Help Create A Home Away From Home
● Published by Aimee Cormier
By Michelle Matthews Calloway | Sumbitted Photos
Here in Louisiana, we are extremely proud of our culture. A true melting pot, Southwest Louisiana is home to a diverse number of ethnic groups: Cajun, Creole, African, Latin and Laotian, just to name a few. With unique festivals and fairs, internationally celebrated cuisine and laissez les bon temps rouler philosophy, the flourishing state of Acadiana’s tourism industry is not unmerited.
Acadiana denizens have hearts as big as the local culture. They pride themselves on their reputation of never meeting a stranger. Tourists come and go, but some leap at the prospect of coming here to live, even if only for a year. For that reason, organizations such as the International Student Exchange enjoy tremendous success with placing students who are eager to call Acadiana their home away from home.
What Is International Student Exchange?
ISE USA is a non-profit organization bringing high school-aged exchange students to the United States to live with American host families. Founded in 1982, ISE is annually listed by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel. The organization is also designated by the Department of State as an official sponsor of the Exchange Visitor Program.
The goals of ISE include bringing people of the world closer together through student exchange and intercultural education. “We want other countries to know how great America, and Louisiana, is,” says ISE Area Representative Sheena L. Burley. “It’s an excellent opportunity for students from other countries to come to our area and learn firsthand about our wonderful culture,” she continues. “The students are placed in ‘real world’ families. They learn about our culture, and in turn, the host families and classmates learn about their culture.” Burley says ISE places dozens of exchange students around the state – and two of the students currently live in Acadiana.
How Are Students Selected?
All ISE students range in age from 15-18 years old. Each student must undergo careful screening, including personal interviews, evaluations and testing. “I had to take a test, and I was able to get into the program because I made a very high score,” says ISE student Binya Kanitroj of Bangkok, Thailand.
Students are also required to provide a biography and letter of application from their natural parents. Host families are able to view photographs, letters of reference, original school transcripts and medical records. ISE students bring their own spending money and are fully covered by medical insurance. They must also provide ISE and the host family with a signed letter of agreement to abide by the ISE program guidelines. “We rarely experience any problems with our students,” Burley assures. In addition to matching students with host families, Burley’s role includes serving as a liaison between ISE, the student and the host family.
Students must also meet a prescribed level of proficiency in reading, writing and speaking English. Nick van der Sande, from Den Haag (The Hague), Netherlands had to meet a strict English-speaking requirement to qualify for his program. For many ISE students, gaining increased fluency is a direct benefit of living with an English-speaking host family. “In my country, we view English as the language we must learn,” says Binya. “We start learning to speak English when we are in kindergarten.” Students coming to Acadiana have an added advantage, because depending on the host family they are assigned to, they may also learn how to speak some French.
Enjoying The Cultural Exchange
Binya, whose host family lives in Duson, is a junior at Acadiana High School. “I love it here!” she exclaims. She says she fits in well at AHS and was easily able to make friends. Nick’s host family lives in Abbeville, and he is a sophomore at Abbeville High School. He says he fit in easily at Abbeville High and appreciates the friendliness of the teachers and the students. “I went to the prom and had an amazing time,” he says. Nick also played on the school soccer team, ran cross-country and plans to play softball.
“I’ve had a chance to go ice skating, to take a swamp tour, to go to different festivals and even attended the homecoming dance,” Binya says happily. “In my own country, I would never get to do anything like that.” Binya has no problems eating Cajun and Creole cuisine, and finds distinct similarities in two main aspects of the food: the use of spicy seasonings and rice. “Our food in Thailand is spicy, and we eat rice at almost every meal,” she laughs. “So I really enjoy the food here.”
Enjoyment of the cultural exchange works both ways. “Having Binya in our home is so much fun,” says Karen Miguez. This is the second year she and her husband Whitney have participated in a student exchange program. “We’re learning a lot about Binya’s country and her customs, like what foods they eat.” Karen recounts a special tradition ISE students participated in during the Thanksgiving holidays. “We all met, and each student prepared a dish from their home country,” Miguez says. “There were about 30 of them from around the state, and it was a great experience to see all those cultures come together – and be exposed to all those different dishes.”
Interested In Becoming an ISE Host Family?
If reading about Binya, Nick and the student exchange program is piquing your interest, Burley encourages you to call her at the ISE office at your earliest opportunity. Applicants must pass a background check and home inspections, and have good references. Matching of the student and the host family is designed to place students with families expressing similar interests, personalities and hobbies. The host family’s financial obligation is minimal because students provide their own money for school fees and entertainment.
Host families must agree to provide a bed and a place for the student to study, and exchange students are allowed to share a room with a child of the same gender. The parents in Nick’s host family have two younger children. “I’m like the big brother,” Nick grins.
Burley emphasizes the fact that host families participating in ISE’s program represent the diversity of American culture. Host families are of varied economic, religious and racial backgrounds, and include working parents, couples without children, single parents, adoptive parents and empty nesters. “They don’t have to reflect the stereotypical American family, with two children and a home with a white picket fence,” Sheena says.
In addition to providing three meals a day, host families are required to provide an essential component, which is to treat the student as a family member. In addition to enriching and enlarging their own personal family and community, hosts gain the added advantage of making a friend for life in another country. “My daughter Kaitlyn loves Binya,” says Karen. “She’s looking forward to the day she can go to Thailand and visit her.”