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New England has welcomed 9 foreign-exchange students

NEW ENGLAND -- At the beginning of the school year, Maria Cardoso, a foreign-exchange student, texted her host father, a pastor in New England, saying she needed a calculator and a rubber.

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New England welcomed nine foreign exchange students this year. From left to right: Francesca Rollo (Italy), Maria Cardoso (Portugal), Thachita Harfst (Germany), Tamar Antia (Georgia), Yuuka Taniguchi (Japan), Juan Vidal (Spain), Charles Paim (France), Déjan Tasdelen (Denmark) and Sinapong Sintucharun (Thailand). Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press.

NEW ENGLAND -- At the beginning of the school year, Maria Cardoso, a foreign-exchange student, texted her host father, a pastor in New England, saying she needed a calculator and a rubber.

But the meaning of the term “rubber” was humorously lost in translation between the two nationalities.

Maria is one of nine foreign-exchange students from all over the world in New England High School’s junior class. They come from Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, Japan, Denmark, Georgia, Spain and Thailand.

These students came to improve their English, see a different way of life and to challenge themselves as they live with an American host family for 10 months. But this immersion does come with some cultural differences and shocks.

For example, Maria’s teacher in Portugal had taught her that “rubber” was an English word for eraser. Once she realized the miscommunication, she said she never intended to use the word “rubber” again -- even when she returned home.

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The program All nine exchange students were placed in the U.S. through a company called ASSE International Student Exchange. The company has local area representatives all over the nation who work with families interested in hosting international students.

ASSE interviews potential families, evaluates their application, screens their home, goes over the rules and sends in the family’s information for a criminal background check, said Jessica Eisenbarth, an ASSE area representative in New England. She is one of the two representatives in the area for the New England exchange students and is also hosting two of the students in her home this year.

ASSE does not provide any financial compensation to hosts and is one of the only organizations of its kind that is nationally accredited with the U.S. Department of State.

Hosts must provide a bed with a mattress for the student, though the student may share a room with a host sibling. The family must also provide meals at home, but the student is responsible their own medical and liability insurance, and brings their own money for school lunches, school fees, activity fees and all other expenses. The host family is only responsible for opening their home to the student, Eisenbarth said.

Once a host family has been accepted into the program, she then begins working with them to help choose a student to host. Host families may request to host a boy or girl, someone from a specific country, even someone with certain interests. As the company receives applications throughout the year, it divvies them up between the different regions across the nation. From the pool in each region, hosts can review students’ applications with ASSE’s representatives to look for an appropriate fit. Families can opt to host two students as well.

A host’s experience This year the Eisenbarths are hosting a girl from Germany, Thachita Harfst, and a boy from Denmark, Déjan Tasdelen.

Thachita came from a more rural village while Déjan comes from Copenhagen, his nation’s capital. Eisenbarth said the transition to such a small school and community was easier for Thachita as a result.

She also has three children of her own. Her 10-year-old son was especially excited about the prospect of getting another sibling, having always wanted a brother. The family matched with Thachita early but toward the end of the selection period they decided to also host a boy, which elated her son who would finally get his big brother, she said.

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Ultimately, Eisenbarth said she wanted her children to experience more culture and diversity by hosting these students. Thachita and Déjan often talk to their families and friends on the weekends, and her family has met them over Skype. Her kids have since decided that their family needs to go to Europe next year to visit, she said.

Eisenbarth enjoys showing the students American culture as well. She and her daughter took Thachita horseback riding while her husband and son took Déjan hunting for the first time.

“You learn so much, and they’re so kind and helpful,” she said. “They’re just really, really good kids. They set a good example for our kids too, you know. They’re very studious. … There’s not many 15- and 16-year-olds that would go across the ocean for 10 months, you know? They’re special kids.”

Special kids All nine of the exchange students went through application processes unique to their country or programs.

Juan Vidal, from Spain, said 9,000 students went through the first round of his application process, during which they took an exam. About 1,500 of them moved onto the second round when interviewers questioned the students about why they wanted to study abroad, to which they could only answer in English. In the end, about 500 students were selected to study in the U.S. and Canada, he said.

He skipped class when he knew the results would be posted and went to the library with his friend to look them up. They started yelling in the library when he saw he had been accepted to study in America.

Some students were awarded scholarships before coming to study in the U.S. Déjan said he decided he wanted to come about a year ago, got a job at a grocery store and began saving money over the course of the year. He ended up paying for about half of his trip and expenses out of his own pocket.

“It has been a hard, rough and tough year before I came, but it’s definitely worth it,” he said. “All my friends told me that I was cool, and my teachers were really proud of me. When I left from the airport, nobody cried or anything which was great because it got to be a happy journey rather than a sad farewell to me. So they have really been supportive to me and told me that it was cool, and that I was mature enough.”

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Tamar Antia, a girl from the country of Georgia – which she said she often has to differentiate from the state – said she had always dreamed of coming to America, partially because of what she knew about American life from American movies. Every Georgian kid’s dream is to have a locker, she said. She also loves hamburgers.

“I like school very much here,” Tamar said. “It’s very good. I can’t understand why American kids hate school because we don’t have as much homework as in Georgia. In Georgia we have many homework, many things to learn.

“But here it is less and you have time to do them at school like when you have study hall. I like school here. I like everything here, just the weather is cold. But I like that too because Christmas will be great.”

Tamar and Yuuka Taniguchi, a girl from Japan, actually live with a host family in Dickinson, but still go to New England for school.

Eisenbarth said that Dickinson High School decided not to take foreign-exchange students this year, something that the district was hinting at last spring. She asked New England if they would be willing to take the girls just in case, not wanting to have to tell their host family that they would not be able to host this year. New England agreed, and already had a bus that stopped in Dickinson and would be able to transport the girls without any additional expense.

Maria and Francesca Rollo, a girl from Italy, live with the same host family and both said coming to America had always been their dreams. They knew they would not be afraid to come, but just hoped that their parents would say yes.

While Maria said she came with high expectations, Francesca said she had tried not to have any in order to let herself be surprised when she got here.

“Now I am living the American dream, and it’s better than the things I could have ever imagined,” Francesca said.

Adjusting to North Dakota Several of the students admitted that they had never heard of North Dakota before they found out it was where they were being placed.
Thachita said she was a little disheartened when she first found out, but that disappointment vanished as soon as she began speaking to her host family. She’s enjoyed the small town of about 700 people and a school where everyone knows everyone.

“I’m very excited, and I’ve learned a lot of new things here and experienced new things,” she said. “It’s like a country or cowboy movie here, like everybody wears cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. It’s kind of cool.”

The first few weeks were the hardest, Thachita said, and she was in more frequent contact with her family and friends back in Germany. All the students want to be friends with the foreign-exchange students, but this can be harder when there are nine of them, she said. She has since limited her communication back home to focus more on her life here in the states.

“Sometimes you have like times where you miss your family and you’re kind of sad but that goes away very fast because you always have something to do, and my host family is great, and I always have fun with them or with my friends,” she said.

Juan said he loves Spain so much and really misses his friends and family. He sometimes worries that something will go wrong back home and he will be unable to be there to help. But these concerns and homesickness are ebbing with time.

He said he really wanted to challenge himself in moving somewhere new where no one knew him. He noted the importance of feeling lost in an unfamiliar world with little understanding as to what is going on around you. This is how you grow, he said. Even after only two months, he has already noticed how much he has learned through the people he has met and the experiences he has had here.

Other students have not felt homesick at all yet. Maria said she understands that she is only here for a year and intends to focus on enjoying every moment before she has to return home.

The students are required to take an English and an American history and government class, but they can tailor the rest of their schedules to whatever other classes they wish or need to take. Juan said his school in Spain is more rigorous, so he brought books with him to help him prepare to return home. Some students also have the option of repeating their junior year when they return home or moving on, though some have to pass a test in order to do so, Eisenbarth said.

Spending a year in the U.S. has long-term benefits for the students as well because of the English skills they will gain during their time here. Juan pointed out Spain’s struggling economy and said that his year here will make him an even stronger candidate down the line when applying for jobs, even for looking at jobs in other countries.

The students have also gotten involved in sports and activities, which have helped ease the transition into the new environment.

Francesca said one of her favorite things is the importance Americans put on activities outside of the classroom, noting that students can get scholarships in sports and music, and focus on talents outside of just academics. Eisenbarth noted that the boys basketball players were especially excited for Juan to join the team after playing with him in open gyms, adding he will be a strong addition to the team.

The exchange students also help teach and diversify the school and community as well.

Bambi Mansfield, the school’s art teacher and librarian, said she now tailors her assignments to get the students thinking and learning about their heritages as a result. Her goal is to bring students together by celebrating what is similar.  

New England has only had two exchange students the past two years, but the experience has been so positive the superintendent, Kelly Koppinger, has not put a ceiling on the number of exchange students he will take.

“I think like most North Dakota schools, just the diversity that it affords our system,” Koppinger said. “I think it is a huge benefit to our students being able to be exposed to students of different cultures and different countries, and I am hoping that their experience is as positive for the foreign-exchange students that it is for our kids. It seems after a couple of days they assimilate pretty well into our culture, and I’m hoping that they can bring some insight as far as where they come from to our student population as well.”  

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