ADAMS — It’s one thing to read about different cultures or see representations on a screen, but it’s another thing entirely to learn firsthand.
Exchange student programs are an opportunity to do just that, providing international students the opportunity to immerse themselves in a new community and attend an American high school.
EF High School Exchange Year, part of the Education First family of companies, has been promoting global awareness through student exchange for decades. Since 1979, the organization has connected more than 100,000 international students with host families across America.
This year, in the continental United States, EF has about 3,400 students. In New York, there are roughly 150, and in the north country, there are now about 30 students, seven of whom are in Jefferson County.
Students arrived in the north country the weekend of Aug. 6.
“We have a large territory that we’re developing,” said Bonnie Loforte, regional coordinator for the program. “The region that we develop, if you use the Thruway as a dividing line, we go from the Thruway in the Syracuse area all the way to the Canadian border. And then on the west side is the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. So we don’t go as far west as Rochester, that is another region, and then we go to I believe it’s Route 27 on the east side from the Thruway all the way north, kind of jutting off the Adirondacks.”
Covering that territory are 15 local coordinators, and the organization is always looking for more. More coordinators means more kids in Northern New York.
The J-1 visa program covers high school students between the ages of 14 and 18 for either a high school semester or a school year. Students stay with volunteer host families. For the duration of their exchange, students are encouraged to take both English and either U.S. history or American government. Students are expected to assume a full course load, put forth a strong effort, and maintain a C-average or better throughout the year. Students are expected to abide by all school rules and are expected to be positive members of the school community.
“As our name would imply, we are an education-based program,” Mrs. Loforte said. “A lot of Americans think exchange students come and it’s a big party year for them; it’s not for us. We have a strong screening program when we bring the kids in, and we’re looking for academically successful kids. Our expectations when they are attending American high school is that they maintain a good grade point average and they’re good members of their community.”
Mrs. Loforte said her personal goal as the regional coordinator is to continue to grow the region and to one day bring EF to every high school in upstate New York.
The program requires check-ins at a minimum of once a month with the student’s assigned local coordinator. Group activities are hosted throughout the year and different coordinators do even more group activities with their pods of students. The local coordinators keep track of the pulse at the school and work closely with them while observing interactions in the community. One such coordinator is Patti Race, who lives with her husband Todd and son Wyatt in Adams. The Race family has been hosting students since 2018.
Mrs. Race said host families are vetted to make sure they can financially accommodate the students. The families volunteer, which Mrs. Race said inspires participation out of a desire to host, rather than for compensation.
Through the cultural and educational exchange, host families and schools get just as much from the program as the students do, she said.
“They come back, they’re our family for the rest of their lives,” Mrs. Race said. “That’s the impact really, they truly do become family. And I think every host family feels that way after the end of the year.”
The Race family was visited this summer by their first exchange student, Alvaro Macia, 19, from Spain for a month before he and their son Wyatt, 19, took off for Spain Tuesday to explore Mr. Macia’s home. Mr. Macia joined the family for the 2018-19 school year.
He said his time in Adams was really enjoyable.
“It was really different from home (Barcelona) because I live in a city, so that was kind of different to live in the countryside here,” he said. “And the people are different too, so it was kind of a change. Sports I didn’t know of like baseball, football, lacrosse — we don’t have that, so it was nice to know.”
Mr. Macia played soccer and swam, and then played lacrosse in the spring while he attended South Jefferson High School, which he said he really liked after having learned of the sport in the U.S.
Being the Race family’s first exchange student, Mr. Macia helped break them in, Mrs. Race said, and things have gotten easier every year. Starting in a few weeks, the family is hosting Vilja Boe, 16, of Norway, and Alessia Hostettler, 17, of Switzerland. The two will be seniors along with Wyatt.
“I would have gone into my senior year with just myself, but instead I have two crew members to go in with me,” he said.
Wyatt, who has older biological siblings as well, gains more each year with the exchange program.
“I like being here before we start school so we can get to know the family and the area before we start,” Vilja said. “I’m most excited for sports, I think. I’m going to play soccer in the fall. We get to experience a very different culture and I think if you’re interested in that, you should definitely try it.”
EF works with 13 countries, four from Asia and the others from Europe. The Race family has so far hosted students from Spain, Japan, Sweden, Italy and now Switzerland and Norway. The family has a map in their home that their host students pin when they arrive.
Alessia said she is looking forward to seeing how everything works because it is going to be different than in Switzerland.
“I can just say that the experience you get, it’s just amazing,” Alessia said. “Even the short time I was here, a short period, I experienced a lot of things I never thought I would; and my host family is amazing.”
Along with group activities with other local and regional exchange students, the Race family tries to schedule as many trips as possible to expose their students to the U.S. Places like Niagara Falls, the Thousand Islands and Lake Placid are typical locales, and this year, the girls want to visit New York City at Christmas time.
“Everything I really wanted to do before I came, I did,” Mr. Macia said. “We went to Florida, went to Washington and I really like sports so I really wanted to go to a football game and we went to a Penn State game. That was really cool.”
He said it was cool to live the experiences — especially developing school spirit — after growing up watching American movies and seeing schools represented.
“‘High School Musical,’ you see it and say well, it won’t be like that, and you go and it’s actually like that,” he said.
The exchange program is not only beneficial for the kids, it brings culture and diversity to families and schools, Mrs. Race said, and the kids are really good about sharing their cultures.
Students need some level of English proficiency before joining the program and can improve their language skills while in their placements.
“We had four exchange students this last year that went out to Indian River and did a whole day of presentations to language classes up there,” Mr. Race said. “They had a good time doing it and the American kids really took to it. It’s one thing reading out of a book what somebody’s culture is, it’s so different to speak to them and realize they’re just teenage kids like everybody else.”
Those interested in becoming involved with the program can contact Mrs. Loforte by calling or texting 315-402-8963 or emailing email@example.com.