On foreign soil

On foreign soil

When Maria Braendeland and Roberta Spanu first arrived in DeLand, fresh off the plane from Europe, the pace of their new school (enrollment: 60) and town (population: 446) was enough to make them question their decision to go on an American adventure.

Living in a country home surrounded by corn didn't help, either.

"Honestly, we hated it when we first got here. I was so sad," said Braendeland, a native of Norway who has been living with the Trimble family in DeLand since August.

"All we did was sit on Skype for weeks," said Spanu, Braendeland's foreign exchange sister from Italy.

But the feeling didn't last long. Growing up in big European cities and attending high schools of 2,000-plus, the culture shock wore off right after they quit Skype, stopped thinking about their boyfriends back home and joined the cheerleading team at DeLand-Weldon High School.

"Everything has really turned out to be great. It's all about what you make it, that's what I've learned this year," Braendeland said. "I've even started to prefer the small-town life over the big city.

"I may be more independent back home, but I never spend time with my family. You get to know everyone so well and everything is so family-focused here. It's really nice and so different from Europe."

As two of the 26 foreign exchange students from 14 countries spending this school year attending area high schools, the girls say they were surprised by how quickly they learned to love the Midwestern lifestyle. And their 24 counterparts around the area agree, with Brazilian Matheus "Mat" Pereira saying the most challenging part of adjusting to life at Tuscola High has been "getting used to the cold."

"The clothes I brought weren't warm enough, so I had to buy new ones," he said.

An extra dose of culture

Administrators at most of the area school districts not among the 13 hosting foreign-exchange students this year have expressed regret over not having any.

Even Heritage High Principal Ryan Peyton, who said his small Champaign County district is "excited" about the prospect of launching an exchange program next year despite Superintendent Tom Davis' recent declaration that he's against the idea.

At a Heritage school board meeting, Davis said he didn't want to devote "resources that are already limited to a student that is not from our country" and cited host families in the district having unpleasant experiences with exchange students.

The costs of hosting students from abroad are actually minimal, several area administrators say. If an exchange student establishes residency within a school district by living with a host family, the student does not have to pay tuition. The only costs the district could incur are from waiving registration fees and the need to redistribute the amount of money the school spends on each student.

The latter is why larger high schools like Champaign's Central and Centennial have had to cap how many exchange students they can accept, Centennial Principal Greg Johnson said.

Bringing an extra dose of culture to districts across central Illinois is worth it, said Tuscola Principal Brad Allen, whose school is hosting three foreign exchange students this year — from Austria, Italy and Brazil.

"The benefits of having a more diverse student body and having our students being able to interact with students from other countries, outweighs any of the perceived negatives," he said.

Students, families bear most of the cost

The bulk of the costs of spending a school year abroad falls on the traveling students and their families.

Depending which program a student chooses to travel through — be it a local Rotary club's Youth Exchange program or equally popular non-profits like the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) or Ayusa — a student can pay between $8,000 to $20,000 for 11 months abroad.

With Rotary's exchange program, local clubs pay about $2,000 toward hosting and provide students with a weekly stipend, said Stephanie Johnson, who administers Gibson City's Rotary Youth Exchange program. The CIEE hires local coordinators, like Betsy Barclay, who serves in the Champaign-Urbana area, to recruit host families, provide information to districts and facilitate outings and community service opportunities for exchange students.

Traveling students also risk discontinuing their academic careers. While students from Europe may be taking courses designed for seniors in the United States, they'll still have another year of school left when they return home since some European countries require 13 years of school to graduate, instead of 12. Braendeland says she may have to play a bit of catch up when she gets back to Norway because "European school is way harder" than what she's experienced at DeLand-Weldon, she said.

But the biggest sacrifice falls on the host families, who voluntarily adopt a new son or daughter for the course of the exchange student's stay.

Depending on the program, the host families are required to provide meals, room and board with no monetary compensation, according to Lisa Menees, a St. Joseph resident whose family is hosting an Italian student named Riccardo Reato through Ayusa. But Menees says she likes to make her exchange student feel part of the family and often goes above and beyond what is required by her program and even takes her student on trips to see different parts of the U.S.

"If we are going out to eat or on a trip as a family, we don't ask our own children to pay, so we don't expect our exchange student to pay either. ... I try to be 'mom' in the stands for whatever sports the students play, so they have someone cheering for them," she said. "Riccardo played football in the fall, and he is running track here in the spring. My own children don't play organized sports through the high school, so it's kind of fun for me to experience that side of high school, and to get to know other parents and participate in that aspect of the school."

Reato is the Menees family's second foreign exchange student since they began hosting last year. Lisa Menees's husband, Rob Menees, was a foreign exchange student himself back in high school and thought signing up to be a host family would be a nice way to give back to the family that cared for him while he lived in Sweden.

"For us, the most rewarding part of the experience of hosting an exchange student is the connections that are made around the world. ... It just seems to make the world a little bit smaller. We also get to learn about other cultures and how other families live in their day-to-day lives," she said.

The only difficult part of hosting an Italian teen: "Feeding him!"

"Riccardo is a very good eater, especially at dinner time. We don't typically have leftovers any more," she said. "There are of course other small challenges, like where and how to do laundry, working out bathroom schedules on school days and getting used to the routines of a new family. But I have to say, Ayusa does a great job of preparing these kids for the best experiences possible."

'Exactly like the TV shows'

Growing up in Spain, Miguel Fernandez Guerra has been exposed to American culture his whole life through TV shows, movies, music and advertisements.

"Americans have no idea how much influence the U.S. has on the rest of the world, both culturally and socially," he said.

Upon coming to the U.S. to spend a school year at Urbana High School, Guerra was curious to find out whether the stereotypes he's learned are true.

Most are.

"American high school is seriously exactly like the TV shows. I grew up watching 'Glee' and all the American movies like 'High School Musical.' ... It's amazing because it is exactly how you'd think," he said talking about school spirit and the different social groups that come out of sports and clubs.

But the negative stereotypes have proven to be false, Vlada Zahoruyko said, who is from Ukraine and also going to Urbana this year, saying people in Urbana are very "kind. ... Very educated and open-minded," she said.

Since her arrival in Danville, Denmark native Charlotte Skou has really enjoyed learning about American culture, taking English classes and even participating in school sports like soccer and swimming. She has always been taught Americans are very "nice and outgoing," a characterization she says "I really do agree with. Ever since I came here I have been introduced to so many new people and families and every single person I meet has been nice and friendly," she said.

Another stereotype she has to agree with: Americans are bad at geography.

"I must say that I sadly kind of have to agree with the geography part. Since I come from Denmark, a fairly small country in Scandinavia, no one really knows where Denmark actually is placed in the world. My friends over here still get confused about where Denmark actually is," she said. "A couple of days ago, my friend was convinced that Denmark actually is part of Germany and not a country on its own. But I do find it kind of funny."

We are the world

This spring, 26 students representing 14 foreign countries are spending the semester in East Central Illinois high schools. A county-by-county breakdown of the schools hosting foreign exchange students:


Urbana: 2 (Spain, Ukraine)

Champaign: 7 (Argentina, Germany, Pakistan)

St. Joseph-Ogden: 1 (Italy)

Rantoul: 1 (Mexico)

Mahomet-Seymour: 1 (Thailand)


DeLand-Weldon: 2 (Italy, Norway)


Arcola: 1 (Spain)

Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond: 1 (Finland)

Tuscola: 3 (Austria, Brazil, Italy)

Villa Grove: 2 (Germany)


Danville: 1 (Denmark)

Hoopeston Area: 2 (Germany, Poland)

Salt Fork: 2 (Germany, Norway)

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