By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON
---- — PLATTSBURGH — For Valarie Schulz and her daughters, hosting a Norwegian exchange student was an experience filled with cultural enlightenment and heartfelt connections.
“It makes me cry when I think about her,” Valarie said of Janita Hansen, who was 16 when she came to stay with the Schulzes in their Malone home for 10 months through Ayusa International in 2011.
The 30-year-old nonprofit organization is a U.S Department of State-designated exchange sponsor that offers cultural exchange and leadership programs for high-school students around the world.
Though Valarie was leery at first to open her home to a foreign stranger for an extended period of time, the experience had such a positive impact on her and her family that she now acts as a community representative for Ayusa, recruiting and providing support to area host families.
“It’s really great for the kids (daughters Deanna and Monica) and the family itself because it’s a connection you never let go of.
“I just can’t say enough good things about it,” Valerie said of the program, which is currently seeking families in Malone, North Bangor and Fort Covington to host exchange students ages 15 through 18 for the 2013-14 school year.
A LOVING HOME
“A host family is really anyone age 25 or older that is open to cultural exchange and can provide a loving home, three meals a day and a safe environment,” said Ayusa North East Regional Manager Kathy Edenzon.
Hosts, who must also provide students with either a private bedroom or one shared with a host sibling of the same gender, as well as necessary transportation, may include single individuals, retired couples, families with or without children, and gay couples.
“We really do want to expose our high-school exchange students to the full scope of what a family could be in America,” Edenzon said.
Hailing from more than 60 countries, including Ecuador, Denmark, France, Thailand, Japan, Morocco and Spain, Ayusa students are proficient in English and come to the United States with their own insurance and spending money.
In order to participate in the program, they must have a qualifying GPA and come recommended by their teachers and community members.
Hosts may specify the gender and nationality they wish their student to be, as well as interests they hope to have in common, and Ayusa will do its best to make appropriate matches.
Hosts may also view profiles of Ayusa students and make a selection themselves.
“It’s really nice to incorporate a little different culture in your home,” said Valarie, who recalled how Janita prepared Norwegian food for her and Deanna and Monica, who were 17 and 20 at the time, respectively.
Though Monica was away at college during Janita’s stay and came home on weekends, Deanna and Janita attended school together at Franklin Academy and spent a great deal of time with one another, even visiting Lake Placid, Albany and Montreal’s Jazz Festival.
“They literally thought of each other as sisters,” Valarie said.
HARD TO SAY GOODBYE
In addition to working with hosts and their guests for the duration of the program, Ayusa representatives arrange for exchange students to attend a local school.
While most spend the entire school year with their host families, according to Edenzon, some choose to visit for only a semester.
Participating in the program, she noted, is a great way for host families, exchange students and members of local communities to learn about the similarities and differences between their culture and another.
“You have to really work on problem solving and trying to understand the other person’s perspective,” Edenzon said.
Still, Valarie noted, “the hardest part of the program is saying goodbye.”
The Schulzes, however, speak with Janita often, which, Edenzon said, is common among former hosts and their students.
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TO LEARN MORE
Learn more about hosting an international student and find an online hosting application at ayusa.org.
The deadline to match students with hosts is Saturday, Aug. 31, and applications can take a couple of days to process.
Potential hosts must also submit to and pass a criminal background check in order to participate in the program.
For more information, contact Valerie Schulz at 483-8653 or 483-0855 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.