Exchange students expand cultural understanding

Frank Mulligan and Rebecca Hyman

Sixteen-year-old “Laci” was one of the new kids attending Apponequet Regional High School this year.

“Everyone thought I’m a freshman,” she said with a bright smile.

But Laci’s more of a transfer student, really.

Laci, full name Olesya Kryakvina, hails from the industrial city of Zaporozhye on the Dnieper River in the northeast Ukraine, population 800,000.

“It’s a big industrial city,” she said. And it’s loud, she added.

One of the pleasures she finds in her new digs on Panettieri Drive in Lakeville is the quiet breakfasts in the morning outside “in the forest.”

Her 16-year-old host Korynn Camara said Laci’s treated just like any other kid at ARHS.

“If you know someone’s hosting someone, you’ll know. If you don’t know, it’s just some kid walking by.”

It’s Korynn who wanted to participate in the AFS Exchange Student program, formerly known as American Field Service. She enjoyed interacting with exchange students last year, she said. Apponequet accepts up to three exchange students per academic year.

“My daughter pestered us,” said Korynn’s mom, Dora.

“I wouldn’t leave them alone,” Korynn agreed.

Her dad, Carlos, said Korynn wanted to see what it would be like to have a sister. He added of the blend of cultures, “There are definitely differences, but there are more similarities between them. They’re teenage girls.”

The Camara family hosted a small get-together at their home recently that had an international flavor. And not just because Laci whipped up authentic Ukrainian borscht.

The two other visiting couples and their kids are also participating in the AFS Exchange program, which entails a year-long commitment to host the visiting student.

Unlike Carlos and Dora, the other two couples are program veterans.

This is the seventh time Jay and Donna Crumley of Acushnet have hosted a student. Mook Onnom, 16, of Thailand, is their visitor this year, and is attending Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School in Rochester.

This is the second year in a row for Rodney and Judy Dixon of Lakeville, who are hosting 17-year-old Jeffrey Kam from Hong Kong. He’s attending Apponequet as a senior, a fact he didn’t mind teasing Laci – a junior – about with an elaborate chuckle. The Dixons hosted Italian exhange student Federico Bus last year.

The couples all met through the AFS program, which sponsors mandatory parental meetings throughout the year. “It’s fun for adults, too,” said Judy.

She added, “It’s fun to learn about other cultures. I feel the world is coming to us. You get to realize people are the same all over. There are the same issues. You learn there’s more that connects us than separates us.”

And you “love” the kids, she said.

Rodney said, “They affect you right away, the excitement they bring seeing the country, in just wanting to experience everything, to absorb the experience like a sponge. We’re blessed to have Jeffrey in our lives.”

“There’s also good American food,” Jeff said.

“We never have leftovers anymore,” Judy said, laughing.

The three students have familiar teen-achiever ways about them, from Jeff’s winning wisecracks, to Mook’s shy, pretty smile, to Laci’s bright, sweet manner.

Jeff said Hong Kong is not as big as an American might imagine without visiting.

“It’s very close,” he said. “Here everything is far.”

The students are not allowed to drive, Donna Crumley added, because they’re not 18 and most wouldn’t be able to drive in their own countries until that age.

Jeff felt adjusting to spoken English was difficult at first, and he said he smiled and nodded in agreement a lot, even when he didn’t understand everything being said. He said U.S. history is his most challenging class.

“I didn’t have any U.S. history in Hong Kong,” he said.

Mook said she’s always been interested in the United States. She comes from a rural area in Thailand, she said, and has studied French, as well as English. She’s taking Spanish in this country. Donna said after shopping at a grocery store when she first arrived, Mook remarked, “Mom, the only thing I recognize in the cart is the bread.” The students are encouraged to address their host parents as mom and dad, she added.

Laci has studied English for 10 years, and also speaks Ukranian, Russian, and “a little bit of German.” She’s also taking Spanish at Apponequet.

“It’s a great experience,” she said of her stay here. “I want to be more mature, to check myself in difficult situations, to depend on myself,” she said.

Dora added, “She’s doing a fabulous job.”

All three students talked of the freedom in this country and the opportunities that abound.

Laci said she wanted to live in both her worlds now.

“I wish I had a clone,” she said.

Marie Hartley, who runs the exchange student program at Apponequet High School, said it’s a great opportunity for young people to expand their horizons.

This year, one Apponequet student is spending his senior year abroad, in Germany.

Hartley said the program, which was launched at Apponequet in 2005, is a wonderful experience both for the traveling student and the host community.

“It’s good for the students to get exposure to other cultures,” Hartley said. “I think it’s a healthy thing to see we don’t all think alike."

Hartley said a key aspect of the experience is that the students live with a family, rather than staying in a hotel or a dorm. They are not tourists. They get to share in all aspects of daily life.

“Going abroad gives a student a chance to learn a culture from the inside out,” Hartley said.

She added that AFS was founded by ambulance drivers after World War I.

“They figured if we knew each other better, we’d be less likely to kill each other,” Hartley said.

Lakeville Call