Exchange students enrich our community

Vashon High School hosted nine year-long exchange students this year. While this was an exceptional year, VHS hosts an average of four, and at least as many Vashon students study abroad each year. Short-term exchange programs in the summer add more than 20 students who travel, study and learn outside the classroom here and abroad.

Why do they do it? I don’t know. They just want to. But here’s my guess: Everyone invents herself or himself in high school and again in college. More imagination can be applied to the task of inventing oneself in the exotic climate of another country, culture and language.

Six years ago I started working with exchange students on Vashon. They have not stopped surprising and amazing me with their planning, talent, energy and imagination. An exchange takes planning a year in advance; it takes talent to arrange your life and classes so you can study abroad for a year; it takes huge energy and dedication to prepare academically and personally, and it takes imagination to accept that an exchange will change you in ways you cannot anticipate.

Here’s how exchanges work, whether you are coming here or going there. Right about now, parents and students start looking for a year-long exchange beginning in fall 2013. Short-term exchanges start a bit earlier and are easier to set up. There are many organizations that offer exchanges, and the ones active on Vashon are listed at the end of this article. Once you have found some exchange programs that interest you, check the timelines and fill out a preliminary application.

Where do they go? Asia, Europe, Central and South America, Mexico, Africa, anywhere reasonably safe.

Where do they stay? Now, that’s the big question every year. Most exchanges are home stays. Most families are volunteers who have an extra bedroom and recognize the value of an extra kid around the house. When I was growing up, extra kids were always there — cousins for the summer, preceptors from the medical school who followed my dad around his practice, an exchange student from Brazil, visiting musicians and so on.

Exchange officers are charged with keeping the students safe, so host families need to be interviewed and checked. As you might imagine, travel documents for students take longer, since every country reacted in its own way to the events of Sept. 11, and to other terrorist acts. Foreign students have to be enrolled in school, have visas and passports and have a place to stay when they get to Vashon. Each Vashon student has to have the same things when he or she arrives in Warsaw, Istanbul, Bangkok or Berlin. As parents and students are looking for exchanges for 2013-2014, the exchange officers are lining up host families for three to four month stretches for the 2012-2013 school year. The participation of Islanders as host families is what keeps these programs available.

Why do families host students? Well, my own children were generally wonderful, but … In high school anyway, I thought the extra kids in our house had an elevating effect on the general level of discourse and interaction while they lived with us. Oddly enough, our kids thought so, too. Consider that medieval landowners fostered their children with neighbors and relatives at the high school age so they could learn more than they could or would at home. It is common for host families to become lifelong friends with the students they host and the families that they come from.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” said Mark Twain. In case we did not get his point, he invented Huckleberry Finn, a child of nature who learns through his travels how to confront the central prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness of his era. I know of nothing more likely to move us toward international harmony than an ongoing involvement in the exchange of young minds between countries.


— Bart Queary is a retired college teacher and dean and the outgoing president of the Vashon Rotary.


Vashon Exchange Officers

Rotary International, Charon Scott-Goldman, charon@centurytel.net

AFS, Leslie Ferriel, leslieferriel@johnlscott.com



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