Exchange program in Westmoreland County lives on amid school budget cuts

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Growing up in Zurich, Switzerland, Patricia Daehler remembers the camp songs she learned from the American college students who would stay with her family for three or four months at a time.

"We thought those were pretty hilarious," she said.

Now, Ms. Daehler, 43, of Greensburg is preparing to host her own student in the U.S. Haru, a student from Tokyo, will arrive Aug. 12 and enroll at Hempfield Area High School as part of the American Field Service, an international nonprofit organization that has provided high school study-abroad programs for more than 60 years. She is one of three foreign students who will reside in Westmoreland County through AFS for the upcoming academic year. The other two are from Germany and Spain.

But placing foreign students with American families and high schools is not as easy as it once was. According to AFS representatives at the local and national level, recent years have shown less willingness on the part of families to volunteer their homes and of schools to admit foreign students for a full school year.

"Most of the school districts have undergone budget cuts and as such they are cutting back on services," said Debra Woolley, AFS-USA director of marketing. "One of the things that has negatively impacted is their ability or their willingness to take international students on J-1 visas, which is what our students come in on."

A J-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa issued by the U.S. to visitors participating in programs that promote cultural exchange. There are eligibility criteria and such visa holders may remain for 30 days after their exchange program ends. The J-1 visa was established under the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961.

Darlene Frederickson, president of AFS Westmoreland County, agreed, adding that a lack of volunteers has made it increasingly difficult to place students in homes and schools. AFS expects about 22 students for the upcoming year in Western Pennsylvania and is still looking for host families with which to place at least four more students, from Greensburg to Erie, she said.

Students used to arrive by the second week of August, but this year marks the first time local AFS representatives expect to place students with families and schools as late as September because they still need volunteers, Ms. Frederickson said. Students cannot begin their stay without a host family and a high school to attend.

Still, Rebecca Scott, an AFS team development specialist who works with volunteers, host families and schools, said placement has gone smoothly.

"Things have been going really well here in Western Pennsylvania," said Ms. Scott, 30, of Observatory Hill. "We've come really close to placing all the students we're supposed to place."

Hempfield Area High School hosts as many as five students each year, but only three for the upcoming year, said Kathy Charlton, high school principal.

Hempfield works with the study abroad organizations AFS and Rotary International, she said. And foreign exchange students are expected to have strong English-language skills and are treated no different than any other student in the school, Ms. Charlton said.

While she said Hempfield's numbers for foreign applicants and admitted students has remained steady in recent years, an AFS club, sponsored by a world language teacher at the high school, was disbanded several years ago when the sponsor retired. The club organized group meals and activities for local and foreign students to bond with each other, Ms. Charlton said. Though the sponsor position receives a supplemental stipend, she said no faculty members have wanted to take on the responsibility.

Relying exclusively on volunteers to host students, it can be hard for people to see the value in opening their homes to care for a child that's not your own, said Ms. Frederickson, a retired teacher from the Greensburg Salem School District who has hosted 20 students in her home over the years.

"You have to go into it expecting that it's going to have its ups and downs," said Mary Osche, 47, of Irwin. Having hosted twice before, and with two high school students of her own, Ms. Osche is no stranger to teenagers in her home. This fall her 17-year-old son, Matt, will head to Norway for a year through AFS and Karolin, a 16-year-old from Germany, will stay with the Osches for the year.

Ms. Osche said the hard part of hosting help is building a stronger relationship with the student, which is, after all, part of being a parent.

"It forces you to look at yourself and how you live and why you see things a certain way," she said.

Started in 1914 during World War I, the American Ambulance Field Service consisted of young Americans who volunteered as ambulance drivers for the French military. The organization renamed itself the American Field Service, since its duties went beyond medical transportation.

After the war, AFS briefly funded the American Field Service Fellowships for French Universities, which allowed American and French students to study in French universities at the graduate level.

The first 50 foreign high-school students came to study in the U.S. after AFS president Stephen Galatti established the American Field Service International Scholarships. In the 1947-48 academic year, students came from a total of 10 countries: Czechoslovakia, France, Estonia, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Syria.

Currently, AFS sends approximately 1,100 U.S. students abroad and hosts approximately 2,300 students from 90 different countries each year. Pennsylvania typically hosts between 50 and 55 students. In addition, AFS is supported by more than 5,000 U.S. volunteers and provides more than $3 million in scholarships and financial aid. About 2,100 U.S. schools partner with AFS to host students as well as send students abroad.

According to Ms. Woolley, high school study abroad is more heavily promoted in countries outside the U.S., such as Asian, European and Latin American countries.

"Students are really trapped in the U.S.," Ms. Woolley said. "There's a very strict track for students who want to go on to university. Parents and students tend to feel that they don't have the latitude to study abroad in high school. But they do."

She added that students who take a year abroad are appealing to universities because they have marketable skills such as the ability to speak a foreign language and have shown they can live away from home.

Ms. Daehler is looking forward to learning more about her new host daughter's home culture, and is excited for her daughters to have a new friend from a different part of the world, much as she once did.

But she does not think she will send her own teenage daughters, ages 13, 14 and 16, abroad. A year is too long a period for kids that age to be away, she said. And then there's the issue of school.

"It's hard to send them abroad in their junior year because that counts for college and before that they're kind of too young," she said. "I think they'll do something like that during their college years."

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Jacob Axelrad:, 412-263-1634 or on Twitter @jakeaxelrad.


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