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Esther Ibrahim had been in the Toledo area less than two hours and already had discovered many of her preconceptions about America were false.
“I thought everybody here was white, but already I see that’s not true,” said Ms. Ibrahim, a 15-year-old exchange student from northern Nigeria who arrived in Toledo recently. “I thought everybody was rich, nobody poor; I thought everything in America was about technology, but I see they like agriculture a lot here too.”
Ms. Ibrahim is one of thousands of teenagers from foreign countries who are participating in the ASSE International Exchange Student Program. Their goal is to learn more about America, its culture, and diversity, said Teresa Arnold, an area representative for the nonprofit organization.
More than 200 of the students have been placed in homes in the Midwest, including Ohio, Minnesota, Indiana, and Wisconsin, for this academic year.
Ms. Arnold on Friday still needed host homes for 13 youth who would spend 10 months with local families. The exchange students, ages 15 to 18, all attend school and have their own spending money and insurance. All speak English.
The remaining 13 students were supposed to have homes by today or they would lose their chances to visit this year, but that deadline has been extended by several days because of the holiday weekend.
Some have earned special scholarships through the U.S. Department of State that would help pay for the exchange opportunity, but would have to forfeit that money if a host home isn’t found.
“It would be a shame if some of the students couldn’t come,” said Yulinda Cousino of Gibsonburg, Ohio. Mrs. Cousino has hosted foreign exchange students for 11 years.
“It’s so simple,” she said. “They work so hard to earn a scholarship. All you have to provide is a bed and food.”
Ms. Arnold, whose family began hosting exchange students in 2005, said the experience is rewarding in many ways.
“It’s a chance to see others’ view of us as Americans and their views of their own countries,” Ms. Arnold said. “But you also have to realize they are teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18. You have to like teenagers.”
Host applicants are screened with a criminal background check, but the process is fairly quick. The exchange students must have excellent grades, demonstrate good citizenship, and have some English skills to participate.
Mrs. Cousino welcomed her latest exchange student at Toledo Express Airport on Aug. 22. Bakhtiniso Kamaloua, 15, of Tajikistan started classes Monday as a sophomore at Gibsonburg High School. She already has joined the school’s cross country team.
“It’s been perfect,” she said of her experience as an exchange student. “I have an amazing family. I wanted to get to know other cultures and improve my English; and I want the opportunity to tell people about my country.”
Tajikistan, which gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, sits in Central Asia, mountainous and landlocked. Its boundaries are Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, and China to the east.
Lukas Roefsig, 16, of Germany arrived in Toledo on Aug. 16 and began school at Cardinal Stritch High School the following Monday.
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“It’s been exciting and funny,” the high school junior said. “People are funny — they are so curious — but nice. I like the school. My old school isn’t so good. There are more activities here and the quality is better.”
Ms. Ibrahim starts school Tuesday as a sophomore at Bedford High School, and appreciates the late start, because it gave her time to acclimate to her new surroundings. When she first arrived in the United States, she was quite nervous.
Winter will be a novelty for her, American food is very different, and she worries about what her new classmates will think of her, as well as how the general public might stereotype her as a Nigerian or African.
“Am I nervous? Goodness sakes, yes,” she manages to say before she bursts out laughing. “I think Americans believe that all Nigerians are poor and illiterate; that our major source of income is agriculture, and that we’re all black.
“Yes, we’re all black, but we’re not illiterate. Agriculture is big, but our major source is crude oil. And some people still think that we all live with wild animals.”
The last stereotype she cited makes her laugh. Despite her jitters, she is excited about the next 10 months, including the classes she plans to take in English, civics, U.S. history, calculus, and chemistry.
“I wanted to be in this program because I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet different people and cultures and show my culture,” she said. “There are so many things I want to do that I can’t in Nigeria, like swimming and biking and American football. Yes, I want to watch a game of American football.”
Many other nonprofit student exchange programs exist, but ASSE is one of the largest and oldest in the world, Ms. Arnold said.
ASSE was founded in Sweden in 1938 and sponsored exchange programs with Germany. The program continued to grow and in 1976, it officially became the American Scandinavian Student Exchange program. Over the years, it has become known as ASSE.
For more information on how to become a host family for an exchange student, contact Ms. Arnold at 419-350-0609.
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.