Imagine being on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean thousands of miles away from your family when a pandemic hits.
That’s what happened to several international exchange students who were attending Seymour High School this semester.
Students from at least two of those host families have gone back to their home countries earlier than planned.
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Margherita Rodeschini, 17, from Bergamo, Italy, arrived in Indiana in August 2019 and was living with Scott and Jennifer Miller. She was enrolled as a junior at the high school.
“Things have changed rapidly, and her program will not end the way it should have,” Jennifer said. “She was only supposed to be here for the first semester, but she extended to May because she wanted more time here.”
Jennifer said Margherita wanted to play tennis this spring and go to prom. Unfortunately, she had to leave earlier than planned due to COVID-19.
Margherita said she signed up for the International Student Exchange program because she wanted to improve her English.
“I also wanted to become more independent and autonomous, and I wanted to challenge myself by starting a new life, living with a new family and making new friends,” she said. “I decided to extend my stay here because I wanted to bond even more with my host family and my American friends, and overall, I felt like one semester in the American school was a sort of incomplete experience.”
Margherita said being in the United States during the pandemic was not easy at all, and she felt the need to talk to her family more often, usually through FaceTime.
“Before, I talked with them once a week, but I didn’t really feel the need and wasn’t anxious about that,” she said. “I wasn’t worried then, but now, I am, and they are worried about me knowing that I’m far away from home.”
She said Italy is not in the best situation now and her family is in quarantine, but they are healthy and doing great, which is the most important thing.
Jennifer, a social studies teacher at the Seymour Middle School Sixth Grade Center, has been working with the student exchange program since 2011. She and Scott’s first hosting experience led them to host every other year or so since 2012, welcoming students from Germany and the Netherlands and two from Belgium.
“Margherita is the fifth student that we have hosted, and it has been interesting because she has Scott as a U.S. history teacher at school and as a host parent, too,” Jennifer said.
Margherita said her American school couldn’t be more different from her Italian one. In Italy, they don’t have lockers or sports, and they go to school on Saturdays.
“We don’t get to pick the subjects we want to study, but instead, in eighth grade, we have to decide what type of school we want to go to,” she said. “For example, I go to a grammar school, and we always stay in the same classroom, and teachers have to move from one classroom to another.”
Her favorite class at Seymour High School was French because she said the teacher is nice and always helpful and she knew her classmates very well because it’s a two-semester class.
“I loved going to the football and basketball games with my friends, and in general, I love the activities organized by Seymour High School,” Margherita said. “I did conditioning for tennis with the other girls, and they were all super nice to me and we had a lot of fun there, and I was really looking forward to this tennis season and sad that won’t happen now, but I met a lot of friends here.”
As for hosting Margherita during the outbreak, Jennifer said she thinks it has been very educational for them to hear firsthand what her parents and friends in Italy tell her about what’s going on there.
“It is real what people are saying life is like in Italy, and what they were saying a month ago in Italy, people should’ve listened,” Jennifer said. “What her brother and sister experienced firsthand, their schools closed I think around the end of February but not right away, and when they closed, they didn’t close restaurants or shopping right away.”
Dave and Kendra Zumhingst hosted Alexander Christian Vieth, 16, from Denmark.
He was the family’s fourth exchange student. The others were from Germany in 2013, France in 2014 and Spain in 2017.
“We got started by someone asking me if we had ever thought of hosting,” Kendra said. “Dave and I had never had an overnight guest before hosting. Alexander fit in well quickly, as did all the others. They are immediately family, and my house is not boring. We have fun, and there is never a dull moment, and we have been blessed to never have a homesick kid.”
Kendra said Alexander kept in contact with his family back home in Gentofte, Denmark.
“Alex is a social kid who would talk to anyone, and he had impeccable English, so many times, people did not even realize he was Danish,” she said. “He gets along great with everyone, including our kids, Jadrix, 13, and then 11-year-old Krenzley was his best bud.”
Alexander said he made some good friends while he was here.
“I was a member of the boys tennis team and loved coach (Jordan) Morey, coach (Brad) Emerson, the players and managers,” Alexander said. “My favorite classes at the high school were biology and web design.”
He said he had asked Taylor Sutherland to prom, but he was going home before mid-May when prom was supposed to be rescheduled. It has since been canceled.
When Alexander was asked what and who he will miss the most, he said his host family, his friends, Dr. Pepper, Sonic and The Brooklyn Pizza Co. wings.
“He was devastated thinking Brooklyn Pizza was closed on Sunday night knowing it would be the last meal before going back,” Kendra said.
Alexander said he was sad to have the experience cut short, as he prepared to head back home to Denmark on March 23.
“There were many emotions and tears shed leading up to the departure day,” he said. “My family is doing OK and glad to have me home.”
Kendra said the student exchange is a great organization, and saying goodbye never hurts less.
“But that means that you have made a lasting connection, and they will forever be part of your family,” she said.
As of March 24, about half of the exchange students in the region had already returned home or had flights scheduled to go home by the end of March.
“Some are taking a little bit longer because they are trying to coordinate,” Jennifer said. “What we have learned is a lot of airports are operating at about 20%, so those huge crowds you usually would see at the airport, that’s not the case now, and in terms of travel, as long as the flight doesn’t get canceled, it’s a pretty safe time to be traveling using those precautions.”
She said in a time like this, the kids should be home with their families.
“I’d feel worse if someone was here and so far away from home and something happened to one of their immediate family members and they couldn’t be home with them if we didn’t send them when we could have done so,” she said.
Margherita left for home April 1 from Louisville, Kentucky. Her flight was canceled from Indianapolis to New York.
“Luckily, we learned of it the night before, and I spent an hour on the phone with Delta back and forth getting her switched to Louisville,” Jennifer said. “She was able to go through Atlanta to get to JFK for her flight to Rome and then on to Milan.”
With everything going on, Jennifer said it’s important to remember this will eventually pass, and the exchange program will return to normal.
“It’s important to keep the world connected and support people in other countries no matter where they are,” she said. “I think that’s going to be important to remember long after this group of kids go home and we all struggle with the virus and come to some sort of resolution with it.”
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Host families for International Student Exchange come in all shapes and sizes, but they all share one thing in common — the excitement of bringing in an international student as another member of the family and attending their district public high school.
Exchange students are between 15 and 18½ years old and come from more than 60 countries.
They come fully insured, including a medical policy, and stay for either five or 10 months.
The students must be proficient in English to apply for the program, and many speak multiple languages.
When the school agrees to accept the student, he or she will be treated like any other student, including counting in enrollment numbers.
Host families share the following traits:
- Interested in sharing our culture
- Encouraging and helpful
- Mature and stable
- Patient and accepting in sharing our culture
- Enough space for a student’s bed and room
Related blogs with more information:
- 7 Reasons to Host a Student: iseusa.org/7-reasons-host-an-exchange-student
- 5 Questions Everyone Has About Hosting: iseusa.org/what-like-to-host-exchange-student-questions-answers
- The 6 Most Common Fears for Prospective Host Families and How to Overcome Them: iseusa.org/why-host-exchange-student-fears-tip
To learn more about International Student Exchange, visit hoosierhills.iseusa.org.
Families interested in hosting an international student for Seymour High School during the 2020-21 school year can contact Jennifer Miller, Hoosier Hills regional manager, by emailing [email protected] or calling 812-521-4904.