Imagine leaving your home and everything you know, to be educated in a country that you’ve never been to before, in a language that isn’t your first. That’s what many students around the world do every year through student exchange programs.
At GS, new students come to GS every year from all over the world. This year, there are three students from different locations. Greta Schoenig is from Germany, Sophia Huang is from Taiwan and Hassan Almusaddar is from the Gaza Strip in Palestine. Students make the decision to become exchange students for many different reasons.
“I just can’t sit at home and just work for school,” Schoenig said. “I have to do something, and I love to travel, so I just decided to do this.”
Huang’s reason for doing the exchange program was similar to Schoenig’s.
“I wanted to experience the American life and school,” she said.
Almusaddar had a very different reason for joining the exchange program.
“[I joined the exchange program to] exchange my culture, and to clear stereotyping about the Middle East,” he said.
All of the exchange students say that the school system in place here is very different than the ones they have back home.
“I think the block system is interesting,” Schoenig said. “I can’t learn Spanish and AP Psych, some subjects are different. In Germany, you have to take the classes, and over here you can pick some.”
Almusaddar said he hadn’t heard of Law and Economics before coming to GS. Huang said that she doesn’t have Law and Economics, but she also mentioned that foods and gym classes are missing from her school’s curriculum. She stated many differences between America and Taiwan, such as the amount of homework and dismissal times, but said the biggest difference is the food.
“In Taiwan, we eat rice and noodles every day,” she said.
Being from other countries, exchange students don’t have the opportunity to be a part of activities at GS for all their high school years. They can join various clubs and teams while they’re here. Schoenig is a part of the girls’ tennis team, Almusaddar is a band manager and has plans to join the boys’ tennis team during their season this spring, while Huang is part of the girls’ basketball team.
“I play tennis, but that’s it,” Schoenig said. “I was thinking about getting involved, but I don’t know where.”
Coming from another country, these students need somewhere to stay. Junior Thomas Barnette-Contreras stepped up to the plate and is hosting one of these students, Almusaddar, through the American Field Service (AFS).
“Freshman year, I was pretty good friends with Wakako, from Japan,” Barnette-Contreras said. “One day I was having lunch in the library and she was passing around AFS bracelets to people. She gave one to me, and I had no idea what exchange program she was using, so I did a little more research on AFS and it piqued my interest. I never really considered hosting a student until recently, especially after the French exchange with the high school. I had such a good time with it that I thought maybe I could give a whole year a try.”
A lot goes into hosting an exchange student. The first thing you need to do is contact an AFS representative in the area. You receive an application for the hosting program. With the application, you need to register your family
with AFS and have multiple background checks done on all family members. There’s paperwork about your job, what you do and your daily routine. You have to send images of your house and family. The Westmoreland chapter leader has to come for a home visit before the student arrives, and there are continuous visits throughout the student’s stay. Barnette-Contreras has enjoyed hosting Almusaddar so far and has plans for what they’ll do for the rest of his stay in America.
“The best part of hosting is just showing him my daily routine and showing him all the spots that I like to go to,” he said. “I think he’s really been enjoying the spots we’ve been taking him so far, and we plan on taking him on trips throughout the year to see more of the country.”
The exchange program isn’t for everyone, but if you think you’re interested, contact AFS so a student can get a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It’s really nice having an exchange brother for a year,” Barnette-Contreras said. “I think it’s a really great experience being able to share my parents’ love and support for an entire year and giving him the best experience possible.”