A long way from home

Published 11:17 am Friday, September 19, 2008

The first day at a new school can be an intimidating experience. There are new people to meet, things to learn and a routine to get used to. Now imagine trying to adapt to all of that half a world away from home. For Pacelli High School exchange student Xue Xia “Snow” from Wuhan, China, that is just an average day.

She heard about the exchange program from a classmate and decided to pursue the idea. Snow arrived in Austin on Aug. 14. Her original host arrangements fell through, and the Ewert family of Austin accepted their visitor Sept. 8. Her trip to the states is the first time away from home for 15-year-old Snow. The trip, including a 15-hour Transpacific flight, did not phase her. “I want to travel again. I want to go to Hawaii,” she said.

Before a student can come to America to attend a private school they must obtain a student visa from the American embassy in their home country. This is to ensure that they are viable, academically and economically. It also registers the student with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. The experience of each student varies depending on what country they are from.

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Snow is like many other high schoolers: spending time with her peers, studying after school, her favorite subjects being math and physics, and showing an interest in school activities. She has had help adapting to her new school and community. Jacob Ewert, an Austin High School senior and member of the host family, is helping Snow around Austin. “He has risen to the challenge to be such a good helper,” said Jacob’s father, Mike Ewert.

She has enjoyed her time in America so far, saying that San Francisco has been her favorite part. While in the states Snow will have many things to do. Among other things, she wants to makes American friends and take time to play tennis.

For the Ewert family, the decision to host an exchange student was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Their daughter, Adriel, who is away at college originally gave them the idea, and they decided to give it a try. “It was easy. In all, the process took two days,” Penny Ewert said. “We lived in Japan for two years, so we have a love for Asian people,” she continued.

The Ewerts had nothing but good things to say about the program and about their guest. When asked if they would consider hosting another student in the future, Penny said, “Definitely, especially if you have some one as nice as Snow.’”

Snow has also enjoyed her experience. She would love the opportunity to visit other American high schools in the future, saying that Austin High School was a possibility.

The student exchange program at Pacelli High School is a recent development, but it is quickly growing. Catalina Ferreira-Truong, the Exchange Student Program Coordinator for Pacelli, started forming the program three years ago when a number of students began expressing interest in coming to Pacelli. The high school hosted their first student 2 1/2 years ago. In 2007-08 school year they hosted eight students. That number more than doubled this year, hosting 17 students this year.

“I think (the program) is very positive. The students at school enjoy having kids from different nationalities,” Ferreira-Truong said.

Despite the growing number of students, there has been no shortage of welcoming homes in Austin. “All the students that we wanted to place, got placed,” said Ferreira-Truong.

She went on to say that the program builds enrollment, shares cultures with both the visiting and hosting students, and allows Pacelli students to make new friends. To date, no Pacelli student has been an exchange student themselves, but Ferreira-Truong strongly encourages them to give it a try.

Pacelli has had nothing but good experiences with the exchange students it has hosted. The experiences with the host families have been likewise positive. “The families enjoys the students and the students enjoy the families,” Ferreira-Truong said. “When you have a big heart to share with others and love to meet others, this will be good for you.”

The application process involved is to ensure that the student and family are a good match. It also allows each party know get to know one another before actually meeting. The school knows what students it will be hosting in the spring, but it is recommended that a host family submit an application as soon as possible for the best match.

A family can host a student for a semester or for a year. The duration is flexible however. If after a semester the family is unable to host a student, another family can take over.

For more information about the foreign exchange program, or to begin the application process to become a host family, contact Catalina Ferreira-Truong at 438-7627 or cferreira-tr@austincatholic.org, or Mary Holtorf, director of Austin Catholic Schools at 433-8859.