American Teenage experience – 6,563 miles from home

Just as the school year was getting underway for our community, we greeted a new group of friends for a brief exchange student program. While Jenison Public Schools has a rich and diverse history of welcoming international students over the past 30 years to Jenison High School, this short term experience is fairly new and slightly different.

In the 4th year of our partnership with the Rotman Education Technology Group, it was an absolute privilege to welcome 23 students from Beijing#12 school. These students are in their Junior year and already part of an international program, giving them some amazing global study abroad experiences. They arrived on September 27 and met the families with whom they would live. In true Jenison fashion, these amazing, hospitable folks embraced them with open arms. We cannot thank these families enough for opening their homes and caring for these students so deeply!

Between choosing and attending classes, field trip events and Homecoming celebrations, the Beijing students had a packed (but fun) schedule. Attending American high school gave them a taste of American teenage culture and they learned alot about the cultural differences between America and China. The Beijing students also felt that they gained confidence in speaking English with their new American friends, which they think will be beneficial in continuing their studies in China. A huge thank you to our Jenison students who took the time to get to know their global peers and help them along during their days.


Beijing #12 students at the start of a very busy two weeks. Many use this short term trip to decide if they’d like to return to the states for a long term exchange program.


Beijing students visiting downtown Grand Rapids for ArtPrize. Another favorite outing was shopping at the local mall for souvenirs to bring home.


The enjoyed participating in Spirit Week leading up to Homecoming. Here they are, all dressed up and very excited to experience the 2018 Jenison Homecoming dance.

There’s no doubt that the students from Beijing benefit greatly from this program; but what about the students that call Jenison “home”?


Emily Kaminski and a Beijing student at the closing ceremony.

Emily Kaminski, International Coordinator for this program through our Jenison International Academy shares, “Our exchange programs provide an opportunity for the Jenison community to experience and learn about a different culture, both in and out of the classroom. We believe it breaks down assumptions and preconceived notions we may have about a specific culture, and helps us see our similarities as well. At the core we are all people – and we see Jenison students being stretched and enlightened.”

“Concluding the visit, the students celebrate with their host families with a Closing Ceremony. I (Emily) saw families tearing up knowing their new family member was departing the next day. After just 2 weeks I heard the term ‘love’, and witnessed it many times between students and their host families! These interactions help me remember why we put all the work in for these exchanges…  Bringing people together, and creating meaningful, heartfelt relationships, that would not otherwise exist!”

There is much to gain and so many life lessons to be learned from each other through programs like these. We are eager to broaden horizons and build meaningful and lasting relationships with the students we are privileged to serve – domestic and abroad. As Emily said, when we take the time to see each other as fellow people, it simply puts us in a position to make the world a better place, that’s a win-win and worth every effort.

To see many more photos and videos of the Beijing #12 visit, check out the Rotman Education facebook page.

As the Jenison student exchange programs continue to grow, the need for Host Families (short and long term) grows as well.  If you’re interested in learning more or becoming a Host Family for one of these brave international students, please contact Jessie Clay at or (616) 228-4495.

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A New Group of Exchange Students Call Jenison Home!


Bela, Giulia, John + Allie

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.”


Exchange students with Terry Dykstra, JHS counselor

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”.”

To all of the Jenison exchange students, we say, “Bravo!” Your bravery and adventurous spirits are an excellent reminder of our capacity to be challenged! We’re thankful for you!


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!