- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004

Mirano Asai, 17, eagerly gets up from the dining room table just about every evening to do an activity most American teenagers would go out of their way to avoid.

She does the dishes.

“That’s her special thing,” says Dianne Bradley of Silver Spring, Mirano’s host mother. “That’s a chore that she claimed. … She really wanted to do it.” Mirano, a foreign exchange student, comes from Japan.

Ms. Bradley and husband, Maurice Zeeman, are veterans when it comes to being host parents. They have no children of their own, but Mirano, who attends John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, is their seventh child in nine years of hosting. So they know it’s important to let their “daughter” have a stake in the family routine.

Host families will tell you it’s the little things that matter most. Simple things like doing the dishes, signing a birthday card, sharing a meal together are important. These day-to-day activities can link individuals and families across cultures.

But in a world that has changed dramatically after September 11, what has happened to those intercultural relationships? Are foreign students still willing to come here? Are American families still willing to welcome strangers from other countries into their homes? Have the programs themselves changed?

The answer to all of the above is a resounding yes. Despite a few cancellations on both ends in the immediate months after September 11, student interest in studying here has never been stronger.

“I thought there would be a decrease in the number of students coming here, but I really didn’t see it,” Ms. Bradley says. She volunteers as an area representative for Youth for Understanding (YFU), a nonprofit group and one of the oldest student-exchange programs in the country.

The numbers seem to bear her out. Last year there were more than half a million international students in the United States, according to figures provided by the State Department’s Institute of International Education. Fifty-six percent hailed from Asia.

“Interest for inbound students has never been higher,” says Reid Rago, YFU director of development. “For most people, English fluency means marketability.”

Has the recent terrorist attack in Madrid affected YFU’s program in Spain?

No one has asked to be removed from the program, Mr. Rago says.

YFU’s program with Spain is not very large; one Spanish student is here on exchange, and five American students are over there, Mr. Rago says. Just one of the Americans is in Madrid, and that student was unaffected by the bombing, he adds.

YFU has a larger exchange program planned for the summer, when nearly 30 students will go to Spain. Most of the 30 will go to the northern part of the country, where YFU is based, Mr. Rago says.

To date, no adjustments have been made to the plans. Things may change, Mr. Rago says, if it turns out there is a “pattern of attacks.” Still, he’s optimistic that there will be few problems.

Student-exchange programs began in earnest after World War II. By the 1960s, American students and their foreign counterparts were happily trotting all over the globe.

Still, finding enough families willing to take a stranger into the house for a year has always been difficult. Those willing to tackle the challenge say the rewards are well worth the effort.

“Once they’re your kids, they’re always your kids,” Mrs. Bradley says. “I feel like we’ve built this little family. It’s just been wonderful.”

The Bradley-Zeeman household got its first exchange student, a girl from Japan, nine years ago, shortly after Mrs. Bradley began volunteering at YFU. Last year the couple attended her wedding in Japan.

“Her parents could not have been more wonderful,” Mrs. Bradley says. “They kept saying, ‘You took care of our daughter.’”

The Bradley-Zeemans also have traveled extensively with another student’s parents, stayed in Germany with two more and hosted numerous reunions.

“You don’t exactly let go when the program is over,” Mrs. Bradley says.

There has been one dramatic change since the globe-trotting 1960s, however: American students are far less willing to go overseas.

“Why should I want to go over there?” says a Walt Whitman High School junior who doesn’t want to be identified for privacy reasons. “I’d have to leave my friends, my car, eat funny food. I’ve got everything I need right here.”

Last year, about 29,000 high school students came to America from other countries. Only about 6,000 were outbound, says John Hishmeh, executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel.

“There’s a definite cultural difference,” he says.

When American students do travel, the time they spend overseas is often considerably shorter, confined to two-week-long stints or a couple of summer months, and school is only part of the picture.

Bethesda’s Chevy-Chase High School, for example, hosts about 30 French students for a couple of weeks in the fall and then sends about 30 of its own students enrolled in upper-level French courses to France in the spring. Washington Episcopal School boasts a similar program for its eighth-grade French students, a two-week jaunt that places students with host families.

For some American students, it was an eye-opening experience.

“The food there was just amazing,” Zoe Ahmad, 15, says of her time in France. The Northwest teen attended Washington Episcopal School last year. “I couldn’t believe it. The mom cooked everything.”

Success depended a lot on how willing students were to put aside the familiar.

“Some stuff was hard to get used to,” says Lynne Miller, 14, of Northwest. “But if you’re flexible, you can get used to anything.”

That’s good advice, especially for students coming here who have to cope with new regulations imposed in the wake of September 11. A new automated system, SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System), requires every foreign student to be entered into a database that will track compliance and alert authorities in the event of unanticipated “changes in status,” such as failure to enroll or carry a full course load, for example.

In the meantime, new visa regulations that require a personal interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate can pose problems and added costs for students living in rural areas.

“Not every kid lives in a city with an embassy or consulate,” says Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange. “It’s like asking someone who lives in Denver to go to Los Angeles for an interview.”

Industry insiders fear that because of the added hassles and costs, American programs will no longer be competitive with exchange programs from other countries.

“It’s important to strike the right balance,” Mr. McCarry says. “Exchange is really a long-term policy investment. You want to have people come here, have a positive experience, go home and spread the word.”

To that end, new programs have been created to attract foreign students, particularly those from Muslim countries, here. Many come from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. These include the Partnership for Learning Youth Exchange and Study (YES), part of the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative, which brings high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend a year with American host families.

Then there’s the Future Leader Exchange, (Flex), which brings in students from Muslim countries of the former Soviet Union.

It’s a sort of “democratic domino effect” that officials hope will go a long way toward bridging the cultural divide. There probably is no better way to get to know America than through Americans, not through movies and music videos.

“People are more resilient than we give them credit for,” Mr. Hishmeh says. “Sometimes high school students have more sense than adults.”

The real problem, he says, has been the economy: With spending responsibilities shifted to states now operating on a deficit, funding for exchange programs can be in jeopardy.

That’s why it’s important to think beyond the short term.

“These programs will help national security in the long run,” Mr. Hishmeh says. “We’re building better relations through human relations.”

Those same kind of human relations can get foreign students through a difficult adjustment period, no matter how pumped they are for the experience.

For many students, the biggest change is not the fall fashions or the fast food but the kinds of teaching methods used in American schools.

“They’re so surprised,” Mrs. Bradley says. “They’re used to lecture, memorize, regurgitate. Instead, they get projects, group work and presentations.”

One of Mrs. Bradley’s students, a Russian, was astounded that teachers actually smiled and joked with students.

Still, most students acclimate fairly quickly.

“You know they’ve learned English when they start using slang,” she says with a laugh.

The real problem, Mrs. Bradley says, is when it’s time to go home.

“I think it’s actually harder to go back than to come here,” she says. “They think everything is going to be the same when they go home. But they’ve changed, and the people there have changed.”

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• “THE EXCHANGE STUDENT SURVIVAL KIT,” BY BETTINA HANSEL, INTERCULTURAL PRESS, 1993. THIS BOOK HELPS EXCHANGE STUDENTS WITH THEIR PREPARATIONS, COVERING TOPICS SUCH AS SETTLING IN, HOMESICKNESS, CULTURE SHOCK, MAKING FRIENDS, LEARNING THE LANGUAGE, GETTING READY TO LEAVE AND THE “REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK” THAT CAN OCCUR WHEN A STUDENT RETURNS HOME.

• “HOST FAMILY SURVIVAL KIT: A GUIDE FOR AMERICAN HOST FAMILIES,” BY NANCY KING AND KEN HUFF, INTERCULTURAL PRESS, 1997. THIS BOOK OFFERS PROSPECTIVE HOST FAMILIES A GUIDE TO WHAT TO EXPECT, COVERING TOPICS SUCH AS SHARING YOUR HOME, ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES, HOST CHILDREN’S REACTIONS, THE ADJUSTMENT CYCLE, AND COMMUNICATION.

• “GETTING THE MOST FROM STUDY ABROAD,” EDITED BY MICHAEL GALLANT, NATAVI GUIDES, 2002. THIS GUIDE, FROM THE “STUDENTS HELPING STUDENTS” SERIES, OFFERS REALISTIC SUGGESTIONS TO HELP EXCHANGE STUDENTS GET THE MOST OUT OF THEIR STUDY ABROAD EXPERIENCE.

ONLINE —

• THE COUNCIL ON STANDARDS FOR INTERNATIONAL EDUCATIONAL TRAVEL (WWW.CSIET.ORG) IS A NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT PROVIDES INFORMATION ABOUT 75 EXCHANGE PROGRAMS. THE LISTING FOR EACH PROGRAM INCLUDES INFORMATION ON COUNTRIES SERVED, COST AND FINANCIAL AID OPPORTUNITIES.

• AMERICAN FIELD SERVICE SENDS MORE THAN 10,000 STUDENTS, YOUNG ADULTS AND TEACHERS ABROAD EACH YEAR. THE WEB SITE (WWW.AFS.ORG) LISTS PROGRAMS AVAILABLE, INFORMATION ON WHAT IS INCLUDED IN THE COST OF THE PROGRAM AND LINKS TO THE WEB SITES OF AFS PROGRAMS WORLDWIDE.

• THE ALLIANCE FOR INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION AND CULTURAL EXCHANGE (WWW.ALLIANCE-EXCHANGE.ORG) IS AN ASSOCIATION OF NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS INVOLVED IN INTERNATIONAL EDUCATIONAL AND CULTURAL EXCHANGE PROGRAMS. IT PRODUCES AN ANNUAL DIRECTORY OF EXCHANGE PROGRAMS.

• YOUTH FOR UNDERSTANDING (WWW.YFU.ORG) IS A NONPROFIT EDUCATIONAL ORGANIZATION THAT USES EXCHANGE PROGRAMS TO PREPARE YOUNG PEOPLE FOR THE RESPONSIBILITIES AND CHALLENGES OF BELONGING TO TODAY’S INTERDEPENDENT GLOBAL COMMUNITY. IT OFFERS INFORMATION TO STUDENTS, HOST FAMILIES AND VOLUNTEERS.

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