Homemade “welcome” signs bob around Hartsfield-Jackson Airport every August greeting wide-eyed foreign exchange students. They are cautiously stepping off the escalator to begin their year abroad. They have made long journeys from an array of countries – Czech Republic, China, France and Brazil to name a few – to study and develop their English in the United States.
This experience will make them wiser and more mature, but, for now, they look a little nervous and jet-lagged standing in the world’s busiest airport aside jumbo suitcases and their new families.
I asked Yanire Vilas from Galicia, Spain, Carolina Garza from Merida, Mexico and Sebastian Kraft from Frankfurt, Germany to give us their reflections about this year abroad. I should also mention that I’m one of Carolina’s host moms. She had two families – she spent the first semester with the Killenberg family and the second with us. You can read 10-year-old Parker Killenberg’s account of being a host sister in our digital edition at this link. Yanire, Carolina and Sebastian are part of more than a dozen exchange students who attended Grady High School in Midtown.
What were you thinking when you got off the airplane that first day in Atlanta?
Yanire: I was so nervous that I couldn’t think.
Carolina: I had a lot of emotions. I could feel I was staring something new. I could feel the American air. I was nervous and excited at the same time.
Sebastian: Damn, it’s really hot here!
How would you describe your first day at Grady High?
Y: I was really lost and everything seemed really big and confusing but also very exciting because of all those new things I had never seen before.
C: Nerve wracking. Crazy. But, I was happy. It was good.
S: Disorganized and strange because I did not know any people
What new foods and restaurants do you like?
Y: Barbecue is my favorite American food and I love Subway!
C: I didn’t like a lot of things in Mexico, but here I’ve tried new things and like them. Strawberries. Salmon. I really like to go to Osteria and Yogli Mogli.
S: Moe’s, Taco Mac and Mediterranean Grill.
What Grady tradition do you like the most?
Y: I am amazed with the wide arts program Grady has and of course all the sports, clubs, pep rallies…
C: I like Grady a lot. I like the GNN (Grady News Now) every Friday. They do a really good job – it’s fun the way they do it. All the games – soccer and football – are really fun.
S: GNN (Grady News Now).
Your favorite class?
Y: Musical theater and photography.
C: Probably, between art and triple threat (acting, dancing and singing class).
S: U.S. history
Name one or two of your most fun times with new friends.
Y: Spring break in Seaside, Florida and prom!
C: We went sleigh riding in Piedmont Park. We had a Christmas Party with a lot of friends and a Halloween Party. Both were really fun. Wait – prom! Prom was the number one.
What is a new word in your vocabulary?
Name some things you were scared to try or do, but you are glad you did.
Y: Auditioning for plays and ballet class.
C: Lacrosse. My recital at Grady. Well, coming here for one year – that counts? I was scared, but I did it.
S: In the beginning, I was scared to talk English in front of many people.
Name one way you have changed.
Y: My weight (just kidding). I am more confident and I feel I can do whatever I can dream of, because I’m not scared of trying new things.
C: I like to try new foods.
S: (I am) more confident and independent.
What will you tell people back home about America?
Y: America is just a bit of every other country!
C: Great people, great food, great culture.
S: The people in Atlanta are very polite and open-minded.
My friend Dana Persons is a coordinator for CIEE, Council on International Educational Exchange, which is how I personally became involved as a host parent. I had never considered it, but after hearing so many students were looking for homes, I was convinced. The process basically entails some paperwork, completing a family profile, agreeing to a background check and participating in a home interview. Families are able to see profiles of students interested in the program, which is how the matching begins. The profiles also explain if there are allergies, dietary needs, like/dislike to pets, hobbies and other personal preferences.
In 2009, my husband and I were matched with a German boy, Leif Levermann, and this year with Carolina. We went from no children to becoming parents of teenagers – watching Glee, buying gallons of milk, assisting with history homework, learning Justin Bieber lyrics and playing ping-pong marathons.
Now, another school year has come to a close. Jumbo suitcases get repacked and return flights are made. Tearfully we send these brave teenagers away with great memories and new connections to another part of the world. Their adventures continue.
For information on exchange programs, visit ciee.org.