An Exciting Year for Jenison High School Exchange Students

From Left:  Ana, Kristina, Alex + Alex

From Left: Ana, Kristina, Alex + Alex

Leaving your family, culture and country may seem like a daunting idea, especially for a high school student, but it didn’t seem to phase the 18 students who have come to Jenison this year through various international exchange programs.  It is a special opportunity for these students to be part of a Jenison family, experience American culture and learn alongside their American peers in school.

Just like Jenison students, the foreign exchange students are able to choose their classes for the year, something some of they say is very different from their home countries where curriculum and class choices are made for you based on government requirements.  Terry Dykstra, Jenison High School Guidance Counselor, their main contact, says that the opportunity to choose your own classes and direction of study can sometimes be overwhelming.  But once the idea of choosing a subject that interests you settles in, the students begin to enjoy this unique aspect of American learning.  “It’s a way to direct yourself.  I’m a senior in Brazil too and I don’t know what exactly I’m going to do in college and I think the way you can pick classes here helps you a lot and I think that’s very cool.”  Alex Hamade, Brazil

This isn’t the first time that Kristina Blahakova has left her home in the Czech Republic.  Two years ago she was an exchange student in France and her brother had spent a year of his high school career in Minnesota so it was an easy decision to come to America for her own adventure.  “I wanted to try it because it’s a really good experience.  The people are really friendly, everyone is positive and smiling and it’s really a positive place.”  And despite what parents might see, “People here are happy even though they go to school.”  according to Ana Botella from Spain.

For Alex Hamade, it seems that it was always meant to be that his story included a year in Jenison.  When his mom was younger she had the opportunity to do an exchange program like her sister but she chose not to and has regretted that decision every since.  She encouraged Alex not to make the same mistake which was easy to do because Alex’s older brother spent a year in Jenison seven years ago with the same host family that is hosting Alex.  This year abroad also gives him a unique academic opportunity when he returns to Brazil as a graduated senior.  His classmates will still be in school but he will have six months to prepare for the government college entrance exam [similar to the ACT or SAT] without the extra burden of also managing a full class load.

Alex, Ana + Kristina with Mr Dykstra

Alex [from Brazil], Ana + Kristina with Mr Dykstra

The students are taking full advantage of Jenison athletics and Michigan travel destinations.  They’ve visited Lake Michigan, Frankenmuth and each of them have taken turns snowboarding and skiing at Cannonsburg.  While Alex from Brazil found his background in wake boarding helpful, Alex Shevchenko from Ukraine says with a laugh, “It was a fail for me.’  Ana starts on the girls JV basketball team, Kristina was a member of the Cross Country team, Alex Hamade helped the JV soccer team win the conference and he plans to join the track team in the spring.

Mr. Dykstra says some of the biggest challenges exchange students face is their expectations based on Hollywood or the media.  “When they come to Jenison, Michigan it can be culture shock in some ways, but the kids really do well and are placed in welcoming homes and, homesickness is not an issue.”

“I am incredibly grateful for the open arms of welcome that this community has provided over the years and continues to provide.”  Together with the students visiting through the Jenison International Academy, there are 30 international students at Jenison this year and “there isn’t a high school around that even comes near that unless their focus is international students.”  Historically, Mr. Dykstra has worked with over 600 international students and “these kids come with a huge desire to experience America.  That is so overwhelming to me…this country still represents a goal for these kids.”

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 We are glad all of our international students are with us this year!  May your year be filled with adventures, learning and new friendships!

2 comments on “An Exciting Year for Jenison High School Exchange Students

  1. My youngest son had many of the exchange students as friends and got to visit 2 of them when he studied abroad last summer as a student at WMU. I also enjoyed meeting the many students when they came to hang out at our house!

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