International program offers students an exchange of ideas
Passachol Tanganukulkit won't mind when the weather turns frosty and the snow falls. After all, she has come all the way from Thailand to see the white stuff.
A visiting exchange student, Tanganukulkit — who goes by "Pooky" — says snowboarding is a priority on the list of things she wants to try during her year-long visit to the Plum home of Richard and Carolyne Ressler.
But she has other plans, too.
"I want to learn the English language, the American culture," the 16-year-old said.
Tanganukulkit, like thousands of visiting exchange students nationwide, decided to travel to America to soak up the culture, sharpen her English skills and make new friends.
While a number of agencies arrange student exchange trips, one of the nation's oldest is AFS International Programs, formerly the American Field Service.
AFS was founded in the 1940s by volunteer ambulance drivers who served during World War I and II. They believed people from different countries and cultures learning together could help produce a more peaceful world.
In 1947, AFS exchanged 52 young people from 11 countries. Now the agency has more than 50 partner countries. AFS-USA annually sends more than 1,500 exchange students abroad and places more than 2,600 exchange students in the United States.
While many districts halted school-sanctioned foreign travel after the Sept. 11 attacks, agencies like AFS report that interest in exchange programs appears to have increased.
Now more than ever, agency representatives say, young people want a global perspective.
"The students get to see there's a bigger world and there's more than one right way to do a lot of things," said Heidi Wilson, who places students in the Pittsburgh region as a host family recruiter for the American Scandinavian Student Exchange. "They get to celebrate another culture, another way of life."
Wilson's group places students from 26 countries in American homes. Wilson herself realized the value of foreign travel years ago when she was an exchange student in Sweden before heading to college.
"It was a wonderful experience. That's why I stayed involved," she said. "There is really only a three-year window — from 15 to 18 — that you can go live with a family in another country. You can always travel as a tourist, but you can't be part of a family."
Jay Marston, a Plum social studies teacher who leads the school's student chapter of AFS, said a trip to England as an exchange student profoundly affected his life.
"It was the best experience I could have because I learned how to go out and meet people," he said. "You're dropped off thousands of miles from home, and you've got to go out and meet people — they don't come to you."
To screen students and host families, exchange agencies extensively interview both parties to make sure they are ready for the experience.
Wilson said most students who consider traveling abroad are mature enough to excel in a new environment.
Plus, the costs involved deter those who aren't truly interested from making trips abroad, Wilson said. An individual student pays from $4,600 to $6,500 for year-long trips and about $3,500 for six-week summer trips, she said.
Visitors to the United States generally prefer longer trips, but Americans — who typically have to repeat school years missed while away, Marston said — often prefer six-week summer stays.
But students planning a trip to America still face some problems — like finding a host family, according to Carolyne Ressler, president of Plum's adult chapter of AFS. The chapter includes members from the Riverview, Woodland Hills and Burrell school districts.
"It's hard to find hosts because people think they can't take time out of their life," Ressler said.
And they often want to create a perfect experience, a concern that families should cast off, Wilson said.
"That's not required," Wilson said. "Part of the program is teaching the students the American way of life — we spend a lot of time driving around and we grab meals on the way to soccer practice."
Ressler said she and her husband in 1993 started taking in exchange students after reading about the Plum program in the newspaper.
"Pooky" is the fifth exchange student they have cared for. The couple have six children, the youngest of whom is 23.
"I enjoy having someone across the table to enjoy my cooking," Ressler said. "And I enjoy the contact — I don't really want to go out of the country, and this is a way for me to visit another country without leaving the comfort of my home."
For more information about AFS Intercultural Programs, call 1 (800) AFS-INFO. For more information about American Scandinavian Student Exchange, call Heidi Wilson at (724) 934-1667.