Their home is a revolving door for the world
Foreign exchange students enrich a US family's life
The buzz at the Cohens' home is about oldest daughter Rachel's huge success recently on a college foreign-language exam.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Ginny Cohen says her daughter, a freshman at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, was no natural with languages. But she got the travel bug when the Cohens hosted a Swedish exchange student in 1996. Rachel, who was in junior high at the time, eventually spent a year of high school in the Netherlands.
Now, though she's never taken a course, her university considers her fluent in Dutch.
These days, a college semester abroad is de rigueur. But there's something to be said for exposing children to other cultures during more-formative years - even if only as a member of a host family.
"It can be more impactful in a lot of ways if it happens in high school, rather than in college," says Margaret Crocco, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who develops social-studies curriculums.
The Cohens, who have been hosting foreign exchange students for more than a decade, have gone beyond exposing their two daughters to a foreign culture. Their home is a revolving door for people from all over the world.
Which makes following the conversation at their kitchen table like trying to read Tolstoy: At first, the sheer multitude of foreign names overwhelms.
Eventually, Ginny and her husband, Dana, pause to explain.
There's Heikki from Finland. He was here in '97 and '98. Sara from Sweden - that was '96. Before Sara, there was Anja from Germany and Carmen from Spain. Last year, it was Josefina from Argentina.
A few quick mnemonic notes prove helpful for the rest of the evening. For example, Sara was the Swedish siren who attracted queues of neighborhood boys. And Heikki (pronounced hi-key) was the high-IQ wonder who placed sixth in a national physics and math exam in Finland.
An extended family
Of course, for the Cohens, these aren't strange names out of a book, but their extended family of sorts; the framed faces on their dining room hutch and familiar voices that call every Christmas.
This year, Sorrawee, or "Sorra," Suntharapot is staying with the Cohens through one of the oldest exchange programs in the US, run by the American Field Service (AFS). A petite 17-year-old from Thailand, she shuffles into the kitchen smiling shyly and wearing a hooded sweatshirt with jeans. She's carrying three bulging photo albums - an ongoing chronicle of her year in this small corner of New England.
Sorra opens one album to a page with her favorite relic. Wedged between a Gap price tag and a cheat sheet for the American monetary system is a collection of hall passes from Andover High School, where she is enrolled as a senior.
It's hysterical, Sorra says, that in America, where students regularly question authority and approach teachers as peers, they need permission to go the bathroom. Ginny and Dana laugh, too, as Sorra does a mock imitation of a stern teacher denying a student's urge.
It's a minor example of the way an exchange can broaden cultural awareness beyond the thin impressions tourists glean from traveling. It's cultural immersion - for the hosts as well as the student.
This exposure seeps into high schools with exchange students as well. The AFS director for Andover High School, Kate Chatellier, says exchange students "don't isolate themselves at all," despite an initial wariness about lunchtime politics (some, like Sorra, forgo the cafeteria - an intimidating place even for teachers - to eat in a smaller clubroom).
Indeed in some cases, they become popular leaders. This year, Bruno Zarotti from Paraguay takes the Oscar. A surprise basketball star, he's assimilated into the school seamlessly. "Everyone around here knows who Bruno is," Ms. Chatellier says.