with the Minnesota winter—“It’s 100 degrees in Paraguay right now, and I’m here getting frozen,” she quipped in winter—but has high hopes to attend college in the United States next year. “I have seen things here that I will never see in Paraguay,” she says, specifically mentioning the better technology and the fact that high schools here resemble what University would look like in Paraguay. “People really care about grades; people are always busy in school here.”
Wayzata High School’s exchange program began in the 1950s; it partners with several outside organizations to bring students to Wayzata from across the globe, including Rotary, Youth for Understanding and AFS (also known as the American Field Service). Plymouth’s Sandra Hulet, an AFS volunteer, believes the program does a particularly fine job of acting as liaison between family and student. She has hosted eight students in the past from countries as diverse as Mexico, Sweden and Turkey. “They [foreign exchange students] just add another dimension to the school that gets kids interested in learning about other languages and cultures,” Hulet says.
School and Family Integration
Exchange students should follow Jin’s lead and become as involved in school activities as possible: Bello is a member of the Spanish and drama clubs, and she tried out for Wayzata’s lacrosse team this spring; one of this year’s Providence exchange students suits up in mascot garb as Lenny the Lion for every sporting event.
Hodak advises host families to treat their students as family members, rather than visitors. “I want to impress on them that we want the student not just to come here, but to come here and be a part of an American family,” he says. “We are expecting that student to be involved in all family activities, so that the student gets a full flavor of American culture and life.” Hosts embrace this: Hulet refers to her past visitors as “step children”; Jill Kohler tells others that she has a family member in Brazil; and the Gyswyts are family to Jin, who refers to Lisa as “Mom,” Marcel as “Dad” and Gabby as a sister.
These host families were also surprised at how seamless overcoming language barriers has been. Shared learning comes by way of exchange students introducing hosts to different foods, games and traditions. Kohler, who like the Gyswyts is interested in hosting students in the future, concurs: “It’s so rewarding to see life through their eyes,” she says, “especially here in the U.S., where we tend to take some things for granted and stick to a certain U.S. view on things.” //
Interested in Hosting a Student?
Whether you are empty-nesters or a family with teenagers and young children, all are welcome to participate. Pick a nearby school, and reach out.
Sandra Hulet says there are three main programs that partner with WHS:
Started in 1947, the nonprofit offers programs in more than 40 countries and 1,500 U.S. schools. 800.AFS.INFO; afsusa.org
The Rotary Club
Wayzata’s youth exchange program is one of three local Rotary clubs’ service projects. Wayzata Rotary is in partnership with Rotary Youth Exchange, working with more than 8,000 students regionally each year, both outbound and inbound. 612.703.4280; rotaryplymouth.org, wayzatarotary.org
Youth for Understanding (YFU)
Like AFS, Youth for Understanding was founded in 1951 after the war. Leaders in Michigan brought over teenagers from Germany to bridge the raw divide between the two countries. About 4,000 students will participate in YFU worldwide this year. 800.833.6243; yfu.org
School administrator Alan Hodak: 763.417.8240, firstname.lastname@example.org
(their exchange program is exclusively for Providence families) Exchange program coordinator Joelynn Lahr: 763.258.2540, email@example.com
Wayzata High School
AFS volunteer Sandra Hulet: 763.559.0203 firstname.lastname@example.org
West Lutheran High School
Exchange program coordinator Melissa Baures: 763.509.9378, email@example.com