Exchange student experiences abound

Seger

Local Clintonians are working to educate this community about the international students from Confucius International Education Group, who will be arriving this fall. Every Saturday, an editorial will appear in this space, written by people who are involved in this project and/or have experienced various cultures, languages, values and beliefs. This is a very exciting time for Clinton and together we can make sure all students and their families feel welcome. Diversity makes life richer for all of us!

Many families in this community have hosted exchange students. In 1985-86 my family became one of those host families. Our student came through the American Friends Service. It set standards for long-term visits, such as having a separate and private bedroom and desk and having a family member (our daughter) as a companion.

Our exchange student was from Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. Her family wanted her to come to improve her English, which certainly happened during the school year but the flip side of that was how much our family learned from welcoming her into our home. I am sure we learned more than she did!

Language barriers were one of the first hurdles. Our student’s name was Rosa. She quickly changed our pronunciation of her name. We wanted to say Rosa with a hard “s” (as in “rose”), but in her language the “s” became much softer (as in “blossom”). She carried a Spanish/English dictionary with her for a long time to help her communicate. Our students will have instant translations on their phones! We used a lot of hand gestures and drawing of pictures in the early days. It was not until she went to school every day that her skills with English really developed.

Rosa was quite eager to make friends at school. Our daughter was the same age, but the people Rosa related to were not always the people our daughter knew or liked. This difference in culture expanded our horizons. Peer acceptance was very important to her. I am very glad to know “ambassadors” have been found, not only for the Chinese students, but also for families who may accompany their children. This will be invaluable in smoothing the path for acceptance.

Rosa loved American food. It was distressing to her to know that it caused her to gain weight, but was a part of our culture that she enjoyed, not only to eat, but as a social time. She also expanded our food horizons as we learned to prepare more rice and bean dishes that were familiar to her.

Our family tried to give her the normal experiences of the year. Graduation for both Rosa and our daughter was fun. We had an open house with green punch for our daughter and red punch for Rosa. Shortly after that we took her on a canoe trip, which became unforgettable. The county conservation department offered canoes to families for a group float down the Wapsipinicon River. We were not experienced canoers and unfortunately loaded one with three people instead of two. As we came around a turn in the river our canoe capsized. We were able to hang on to the canoe until another group came along and helped us right the canoe and continue our journey. However, Rosa was screaming the entire time for help because she believed alligators were in the water, as they would have been in her country. This was another failure in communication, and I think she never trusted our explanations of anything after that “near miss” from disaster.

Before she went home we realized we had not taken her out of state. We planned a trip to Colorado to visit relatives and give her a sense of the spaciousness of the United States. She did enjoy the mountains and western views. Then it was time to put her on the bus to Texas to meet relatives that she would visit before going home.

Our contacts with Rosa since that year have been limited. She had grown up a lot and took her new skills in English home with her. Our daughter went on to college and life went on.

Now our community will have not one, but multiple “exchange” students to welcome in the coming years. I trust we will make many opportunities for them in social as well as academic circles. We should check with them often as to their understanding of our way of life and our understanding of theirs so that miscommunication can be minimized, friendships deepened, and in the end, all will be well.

Lois Seger is a graduate of University of Michigan. She is the former YWCA board president and retired from the YWCA Clinton as a special events and membership coordinator.