When given the option to leave behind friends, family and familiarity, many of us might think twice. But for the sixteen exchange students living in Jenison this year, that is not the case. Leaving home and being challenged was just what they wanted.
For Bela Queiroz [Brazil] coming to America meant getting to know herself better as well as another country. “[I wanted to come] because I could have a different view of a country besides mine, meet new people, learn a new language, and get to know other cultures. I could also experience living by myself and learn how to take care of myself.”
Allie Kulakivska from Ukraine adds that she wanted to know what it was like to be outside of her comfort zone and be more responsible on her own. Fellow exchange student, John Askin from Germany agrees and says that he came to America “to experience life without your friends, without your parents, without your known environment and be on your own and see how life is and I think we’ve all changed a lot here.”
It can be easy for us to imagine that life in another country is always exotic and exciting but for Guilia Carra she had been feeling bored at home. “I live in a small town in Italy and it was really boring and I wanted to learn English better” and she wanted to experience American culture and see for herself how it compared to movies and music and can now say, “It’s so much cooler.”
During their school year students have become integrally involved in student life as well as within the community. As part of her exchange program, Allie has been spending a lot of her time volunteering with local organizations including: Love Inc, Girl Scouts, retirement homes, the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and the Humane Society. She has enjoyed teaching groups about Ukrainian culture and traditions and looks forward to exploring some of these newly discovered passions and interests when she returns home. She also hopes to bring some ideas like Mock Rock back to her student government [where she was President].
Bela and Guila took part in the recent theatre production of Shrek and all three girls are currently on the track team. John took the idea of “challenging himself” to a whole other level by joining Jenison’s first Lacrosse team never having played the game. Without school sports as part of their education back home this has been a cornerstone of the students time here enjoying Friday night football games, Pink Out and regular season basketball games.
Being an exchange student does have its difficult moments and when those times came it was easy to lean on JHS staff and their host families. “It can be really easy to get depressed but if you’re involved in different activities you don’t have time to think about it. [The host families and teachers] give us an opportunity to have this experience and I’m so thankful” says Allie. John knows that the lessons learned here will inform who he is for many years. “I think we exchange students become more responsible, more mature and we know what our life values are after being away from family. I think we know what to appreciate in our family, little things.”
The entire group wants to encourage Jenison students to “do an exchange year” and John adds, “Take every opportunity to get out of the country to experience new cultures, meet new people, try new food, just try it. Just do it. Say “yes”.”