Foreign exchange students are family, not guests

Updated: 2014-01-06T03:32:35Z


The Kansas City Star

Randy and Trenna Hayes have an extraordinarily large family. Their 12 kids are spread across the globe. Some are in Chile, Denmark, Italy and England. Their first son, their only biological child, lives in California with his own family.

The Hayeses had added one of those 12 to their Northland household in August when an Indonesian student named Harryanto Suhardjo took his first step on American soil. Now he is fully immersed in the culture, getting used to a new climate, school and family.

Like 10 of the kids before him, Harryanto — Harry for short — is a foreign exchange student. He will spend about 10 months in the United States before he returns to Indonesia. But the connection he forms with the Hayeses, his host family, will unite them for life.

In Buckner, Susan Watkins recently welcomed exchange student Mathias Solberg of Norway as the newest member of her widespread family. Watkins has four kids of her own, and over the past eight years her family has grown as she hosted students from Switzerland, Finland, Pakistan, Germany and Japan.

“They’ve all become friends with each other, too,” Watkins said. “It’s really become like a giant family.”

Being responsible for someone else’s child can be daunting for some people. It’s also a cost commitment — another mouth to feed. But as the Hayeses and Watkins will tell you, the benefits far outweigh the apprehension.

“I think it opens your eyes to the way things are around the world,” Randy Hayes said. “The personal side of it, too, is part of the time hearing the squeal in their voice or their excitement, such as when we got a dusting of snow. Harry was tickled to death just to see the dusting we got.”

For Watkins, it’s about the connection her kids form with their new siblings and the perspective they gain.

“They become good friends. They act like siblings,” Watkins said. “It’s fun, because you get to learn about other countries. I think it really makes you more aware of the world in general.”

Mathias’ first impression of Missouri was that it is really flat. Although the 17-year-old had never been in the Show-Me State, Mathias is no stranger to America. His mom, originally from the United States, was a foreign exchange student in Norway in the 1970s. That’s where she met the man who would become his dad, who moved to the United States after high school to attend college in Oregon with her. The couple later moved back to Norway, where Mathias was born.

Because the host families work with organizations to match them with students, Watkins was able to select someone she thought would fit well with her family. She noticed that Mathias had two siblings and was interested in sports.

“I looked for kids from families with more than one kid, because I have lots of kids, and there’s lots of kids at my house all the time,” Watkins said. “And then (I looked for) interests the same as whatever one of my kids has.”

Watkins’ son, 16-year-old Kyle Watkins Davis, the only child left in her house, is a sports fan, which made Mathias an easy choice. Since arriving in August, Mathias and Kyle have formed a brotherly bond, playing video games and hanging out constantly.

“There’s always someone to hang out with,” Kyle said. “You always have a friend to hang with. And eat your food.”

Both boys attend Fort Osage High School, which gives them a constant support system and mutual friends. Mathias joined the varsity basketball team, where Kyle says “he’s a stud.” For Mathias, the transition has been pretty seamless, although speaking English was an adjustment at first.

“In the beginning, it was kind of strange speaking English,” Mathias said. “Americans talk a lot more than Norwegians. Norwegians, we don’t talk that much.”

Schoolwork also proved to be a challenge, with a bigger workload than Mathias was used to in Norway.

“I didn’t have much homework in Norway. Here you get a grade for everything,” he said.

One thing that hasn’t changed? Mathias’ appetite.

“Dude, you’re like a legend,” Kyle tells him. At school “they’re like, ‘Mathias ate 30 pancakes!’ 

Unlike the Hayeses and Watkins, Tracie McCrary had never hosted a foreign exchange student before this school year.

With three kids, McCrary was apprehensive about adding another child to her full house. But when she learned about AFS, formerly the American Field Service, and saw Ukrainian Dasha Statkevych’s profile, she made a leap of faith.

“It’s awkward at first, but she is so easy and fit right in,” McCrary said. “The experience outweighs any fears you may have. We’ve learned so much from her, and we’ve met people we wouldn’t have met.”

Dasha is a shy, 16-year-old only child. In her profile, Dasha indicated that she wanted a host family with multiple kids, which is part of what interested McCrary. With 17- and 10-year-old daughters and a 12-year-old son in her host family, Dasha certainly got what she asked for.

On a cold December day, while Dasha and her new family gathered in the kitchen to bake holiday treats for neighbors and friends, it was easy to see how Dasha fit so well into the dynamic.

Ashton, 17, is closest in age to Dasha. Both attend Blue Springs South High School and were on the cross-country team together.

“It’s nice to have someone around my age,” Ashton said.

Addi, 10, and Kyle, 12, quickly warmed up to their new older sister, asking about her homeland and trying new food.

“She’s really funny, and she has a lot of humor,” Addi said.

Dasha even helped Addi with her homework when she was having trouble converting Fahrenheit into Celsius, since Ukranians measure by Celsius.

Dasha has also helped Kyle learn bits and pieces of her native language, and even helped answer his questions about World War II.

For Dasha, who had never been to the United States, the language barrier was the biggest challenge in the beginning.

“At first when I came here, it was pretty hard. I didn’t think my English was that bad,” Dasha said. “It got better after a month.”

For Dasha, school in America has been much easier, with fewer subjects to study and a more casual environment than she was used to at home. She joined the cross-country team, and she hopes to join the track team in the spring. Although the language barrier was difficult at first, meeting new people was not.

“People are really nice, and it’s easy to make friends,” she said. “It’s really easy to get along with people.”

After landing in the Northland, Harry is learning to adapt to the cold, among other differences from life in warm Indonesia.

“I had to buy him a coat,” said Trenna Hayes, who is a district representative for the AFS in the North Kansas City School District.

Before coming to Kansas City, Harry had never seen snow, been to a football game or had his own locker at school.

“My teacher helped me open it,” Harry said.

The past few months have presented a number of firsts for Harry, who is a senior at Staley High School. Although it took him a while to fully understand English, the schoolwork is less of a challenge.

“I really like that we have five-day school. In Indonesia, we have six-day school,” he said.

Schools in Indonesia are also more strict, with specific uniforms for designated days and even specific grooming requirements. If a student’s hair is too long, Harry said, the teacher may come by and cut some off with scissors to send a message. And casual conversation with teachers is not allowed.

“In Indonesia, you cannot ask the teacher, ‘What’s up?’ ” Harry said. “Everyone here is like, ‘What’s up, Mr. So-and-So?’ It’s kind of different.”

The Hayeses have taken Harry on trips to other areas, including Omaha. Harry will see more of the United States when traveling to New York and California in 2014.

He is an excited 17-year-old, with a bright smile and an obvious adoration for his host family. Back home, Harry has two siblings and often works with his father at the shop he owns. He is one of 85 chosen for the Youth Exchange and Study program out of 8,000 applicants.

“It’s like a priceless experience that you cannot change,” Harry said. “Everything is so great.”

Because foreign exchange students can spend up to 10 months in the United States, they get to experience a wide range of seasons, from early August heat to winter wind and snow. And winter is also the first time some of them get to partake in American holiday traditions.

Because Dasha and her Ukrainian family are Eastern Orthodox Christians, they celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. This holiday season, Dasha took part in her host family’s traditions, such as picking out an ornament on the Country Club Plaza and seeing Longview Lake’s Christmas in the Park lighting display.

As a special surprise, Dasha’s host family took her to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra at the Sprint Center and “The Nutcracker.”

“It’s fun to see how they do Christmas,” she said.

Many exchange students had never put up a Christmas tree, strung lights outside a house or opened presents on Christmas Day.

Like Harry, for example.

Harry is Buddhist, so he doesn’t celebrate Christmas in Indonesia. This year presented some firsts for him, like helping his host parents decorate their Christmas tree and building a gingerbread house at an AFS event for Northland exchange students.

“I thought that was just in movies,” Harry said.

Across town on a cold Sunday evening, while the Northland AFS students were building gingerbread houses, the Independence AFS students were gathered in Don and Cheryl Coffman’s festive basement.

As presidents of the Independence chapter, the Coffmans hosted the Christmas traditions party where students and their families held sheet music while Don led them in caroling.

First came “O Christmas Tree,” followed by “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night.”

The students each brought a gift to exchange. After the caroling ended, Cheryl Coffman read “The Night Before Christmas.” Each time she said “the,” the students passed their presents to the left, and it quickly became a jumbled game of confusion.

Later, each student walked to the front of the basement to tell the group about his or her own family traditions during the holidays.

Mathias described Christmas in Norway. Because his mom is American, Mathias celebrates Christmas in a similar way, although his family opens gifts on Christmas Eve. Each Christmas, his grandpa dresses up as Santa Claus and dances for his family while they sing Christmas carols in Norwegian.

“He just hops,” Mathias said. “I don’t think he knows how to dance. He just makes up movements.”

Group gatherings like this allow the foreign exchange students to learn about American culture and the reasons behind traditions like the Christmas tree and Santa Claus. But it’s also a practice in becoming part of another family by sharing the season with them.

Amid the barking dogs and loud voices at the Christmas traditions party, Mathias and Kyle rarely left each other’s side, a brotherly bond that seemed fully formed only months after Mathias met Kyle and his host family.

Later, they will likely celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Easter. Some traditions will mean more or less to each of them, but what matters is that like other students and their host families, they will share them together.

When June arrives, Mathias, Dasha and Harry will pack their bags, say goodbye to their American families and friends, and fly back to their home countries.

The host families say that on that June day, not a dry eye will be found. Some are already dreading it, knowing they have to part with their new son or daughter. No matter how many students they’ve hosted, that day never gets easier.

The exchange students already have an idea what they’ll miss most about their experience in the United States.

“My family, my friends, my school,” Harry says.

“I’m going to miss everything,” Mathias says. “It’s going to be strange going back.”

They plan to stay in contact with their host families, most likely through Facebook and Skype, and some might come back to visit. Mathias and his host family are already planning next year’s reunion, most likely during the holiday season.

“They’re not a guest,” Susan Watkins said. “They’re in your house for 11 months. Anything you would do for your own kid, you would do for your AFS student.”

By opening their home to young people from abroad, the Hayeses have learned about new cultures, certainly. But they’ve also learned about themselves.

“People think that people in different countries are different, and they are to some extent. But what we’ve learned about teenagers is that teenagers are teenagers no matter where they come from,” Trenna Hayes said. “Deep down, everyone is the same.”

To reach Melissa Schupmann, send email to mschupmann@kcstar.com.

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