Exchange students give home and host countries a broader view of the world
Andressa Costa, Brazil, center, with her hosts, the Lebowitz family of Mt. Lebanon. From left, Ben, 12; Alyssa, 16, Andressa Costa, 16; and Larry and Lynn Lebowitz.
Niklas Juergens, 15, of Germany, left, with hosts Keith and Tracie Allen and son Alexander, 8, at their North Huntingdon home.
Laure Nicoud, 16, center, is an exchange student from France at the North Hills High School.
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Few things may be as consummately American as apple pie, but Andressa Costa of Brazil doesn't want any. She had a slice after arriving in the U.S. a few weeks ago, and the 16-year-old is not interested in another.
But peanut butter? Well, that's another story. Unheard of in Brazil, the creamy spread -- especially slathered on warm toast -- has become a morning ritual.
Sampling American food has been one of the many pleasures Andressa has had as a high school foreign exchange student who will spend this school year in the Mt. Lebanon home of Larry and Lynn Lebowitz.
She is among an estimated several dozen youthful ambassadors to the Pittsburgh region, here for varying amounts of time through several youth cultural exchange programs that operate in the area.
While the particulars of the programs vary, their goals are the same: to give the world's leaders of tomorrow a chance to get to know another culture today, in the hope of promoting international understanding and peace.
"There's a great cultural understanding that happens within youth exchange. The way you change the future is you influence the youth," said Robin Zoufalik of Peters, chairman of the Rotary International District 7300 Rotary Youth Exchange Program, which covers Allegheny, Beaver and a portion of Westmoreland counties. Eight teens have been welcomed to the district this year through Rotary's nonprofit exchange program, which has been in operation for more than 75 years.
"You have a better chance of achieving peace in the world when you encourage people to know and understand other cultures and languages," he said.
Interviews with a handful of our region's newest visitors reflect an array of reactions to the experiences, sights, sounds and tastes of Pittsburgh. While one teen from France disdains American school lunches, a girl from South Korea loves our "junky food." While the American school day is longer for Andressa from Brazil, it's substantially shorter for Tiffany from Taiwan.
One commonality, though, is each student's interest in mastering the English language.
Andressa said she craved the adventure of being an exchange student, as well as the promise of becoming fluent in English. The idea of being an exchange student was sparked by her family's experience of hosting three students in Brazil.
"I already had three exchange students in my house. They arrived in Brazil and were saying nothing in Portuguese and when they leave, they are fluent in talking. I want that! I want to be a part of another family and learn about them and their culture and have perfect English when I leave," she said.
Mastery of English is one of the main attractions for students coming to the U.S., said Larry Franklin of Greenville, longtime youth exchange chairman for Rotary District 7280, which covers Butler County and areas north of there.
"On the foreign end, the idea of having on your resume that you spent a year in the United States and when they see that English language competency, it's a big deal."
Jieun Lee, 15, who arrived in January from South Korea and is enrolled as a sophomore in the Moon Area School District this year, said she is determined to master English.
She and Yu-cia Lee, 15, of Taiwan, a freshman at Moon Area who goes by the name Tiffany, are staying with Lucy and George Miller in Moon.
"Everybody wants to learn English, and I ... can learn English here best. It's important in the world," said Jieun, who will leave the United States to return home in December.
The sentiment was echoed by Tiffany: "I want to learn English because English is more important in the world."
The promise of being bilingual also was a main attraction for Laure Nicoud, 16, of France, who is spending this year in the 11th grade at North Hills High School, living in the home of Beth Mulzaney and Chris Ramsey.
"I want to be bilingual for my future. It's very important to speak English. In Europe, we think English is the first international language. I started learning when I was 10 years old, but I will learn best here," she said.
Niklas Juergens, 15, of Germany, put it this way: "Improvement of my English will be a better chance to get a good job."
He is staying this year in North Huntingdon and attending Norwin High School.
Andressa Costa has found good and bad with the American high school practice of switching classes.
The good: "It keeps you awake that you have to walk from classroom to classroom."
The bad: It's harder to make friends than in the Brazilian schools, where students stay in one classroom all day with the same set of peers. In fact, since arriving in the United States on Aug. 16, she said she has met numerous people but has found herself depending on her host sister, Alyssa Lebowitz, 16, to make friends.
Alyssa has taken the responsibility seriously. "I want to make sure she feels good about things here. I love having her here, but it's tough, too, because I feel a lot of responsibility."
Alyssa and her 12-year-old brother, Ben, said the benefits of having Andressa in their lives outweigh any challenges.
"I'm interested in different cultures, so it's a good opportunity to really get to know how it's different in Brazil," Alyssa said.
For Ben, a seventh-grader, Andressa is a willing cohort with video games -- something neither Alyssa nor older sister Amy, who is away at college, would do.
As expected, the biggest difficulty is language. Although Andressa is competent in English, she is not fluent. As Ben put it, "Sometimes it's hard for her to understand and you have to explain ... you have to go back to easy vocabulary."
One of Andressa's joys has been the food she has eaten here -- especially peanut butter. "I love it" she said. "I'm going to take some to Brazil."
She said she also enjoys "all the American junky food. ... If they let me eat all day, I probably will," she said, adding that one of her favorites is chocolate chip cookies.
She said her mother and grandmother didn't want her to embark on the yearlong exchange but relented when Andressa kept pushing for the experience.
Lynn Lebowitz said she and her husband, Larry, a school board member in Mt. Lebanon, said that being a host family "was not even on our radar" until Alyssa's volleyball manager sent an email looking for hosts. Andressa had indicated in her student profile she wanted to play volleyball, so her application had crossed the manager's desk.
"We had the extra bedroom with our daughter being away at college. The next thing we knew, we were signing papers," Mrs. Lebowitz said. She said incorporating a "new member of the family" has been both "enlightening and exhausting. ... There is a whole other layer of work in our family life, but the rewards of getting to know another beautiful soul -- and that's really what she is -- has been such a gift."
For Lucy Miller, adding two more people to the family was no big deal. She and her husband, George, have six children and served as a host family last year for a girl from Brazil.
Jieun Lee came in January and will leave in December; Yu-cia Lee, who likes to be called Tiffany, arrived in August and will stay until June.
"The best part of it is getting to know the different cultures. The hardest part is feeling like you have to entertain -- but you get past that!" Mrs. Miller said with a laugh.
Jieun said the biggest surprise she has encountered at Moon Area High School is the kindness of the teachers.
"The teacher is very nice. In Korea, we have many rules. There aren't as many here. There's more freedom,'' she said.
One example is the freedom to pick her school clothes. At home, students wear uniforms. Also, she said, the classroom in South Korea is a more competitive environment, with fellow students not as friendly.
American schools have far shorter days than schools in South Korea, where she leaves her home at 6 a.m. and doesn't return until 9 p.m. -- and she also attends school on Saturday.
She loves American food, especially Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
"I have gained weight. In Korea, we ate rice every day. Here, I eat many kinds of spaghetti, pasta, potato, cereal. In Korea, they think milk is for baby. But here, I drink chocolate milk and sweet tea and they are my favorite things. And Pop Tarts! Everything is bad, but I like your junky food," she said, estimating that she has gained 20 pounds.
For Tiffany, the easy relationship she has with the teachers at Moon Area has been the biggest change from school at home.
"I like [the teachers] because they're very kind," she said.
Classroom learning is challenging because of the language barrier, but she is undaunted. "I will learn,'' she said.
She selected Tiffany as her American name because it is the name she was given in her English class at home and it is easier for locals to pronounce than her given name --which is pronounced OO-CHOW.
Niklas Juergens, 15, was amazed by the choices he had in planning his schedule at Norwin High School, where he is a tenth-grader.
In Germany, students are placed into one of three educational tracks following elementary school, based on academic ability.
At Norwin, he had choices. Among the classes on his schedule are robotics, food, trigonometry, English, biology, history and physical education. "It's really good here and the teachers are not so strict," he said.
Niklas is the seventh exchange student that Tracie Allen and her husband, Keith, have hosted -- but their first since moving to North Huntingdon a year ago.
"When I was in high school [in Great Falls, Mont.], we had a lot of exchange students," Ms. Allen said. "I was always interested in learning about their cultures. We thought it would be good to give our son the opportunity. He's an only child so this gives him somebody to interact with other than Mom and Dad," she said of their 8-year-old son, Alexander.
Niklas said he finds Walmart amazing.
"In Germany, you have a food store for food and a store for cosmetics. At Walmart, you can get everything."
He said he finds people to be especially friendly. "Everybody talks to you. They wouldn't come to you in Germany. If you come to them in Germany, they will talk to you. But you should be the one who interacts or starts the conversation."
He's excited to be on the Norwin swim team and to improve his English. "I think it's better than what I expected," he said of the United States.
Hailing from a small town in France near the border with Switzerland, 16-year-old Laure met an exchange student last year who piqued her interest about living abroad.
"My mother was very happy and very interested because she thinks that it's a very good experience for all your life," Laure said.
Having visited New York and Los Angeles as a tourist, she had some familiarity with America before arriving in July at the home of Beth Mulzaney and Chris Ramsey in Ross. Still, there were surprises, especially when she began the year as a junior at North Hills High School.
"School is amazing ... it's very different from the French. It's better here. ... We don't choose our classes, we have a schedule. Here, it's amazing to do photography, world food -- these fun classes. It doesn't exist in France. I also get French, American literature, American government, personal fitness, chemistry, trigonometry."
She said she is awed at the level of extracurricular activities, noting that, in France, the school system doesn't have sports teams or clubs. She has chosen to join the tennis team at North Hills. She also noted that the technology is more advanced in the U.S. and the school buildings are newer.
If she has one criticism, it's the food.
"I pack my lunch here because the food is disgusting at school. Hamburger and pizza? ... I like the food in my family here, but not at school. At home in France ... everybody eats at school. You can have pasta with chicken and vegetables and you have salad and you have cheese if you want and dessert. It's a very complete lunch and it's healthier and tastier," she said.
Still there is one American food she loves and cannot get in France -- corn.
Ms. Mulzaney said her family's curiosity about the world was at the foundation of their decision to take in an exchange student for the first time. She and her husband have a 16-year-old daughter, Jamie Ramsey. As a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Ms. Mulzaney encounters many students from other countries and she had observed the added dimension they bring to the classroom.
Jamie said she had been a bit nervous before Laure arrived.
"It's a big change and it's a whole year. But it's gone really well," she said. Friends at school are very interested in her new "sister," and she enjoys the daily exchange of information at the dinner table.
First Published September 27, 2012 12:00 am