October 22, 2018
Traveling out of your comfort zone can be frightening for some, but leaving your home country to live with strangers and speak an unfamiliar language is much more terrifying. Exchange students all over the world experience this feeling every year. They go to an unknown land where everyone looks, speaks and acts entirely different from themselves. It’s a whole new experience for them, something they have ever done before. The journey here and the stay are both long and full of many memories.
I, personally, have had the opportunity to speak to several of these students over the years, and some I’ve even had the chance to become friends with. Through this, I was able to learn about how they felt having the opportunity to travel so far from home. This also lead to them admitting the struggles and triumphs of their stay. I learned about how they felt coming to a new school and meeting new people. Not only that, but how it was experiencing America for the very first time.
Many foreigners across the U.S. do have a satisfying experience, but there are also many challenges they face along the way. I found that there are many of their peers within the school that aren’t able to get the chance to understand these many challenges or to get to know the foreigners. My goal is to help more of my peers come to understand what it is like to be an exchange student.
This year at Martinsville High School, there are quite a few new kids that have traveled from thousands of miles away. These students work for months to a year at a time to get to America. There is also a long checklist of things they must accomplish before making the big trip.
The process of coming to America is quite lengthy. To go somewhere and become a part of an exchange program, you need more than a passport. A student attending the school currently, Sandra Fernandez, said, “ I needed to fill out a lot of papers before coming to the U.S.” I find this to be a reoccurring theme with the foreigners I’ve spoken to. Many of them say that in order to get to America they must fill out papers, visit the hospital (to get vaccines and such), get a visa, a passport and so on. The process takes a while, but to most, it is all worth the wait of coming here and meeting their host family.
Before they can meet their family, these kids typically message them via email or social media. This is so they can get to know them more before the actual meeting. It also can make the family and the student both excited and nervous. This creates a lot of anticipation. Sandra told me that it was incredible to meet them since they were only able to talk on Instagram beforehand. The step that follows is making new friends.
Making friends is not the easiest thing. It can be difficult, especially if you’re in the process of coming to understand this new culture. William Makino, a former exchange student from Brazil, admitted that this was hard for him. He expressed how thankful he was to be on the soccer team which allowed him to make friends. Multiple foreigners struggle with meeting new people, but with the help of sports and clubs, they are able to make new connections that are unlike the ones at home.
After some time, the homesickness hits. Some students miss home, but not so much to leave them in tears, while it hits other students hard. Last school year I talked to many of these students about how they felt about being away from home. All of the answers were pretty similar. They often missed their family, friends, traditions, and activities from back home. It’s hard to adapt to this new way of life and get used to the customs. America is a country unlike any other and becoming accustomed to this life can be a challenge.
Previous and new students have pointed things out that are completely unlike their homes. Something I’ve heard over the years is that in other countries the teacher will often change classrooms whilst the students do not. In America, we do the opposite. That is just one example out of the many, though.
The final thing that might be the hardest for some students is discrimination. Not all foreign exchange students will experience this; it’s usually only a handful of them. Several students who’ve experienced these things were typically understanding about it in the end. More than anything, they hoped to make friends with these people so they can teach them about their culture while learning about America’s at the same time. It was a tough situation, but they learned to work through it.
Leaving home and going to another country is an experience like no other. There are hardships and challenges, but there are also beautiful and unique experiences they will remember for a lifetime. There are connections that will be made. It’s hard work, for sure. From what I know, though, they wouldn’t change it for the world.