An "Unforgettable Experience"
American Councils students placed in Edwardsville, IL for the 2016-17 school year recently spoke with their local newspaper about their exchange experience. This article was originally puslished as "Exchange students taking home memories" by Julia Biggs with the Edwardsville Intelligencer. We have reposted it here with permission.
The past school year for three Edwardsville High School students will be an unforgettable, life-changing one.
Julia Tsertsvadze from Georgia, Nicole Anainga from Kenya and Mirela Minkova from Bulgaria have spent the last nine months living in Edwardsville residents’ homes and attending EHS.
The students are a part of two State Department programs, FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) and YES (Youth Exchange in Service), which provide scholarships for students seeking two semesters of study in an American high school.
James Kerr, PhD, a retired Triad teacher and local coordinator for American Councils for International Education, has been placing international students in metro east and St. Louis area homes for over a dozen years.
He explained that the goal of the FLEX program is to promote mutual understanding between citizens of the U.S. and countries across Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia while giving students from these regions the opportunity to learn about the U.S. and its institutions. The students, in turn, teach Americans about their countries. “FLEX was the first state department program for high school students,” Kerr noted. “It was started in 1992. It was (originally) for countries of the former Soviet Union. YES is designed for students from countries with significant or influential Islamic populations.”
Thousands of international high school students apply for these coveted scholarships each year. To win a scholarship the student must score well on an aptitude exam, score well on an English proficiency exam and must do well in three rounds of oral interviews.
Tsertsvadze, Anainga and Minkova were selected for this year’s programs and arrived in Edwardsville in August. Now with just a few weeks left before they head home, the trio reflected on their experiences with their host families, time spent at EHS and what they had learned about the U.S. that was different from their perceptions of our country before they visited. “I thought of the U.S. being a perfect country where everyone is accepted...but that is not true. I didn’t expect that,” Tsertsvadze noted.
“I was surprised by how individualistic Americans are. I had heard that before but when you actually experience it, it’s different,” Minkova noted. “The culture is not collective. It’s more individual. That’s not necessarily bad. It's just harder to become closer to people.”
“I used to think it was a perfect country,” Anainga added. “But different countries have different problems and this country has problems – many problems – not as I expected, but I still love it.”
When asked what would be some favorite memories from their time in the U.S., Tsertsvadze quickly responded with, “I can not answer that. The whole year is the favorite memory.”
“Yes, I think it’s just been amazing because for me, America had always been my dream come true,” Anainga added. “So it’s kind of hard to think that it’s all coming to an end. It was really fun being here. I feel like it’s my second country. I just love it. I feel like it’s my second home.”
“This was something that was unimaginable a year ago, and it just happened. It was like a dream come true,” Minkova said. “The entire year was so valuable. I’ve learned more than I’ve learned in my entire 17 years of life. I’m not even kidding.”
All three young women talked about positive experiences at EHS. While Tsertsvadze felt her Georgia teachers were somewhat similar to her EHS teachers, Minkova felt the teaching approach at EHS was very different from her country. “Teachers pay attention to each student as an individual, and they encourage you a lot. They are a great support. They always try to put themselves in your shoes and support you,” she explained. “The classroom is more student-centered than teacher-centered. It’s more interactive and more interesting for the students.”
The students felt they had grown tremendously from their experience here. “I think I got more patient,” Tsertsvadze noted.
Kerr pointed out that he had particularly noticed Anainga’s confidence grow especially the second semester.
“I’ve become more confident as well and more open minded,” Minkova noted. “I’m much more tolerant and acceptable of differences, different opinions, different views.”
Minkova also noted how impressed she was with the way American schools work with students with special needs. “It’s impressive how they are just like us. At school they are involved in all school activities,” Minkova said. “They are part of us. They are not different. They are capable and have tolerance. They are just special, and I really like how they are included.”
Minkova also expressed that one of her favorite activities at EHS was being involved with Key Club, an organization that dedicates its time to working with EHS’s FLS (Functional Life Skills) students. “We have many events. We had fall bash, a Halloween party. They (FLS) have a vocational program at school - Tiger Den. It’s a coffee shop and we sell coffee and cookies and tea. I volunteer there every single morning. I help the special needs students to work there.”
“It’s great how they are involved,” Anainga concurred. “It is amazing.”
“That is something I really like, and I’d love to take back to Bulgaria and implement what I’ve learned here,” Minkova added. “I would like to improve the special needs programs. My mom in Bulgaria works with special needs children. She’s a nurse. And my dad is a social worker. It’s just something that I’m really passionate about.”
Minkova explained that in Bulgaria special needs students are separated more into special institutions. “Where here they are included, and I really like that,” she said. “That’s why we are here to learn and to apply what we learn here in our countries. It’s all about (the) sharing of learning and knowledge.”
These young women couldn’t have had their experiences without the generosity of Edwardsville host families. Both Tsertsvadze and Anainga have lived with host mother Robin Crane of Edwardsville while Minkova has lived with Edwardsville residents Dave and Rachel Stack and their daughter Dara.
Although Kerr has filled his quota for Edwardsville High School next year, he is still seeking host families for other high schools in Madison County. Host families provide a place to sleep and study, provide three meals per day - including either a packed lunch for school or lunch money, provide a comfortable living environment, use English as the primary language in the home, and provide transportation to and from school and school activities when a school bus is not available.
The exchange student, while in the U.S., must maintain a “B” average in classes in the host high school - and those classes must include U.S. History or American Government and English, must complete a minimum of 30 hours of volunteer service, and must join a leadership club or activity
The student comes with full health coverage, receives a monthly stipend for spending money and has several hundred dollars available for school-related expenses.
Contact American Councils for more information about hosting.
Pictured, L-R: Nicole (YES-Kenya), Julia (FLEX-Georgia), and Mirela (YES-Bulgaria)