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Overseas adventure, student-style

For kids: Find out what it's like to be an exchange student – or to host one.

By Martha White / March 4, 2008

Say cheese: A Japanese exchange student snapped a picture while friends looked on in Camden, Maine. The group of middle-schoolers from Hirakawa, Japan, visited Camden last year.

Martha White

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Three girls – two American and one Japanese – are getting ready to ice skate, but for the moment, their heads are bowed together over small English/Japanese dictionaries. "Suki desu ka?" ("Do you like it?") They point to words, nod their heads, and giggle, then riffle though the pages again so they can communicate: "Do you like cooking?" "Do you like rock music?" Some words become familiar: "motto" (more), "honto?" (really?). They call one another "baka" (silly).

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If you've ever wondered what it would be like to host a foreign exchange student or to be one, these girls' experience gives you an idea.

In January 2007, along with nine other Maine families, my family hosted a Japanese exchange student in our home for a week. All were middle-schoolers and their communication skills built steadily from their initial shy moments to late-night fits of laughter.

"Awkward – but fun!" my 13-year-old daughter, Molly, reported the first night. She and her new Japanese friend, Mami Seito, quickly learned that dry-erase boards and pictures eased the language difficulties.

Later, sports and video games offered common ground because bowling, tennis, and games such as "Dance, Dance Revolution" flow wordlessly with universal signals or exclamations.

The Japanese students had studied English for a year or two, but the Americans hadn't been taught Japanese at all. Yet friendships flourished.

Across the sea

It's not just the Japanese students who traveled to a foreign land, though. Students from Camden and Rockport, Maine, went to Japan a few months later to see what life is like there. This tradition began in 1997. That year, the Camden-Rockport Middle School paired with schools in Hiraka, Japan. Different groups of American and Japanese students have been traveling between the "sister schools" ever since.

The Japanese students come during their New Year's break, stopping in New York City to see the highlights. The Maine students usually go to Hirakawa (as the Hiraka area is known today) during summer, but not everyone goes overseas. Students apply to become either hosts or travelers; they can't be both. As one parent remarked, "Hosting eases the disappointment of not being chosen to go to Japan but increases the desire to go."

Grown-ups from the schools also get in on the action. Last year, for instance, the principal of Ikarigaseki Junior High School, Toyoaki Hishiya, came to Camden as a chaperone with students from his school, as did Mitsuo Kasai, a school education division director.

They, too, stayed with host families in Camden and used classroom time to exchange information and ideas with Maine educators.

Camden teachers who often travel to Hirakawa are Dee Kopesky, a computer teacher, and Paula Lavoie, who teaches science. Both view the trips as an exciting chance to learn about another culture and different ways of teaching.

The exchange program is a point of pride for kids and adults at schools in both cities. A colorful flag from a Hirakawa school adorns the cafeteria at Camden-Rockport Middle School, and bold Japanese script graces the building's entryway. But the signs of cross-cultural exchange extend beyond the schools' walls.

Student exchange programs

If you're interested in being an exchange student, there are lots of options out there. Many programs are just for high school students.

But you can ask Mom or Dad to help you check with local schools and community organizations to see whether they sponsor exchanges for middle schoolers like the one in Camden, Maine (see story).

Even if you can't go on an overseas adventure until you're older, your family can bring the world home by hosting an international student.

Here are a few programs you might want to learn more about:

Council on International Educational Exchange has facilitated student exchanges since 1947. American high-schoolers can choose from a semester abroad or year-long programs abroad in eight destination countries.

AFS Intercultural Programs has been coordinating high school student exchanges for more than 60 years to advance peace and friendship across cultures. High school students can apply to spend a summer, semester, or year abroad. There are more than 40 countries to choose from.

Rotary Youth Exchange has more than 80 countries and 8,000 students participating in Rotary International's exchange program each year. High-schoolers can go abroad for just a few days or weeks, or they can stay for an entire school year.

Academic Year in America (AYA) is sponsored by the American Institute for Foreign Study Foundation, which was founded in 1967. At the AYA website, American high-schoolers can learn about summer study abroad, families can apply to host a foreign student, and high school students from overseas can find out more about spending a year in the US.