Tanya Barton has had a busy school year even though she is neither a student or a teacher. Barton is the local community coordinator for PAX (Program of Academic Exchange), a non-profit educational organization that promotes and arranges international student exchange. PAX fosters positive development of young people from around the world in support of international peace, friendship and cross-cultural understanding.
This year Barton and PAX have placed foreign exchange student both in the Clarke County and Loudoun County school systems. Each visiting student is assigned to a local host family, attends school and participates in all aspects of local life in the area where they live.
With the school year coming to an end, the Clarke Daily News sat down with the departing students in order to get a better idea of what their experience in America has been like. Clarke County’s visiting students were Atakan Gungordu, a 16-year-old junior, from Turkey, Anastasiya Nevmerzhytska, a 16-year-old junior from Ukraine, Nadine Voelker, 17, a German junior, Aygul Shakirova, a 17 year-old junior from Russia, Ruevan Ratnesh, a 18-year-old senior from Malaysia and Pier Paolo Rauco, a 18-year-old senior from Italy. Loudoun County students were Khabeeruddin Ghouri, 17 of India, Ayperi Iusupova, a 16-year-old junior from Kyrgizstan, and Rana Mansour, 18, of Egypt.
Overwhelmingly, the group agreed on two main reasons for leaving family and friends to study in the United States; improving English skills and getting a first-hand look at the American way of life. While several of the students said that their main motivation for coming to the US was to improve their English skills, all agreed that another important motivator was the chance to experience what several referred to as “The American Dream”.
“Coming here for me was a chance to live what I think of as the American Dream, to watch Hollywood-style movies and to experience life here first-hand” said Ruevan Ratnesh. “I had already graduated before I came here so this was a chance for me to gain more knowledge and experience and to live the American way of life.”
“For me coming here was a way to learn about other people’s cultures and perspectives” agreed Pier Rauco. “I kind of wanted to challenge myself to see if I could stay here for a long time – to see if I could make it being away from my family and friends and the place where I grew up.”
“I agree, I think that for a lot of us it was a chance to escape from our families for a year” said Anastasiya Nevmerzhytska. “It’s a good vacation for both us and our families and it will be fun to see how everything has changed when we get back.”
All agreed that improving their English skills was so important because English is considered the international language and is a pre-requisite for admission at most major world colleges.
The students also agreed that it is easier to achieve good grades in US schools as compared to their home countries. However the reason cited by several students was that better grades are the result of the US system’s flexibility in allowing students to choose difficult classes, like International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) level courses, or less challenging courses that require less work.
“Here it’s possible to take all easy courses and just hang-out during your high school years” said Atakan Gungordu. “In Turkey that’s not the case. You’re required to take more difficult courses and the school chooses your classes for you.”
“I think that it’s more complex at home in Bangalore” agreed Khabeeruddin Ghouri. “Here you are required to take six courses but back home it’s compulsory to take ten to twelve classes – two languages, including English, three sciences, as well as math, history, geography, economics and civics – so I feel like it’s more complex there.”
“I agree, in my country it’s more complex and you have to take a lot of science” concurred Ayperi Iusupova. “Here you can pick different levels of complexity but that isn’t possible Kyrgizstan.”
Pier Paolo Rauco said that in Italy his course load required studying up to five hours per day to get good grades, but not so here.
“I’ve never had to open a book since I’ve been here” said Pier Paolo Rauco “and I’m getting all A’s. As long as I stay focused in class I can see how problems are solved by the teacher I don’t really feel the need to study.”
“The US education has some pros and cons” said Atakan Gungordu. “It’s easier in a way because the teachers sometimes spoon feed the kids – like if you get a bad grade on a test you can actually make up for it. But back in my country if you get a bad grade on a test, that’s it. From my observation, the US education system produces students that are well rounded and can think outside of the box instead of focusing just on the books. The education system in my country is exam oriented so if you can memorize every single page in a book you can pass the test. There is no focus on leadership skills and social responsibility like there is here.”
Aygul Shakirova agreed that creative approach in Clarke County’s schools is different from that used in her Russian school system.
“For example, when I take an English literature class here we discuss the book’s concepts. Back home in English literature we just take notes. The teacher says the concepts and we just write them down. Here we divide up into groups and role play different situations to talk about. I like it here because it is much more creative and it makes you think of new ideas.”
“Here the teachers really care about you and if you don’t understand something the teachers are willing to take extra time to help you after class” said Nadine Voelker.
All of the students, Nadine Voelkers of Germany, are from urban area so Clarke County’s rural lifestyle took a little getting used to for many of the students.
“I’ve never been some place where people drove tractors into town” laughed Anastasiya Nevmerzhytska.
“I actually wanted to come to a farming community” said Atakan Gungordu. “I wanted to experience American cowboys, horses and rednecks and stuff. I liked it for about two months or so but then it became a bit repetitive.”
“It’s only boring if you don’t do any other activities like sports” countered Pier Paolo Rauco. “You have to get involved in things like sports if you don’t want to be bored.”
For all of the students, getting around Clarke County without a driver’s license or car was an ongoing challenge and frustration.
“The biggest disadvantage is that there is no public transportation” said Anastasiya Nevmerzhytska. “You have to rely on other people just to get around.”
“You lose your independence” said Atakan Gungordu.
“You wish that you could drive” laughed Anastasiya Nevmerzhytska.
Although nearly all of the students had been to urban areas of the US before coming for school, most notably Florida and New York, Clarke County still held a few surprises.
“I’m from one of the most polluted cities in Russia. My town – Nizhnekamsk – has many industries and the air is terrible” said Aygul Shakirova. “But here the air is so pure with all of the mountains and woods, I so enjoy it.”
“There are a lot of immigrants here in the US than I expected, I didn’t know that would be the case” said Atakan Gungordu.
“I expected to see more black people” said Anastasiya Nevmerzhytska and Rana Mansour.
“I think that most people think of the US as a place with cities where you just hangout but once I came here to Clarke County I realized how was really different it was – which was good” said Pier Paolo Rauco.
Virginia’s liberal gun laws were a source of interest for the students as well.
“What surprised me the most was how loose guns are for people” said Atakan Gungordu. “Some of my neighbors here – who are only fourteen or fifteen – go hunting by themselves.”
“In Germany you have to have a license for your gun. Then you have to have a permit to shoot your gun and you need to have a special closet to store your gun” Nadine Voelkers said in comparing her native Germany to Virginia.
All of the students agreed that Virginia needed stricter gun laws.
“In my country the government does not trust its citizen so they have a lot of restrictions on guns” said Aygul Shakirova. “But comparing the rate of crime in my city compared to here, I think that having gun laws is much better.”
“The right to bear arms is in the Bill of Rights and that’s how this country started so I don’t think that you can take that right from people” said Atakan Gungordu. “But that’s not the case in Turkey.”
The students, who have spent ten months in Virginia and will be returning whom in the third week of June, will leave Virginia with many memories of host families and new-found friends. Several students spoke of special memories that they said will stand out for years to come.
For Ayperi Iusupova, her induction into the National Honor Society will be a life-long memory along with a special Christmas gift that she received from her host family.
“I received a small airline ticket wrapped in a big box” Ayperi smiled. “The ticket was to Massachusetts so that I could visit Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. It is my dream to go there and the gift made a lot of memories.”
“Mine most memorable experience was seeing snow” said Ruevan Ratnesh. “In Malaysia it’s ninety degrees all of the time and it never snows. Several other students agreed their first-ever snow fall was an unforgettable experience. “Mine would be the same because back in India where I live we don’t have snow at all so I was really excited when I saw snow for the first time. It was even more cool when I went snowboarding” Khabeeruddin Ghouri said.
The students also told of experiences that included participating on school athletic teams and hiking on the Blue Ridge.
“Recently I hiked to Raven Rocks on the Appalachian Trail” said Aygul Shakirova. “Every time I go there you can look out andsee the whole county. I feel always stop and think â€˜Whoa!’”
But with every picnic a few ants creep in from time time. Were any disappointments from the experience?
Ruevan Ratnesh said that the visit held one big disappointment for him.
“I didn’t get to see any cheerleaders.”
“Wait a minute” responded Rana Mansour “I’m a cheerleader!”
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know that!”
Another disappointment shared by the students?
“We have stinkbugs in Ukraine but not as many as here. I had only seen them twice in my life before I came here” said Anastasiya Nevmerzhytska.
Perhaps surprisingly, none of the students found it difficult to be away from their families for nearly a year. The overwhelming consensus was that being away from home was not a problem.
“It was pretty easy” said Nadine Voelkers. “But my parents came to visit while I was here.”
All of the students said that they either would like to come back to the US for college or at least are considering it. One student, Nadine Voelkers, has already received an invitation from the University of Ohio.
“They want me for their track and field program” Voelkers said to the cheers of the other students sitting around the table for the interview.
Ayperi Iusupova, who visited MIT and Harvard thanks to the generosity of her host family, said that she has been planning to attend one of the two universities since ninth grade. “It’s just my dream” she smiled.
But even if an American university doesn’t turn out to be in each student’s future, each said that they would like to consider a return to the US in the future.
“Definitely” the group said in unison.
“I never considered America for myself as a place to live for some reason” said Aygul Shakirova. “I like it here and if I get a job that I want I might like to some here to work for some time, but I don’t think that I would be able to stay here for more than two years. “
“I’d like to go to college here somewhere but I wouldn’t want to stay here after graduating” said Pier Paolo Rauco. “I like where I live.”
“It’s hard to know in some ways if I would want to live in the US because we didn’t talk to people in other states and areas other than Clarke County so I just don’t know” said Rana Mansour.
But if a return visit does turn out to be in the cards, most of the students agreed that they had had enough of the countryside and would lean toward an urban area in the future.
“One thing I will miss is how friendly everyone here is” said Aygul Shakirova. “People here are always waving to me. When they wave to me I think to myself â€˜I don’t know who you are but I’ll just wave back.”
According to PAX coordinator Tanya Barton, only one host family has so far agreed to host a foreign student for the coming school year. Barton said that she would like to have at least two additional host families and can accommodate as many as five. If you are interested in acting as a host family please contact Tanya Barton by email at TB@TanyaBarton.com or phone (cell: 540-454-0057 or home: 540-955-9135)
For more information about being a PAX host family click here : PAX – Clarke County Information Flyer