For years, families in the Camas School District have hosted foreign exchange students from all over the world. This year ten students attend Camas High School and two others who go to alternate high schools in the district. Last summer, these students came to Camas from their respective countries and became briefly acquainted with their host families before starting school.
Camas High School’s Career Specialist, Mrs. Amira Onuoha, is the exchange student liaison. “We work with multiple companies that send a student; they reach out to me; send me their information. I work and make sure they’re prepared before coming here. I also have an International Club, so I’m making sure they’re part of that community as well,” said Onuoha.
Onuoha heads all things relating to exchange students, except scheduling which is done by the CHS counselors. “I do all the other stuff. Like if they need social-emotional support. I’ve had students in here sharing about homesickness and kind of walking them through that. I think that the club helps a lot with that; helps them feel the community and the family that sometimes can be missed in a school this size,” said Onuoha.
CHS partners with several different organizations to bring exchange students to Camas. The organizations that the school partnered with this year are AFS, OCEAN, Greenheart Exchange, ASSE, ISE, and EF. “The organizations help the students get the visa needed to study every year. They do the background checks on the family. They check in with the students and the family periodically and they also have set up activities,” said Mrs. Onuoha.
Miriam Pontillo, a Senior from Italy, and María Diez, a Junior from Spain, qualified for scholarships from their respective organizations and got part of the cost covered.
There are several reasons to become an exchange student. Many decide to go abroad for academics. However, Matteo Peqini, a Senior from Italy, wanted to go on an adventure. “I wanted to go far from Italy because I want to go out of my comfort zone and have more experience,” he said. Peqini believed that this time away from family would help him “grow up a lot.”
Coming to a new country for the first time and having to speak a foreign language is tough for anyone, especially teenagers. Although most of the students learned English back in their home countries, adjusting to a new culture can be difficult. It is up to the host families to make their adopted child feel comfortable and welcome. Siri Sawaengchokchai, a Junior at Hayes Freedom High School and the only Thai exchange student in the school district, addressed how he had to adapt to American culture with his host family. “We have a different culture here. Sometimes I don’t understand, but it’s okay, not a big deal,” He said.
Exchange students can also experience different levels of homesickness throughout their stay. “At first I was kind of homesick because I was like missing my own family, but they (her host family) kind of made up for not having my family here,” said Margot Bekkink, a Senior from The Netherlands. The host family needs to establish a trusting and loving relationship with the exchange student.
Peqini said before coming to the United States that he was not worried about who his host family was as long as they cared about him. “The only thing I wanted is that my host family loved me. They do that and for me, that is enough,” he said.
Exchange students are not allowed to stay with any blood-related relatives while living in the United States and are chosen by certain host families. For César, a Senior from France, this was a unique experience because he knew his host family, the Montignys, prior to being chosen by them. César’s family and the Montigny family used to live in the same town in France before the Montignys moved to the United States. The two families were close friends and stayed in touch over the years. When César decided to become an exchange student, they offered to host him. “I feel like I am at home and I have a lot of fun with them,” he said. It is also a relief that the Montignys are fluent in French, but he prefers to practice his English. “We usually speak English, but sometimes there may be a little French mixed in there,” he said.
Another major change that exchange students have to adjust to is the different teaching styles in the United States. “The teachers are very different here. In Thailand, some of the teachers do not care for the students, but here they take care of our students,” said Sawaengchokchai.
For some students, the schooling system they went through in their home country is completely different than the school system in the United States. Peqini and Pontillo both agree that school in Italy is much harder than school here. “School is way more difficult there. I never study here because it is super easy,” said Pontillo.
Peqini said that school in Italy is more focused on training students for their career in the workforce. “In Italy, you have a lot of different schools that are specific to what you want to do in the future. So after middle school, you start to decide what you want to be and what you want to do,” he said. Peqini compared the homework and studying policy between his two schools. He said that homework in Italy is only assigned for studying and is not a part of the final grade.
Although he said Italian school is harder, he thinks that American school can be a little boring. He said, “It’s repetitive here (at CHS) every day.” A junior from Germany, Paul Fastabend, compared the resources available at his school in Germany compared to CHS. “In Germany, schools have fewer resources. They have way less staff, they don’t have a cafeteria, they have way less equipment. For example the technical equipment and the weight training, that doesn’t exist” he said.
Peqini also adds about resources at his old school, “For example in Italy sometimes in the winter you are cold because they don’t turn on the heater or in the spring or beginning of summer you are so hot because they don’t turn on the condition agent. They don’t have money for that.” Bekkink compared the level of spirit at her school in The Netherlands with the spirit at CHS. “We do not have school spirit. That’s why I wanted to come to an American High School because we do not have school sports,” she said.
A part of CHS that exchange students have taken advantage of this year is the clubs and sports. One of the main reasons why Bekkink wanted to go to school in the United States was because of the opportunities offered at school. “I wanted to come to an American high school because we do not have school sports,” she said. She is also involved in several clubs, including FCCLA, the International Club, and the Red-Cross Club. There were several exchange students, including Bekkink, that ran for the CHS cross-country team in the fall and plan to participate in spring sports. César, Miriam, and Bekkink plan to do track and Peqini, Potin, and Sawaengchokchai are going to try out for soccer.
Every other Thursday, the International Club meets in the library to socialize and play games. “It started with me kind of running it and then I usually have a student kind of be the leader. This year we have César,” said Onuoha. Saint Rose leads group discussions and organizes games for the students to play, like bingo. “It’s just like a community. I know they also meet outside of school, so they’ll go on trips to Portland or to the mountain,” said Onuoha.
As a result of the time difference between the United States and different parts of the world, it can often be difficult for exchange students to communicate with their families. Most of them call their parents on the weekends when they can coordinate with the time difference. Diez said that she talks to her parents four or five times per week. “I’m not supposed to do it so often, but for me it is necessary,” she said. On the other hand, Peqini purposely avoids talking to his parents during the week. “The more I think about them, the more I miss them. I try to just give myself a day with them. Every Sunday I call them,” he said.
Hosting an exchange student also affects the host family in a variety of different ways. Senior, Brielle Bradshaw, is hosting a Senior foreign exchange student, Lucas Potin, from France. “Hosting an exchange student is really like adopting another family member while also learning about a new culture. I feel like I’ve become so connected with people outside of my bubble because of this experience,” she wrote in a message. The Bradshaw family had hosted three exchange students before offering to host Potin. Bradshaw wrote that her family had a great experience hosting the previous three exchange students, and are having a good experience so far with Potin.
“It’s a great experience. I get to learn a lot about another person’s life and I get to help them go through life in a different country. It’s a blessing that I am glad me and my family were able to have. It’s also really nice having a person around my age stay with us and be someone that I can hang with and talk to,” said Sophomore, Aidan Montigny, wrote about hosting an exchange student, Saint Rose, in a Snapchat message. Bradshaw highly recommends hosting an exchange student. She wrote that it is a lot of work, but the rewards of learning a different culture and forming a life-long friendship are worth it.
The exchange students this year have taken full advantage of all the programs CHS has to offer. Several of them participate in clubs and sports. They take full advantage of their opportunity by getting themselves involved at school and in the community. CHS students enjoy having them around campus. “I like how they are coming from other countries. We are seeing a variety of people and that’s nice,” said Brady Ellis. Most of the exchange students have about four to five months left in the United States before they go back to their home countries.