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Being 18 years old is tough. For those who are parenting teenagers, you know this task can be equally as difficult. But despite the challenges, each year several local families open their homes and hearts to international high school students who travel to the Fox Cities to experience life in the United States.

Lorraine Chibanda will have traveled over 30,000 miles before her nineteenth birthday. She has made the trip from Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, to Appleton twice to attend an America school.

From an all-girls school in her native country to a public school in the Fox Cities, she first attended Menasha High School where she stayed for one year, living between three host families. She returned to Zimbabwe in January 2009.

Six months later, Chibanda returned to the United States and enrolled as a senior at Fox Valley Lutheran (FVL) High School. Today, she is living with the host family that first sponsored her in 2008.

“It feels like I never left,” she says.

The biggest obstacle for Chibanda was adapting to the abundance and access to everyday things in America. “In Zimbabwe, we’re used to stocking up in case you can’t find something,” she says, remembering her first trip to Wal-Mart.

And as can be expected for a person who has never seen snow, the first time was extraordinary for Chibanda. It was so special, that she says she missed the winter season while she was in Zimbabwe.

Chibanda is one of 43 students participating in the International Student Program at FVL, which sponsors students through Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a federal system for maintaining information on international students and exchange visitors while in the United States.

In the spring of 2003, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) of the U.S. government approved FVL as a host school for international students. As a result, FVL is authorized through SEVIS to register and enroll international students apart from an established foreign exchange program.

The I-20 program allows students to return for up to four years of a SEVIS-approved high school. For international students who are interested in attending college in the U.S., the I-20 is ideal.

As the international student program coordinator, Laura Gucinski screens families who are interested in hosting an international student and helping host families and students find a comfortable routine. On a daily basis, she assists students with activities and settles conflicts that arise.

“Host families are instrumental in sharing their backgrounds and that gives the students the best exposure to our American culture,” says Gucinski.

She adds that most host families are in the congregations of Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) churches. FVL is owned and operated by a Federation of 40 WELS churches from across the Fox Cities.

Besides Zimbabwe, other host families sponsor students from China, Germany, Honduras, South Korea, Spain, Thailand and Vietnam.

Enrolled in the Chinese Outreach in Christian Education (CHOICE) Program through FVL, 16-year-old Haohan Hu and 18-year-old Xin (Joy) Zhang (both from cities close to Bejing) came to the Fox Cities at the start of the 2009-2010 school year. This is the first year in the U.S. for both Hu and Zhang.

All international students studying in the U.S. must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) before being accepted into the program.

“Everything was new and different,” says Zhang, a shy but smiley teen who is enjoying being challenged in her Business Law this year.

With family who live in Milwaukee, Hu has a unique situation. He was able to travel to the U.S. with his aunt and spend time with them before heading north to Appleton to stay with the Smith family.

Josette and Chuck Smith, along with their two children, welcomed Hu into their home while he completes his sophomore year at FVL. They had learned of the international student exchange program through their church.

One of the benefits of hosting an international student is the opportunity to learn about the culture and tradition of their native country.

The Smith’s nine-year-old daughter Gabrielle once asked Hu if they have TVs in China. ”I had to tell her, ‘He doesn’t live in a cave!’” Josette shares. “She’s learning that people from other countries and people here have a lot of commonalities.” In particular, Hu and their 11-year-old son Noah have really bonded.

“I wasn’t sure how they’d react when we told them,” says Josette. “They are outgoing kids, so I think that was a big part of it. They saw it as being really cool!”

Our area schools are instrumental in granting opportunities for both exchange students and Fox Cities students. Just as international exchange students experience the thrill of unfamiliarity, form new relationships and explore new environments, their peers and host families experience similar rewards as friendships are made and lessons are learned.

—By Alison Fiebig

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A GILL-TECH EXCHANGE STORY

In the summer of 2009, Sandra Wagner was en route to Ukraine on a working vacation with The Hope Center, an organization that helps orphans and young women in impoverished countries around the world. When she arrived, the situation was worse than she could have imagined.

Wagner had recently started in a new position at Gill-Tech Academy in Appleton, and her new job spawned an idea.

Working with The Hope Center, they developed a program to educate and train Ukrainians in cosmetology at Gill-Tech, enabling those students to return to Ukraine with the skills to teach others the art.

Enter Anya, a 22-year-old an interpreter for The Hope Center, who had the desire and the necessary language skills. Fox Valley Technical College stepped in and subcontracted Gill-Tech to educate Anya, and she was able to secure a visa.

Throughout her training, Anya will stay with a host family in Appleton and attend school at Gill-Tech.

Back in Ukraine, The Hope Center is currently mentoring 120 young women on life skills. When Anya returns, the cosmetology part of the program will be added, and the first classes are scheduled for early 2011.

In the meantime, Gill-Tech has several American students who are interested in going to the Ukraine to help start up the program.

—By Alison Fiebig

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