This past weekend, students in Pilgrim High School’s American Field Service (AFS) club hosted 16 foreign exchange students for a long weekend in Rhode Island, expanding their cultural horizons and learning that teenagers are teenagers, regardless of the country they live in.
The exchange students are currently living with host families and attending schools in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, with a few staying in Rhode Island as well. Pilgrim’s AFS Club prepares all year to host a four-day weekend stay in Rhode Island for New England exchange students; this year 14 Pilgrim families opened their home to students for this experience. This gives the Pilgrim students the opportunity to get to know students from around the world, and the exchange students the opportunity to meet more people and experience Rhode Island.
Senior Jennifer King and her family hosted a student for the first time over the weekend.
“I’m looking forward to learning about her culture,” said King about hosting the student from Norway. “It broadens your horizons overall.”
Although she was not hosting a student this year, senior Becca O’Donnell serves as president of the AFS Club and always looks forward to this experience.
“It’s amazing,” said O’Donnell. “Half of my Facebook friends are AFS kids from all over the world.”
ASF-USA is a non-profit organization that offers international exchange programs in over 40 countries. Exchange students visiting Pilgrim came from a number of countries, including Germany, Norway, Colombia, Portugal, Malaysia and Spain, among others.
Pilgrim Spanish teacher and AFS Club advisor Heidi Bennett said the students had a packed schedule for the weekend. AFS volunteers drove the exchange students to Pilgrim on Thursday evening where their weekend host families met them. On Friday, the exchange students shadowed Pilgrim students for the school day, enjoyed a meet and greet with traditional Rhode Island food after school, and attended a Chinese buffet dinner for 75 with the students and host families in the evening.
On Saturday, the group visited Providence Place Mall, spent time ice-skating outside at the Providence Rink at the Bank of America City Center, and attended the Pilgrim versus Toll Gate High School hockey game in the evening.
“They love the hockey games because they don’t always get to see hockey in their country,” said O’Donnell, recalling one student a few years ago screaming and cheering like crazy throughout the game.
On Sunday, there was a farewell brunch at Pilgrim before AFS volunteers picked up the exchange students and returned them to their host families in other states.
King and O’Donnell have been involved with Pilgrim’s AFS Club since they started at Pilgrim, and say getting the opportunity to learn about different cultures from people their own age is the best part.
“It’s different from reading it in a book,” said King. “It’s exposing people to cultures they wouldn’t otherwise get to know.”
The other benefit is just getting to meet more kids and make great friends.
“We make friends for life in the span of two or three days,” said King.
“We Skype all the time, stay in touch,” added O’Donnell.
Anna Hassan of Malaysia is staying with a family in East Greenwich and has been attending Toll Gate High School since January.
“It’s really cold,” said Hassan, when asked how her time in Rhode Island had been so far. “I’ve traveled to places that have winter but never for this long.”
She explained that Malaysia has summer weather year-round, but thanks to the weather, Hassan was able to go sledding for the first time.
But weather aside, Hassan said she has been enjoying her time here and was glad to see how friendly everyone was.
“It’s really nice. I find people, when you walk in a store, ask you how you are. It’s very different,” said Hassan.
Hassan spent the day shadowing Pilgrim senior Lauren Vermillion, who is also ASF Club’s secretary.
“I learned a lot of the stuff in Malaysia is really different,” said Vermillion, citing the American slang as something that caused a little confusion. “I’ve had to explain a few things.”
Bennett had encouraged her students to ask questions of the exchange students during their time at Pilgrim, and junior Sara Baribault stepped up to the challenge. She asked a number of questions, such as what sports the exchange students play, what they do in their free time, how the adjustment to America has been and more. While Baribault learned the school systems are different, when you boil things down, they have a lot in common.
“They’re not any different from me and my friends, even if they are from a different country. We followed each other on Twitter, sharing emotions about things happening today,” said Baribault.
Senior Brianna Tuscani shared similar feelings.
“The best part is the relationships,” said Tuscani. “Even though our cultures are very different, the values are the same.”
She added that she has been getting along with the female exchange students just as she does with her other girlfriends, talking about all of the things they have in common.
“Boys are boys, no matter where they are from,” said Tuscani with a laugh.
Although the exchange students were only in Rhode Island until Sunday, they will be with their New England host families through June. King said she hopes her classmates will stay in touch and visit with the exchange students again before they leave this summer.