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The future of local exchange student programs fuzzy

By Staff | Nov 17, 2019

Faribault County’s two school districts, Blue Earth Area and United South Central, have both been active in foreign exchange student programs for over 15 years. Recently, both school districts have also seen their numbers dwindle, or disappear all together.

What has caused this difference in foreign exchange student numbers? Is it economical? Is it cultural? Is there merely a lack of interest? It seems a number of these variables have played a part in the outcome of the local school districts’ exchange student pattern.

For Blue Earth Area, this is the first school year in the last 10 years in which a foreign exchange student has not been a part of the Blue Earth Area exchange student program.

Seven years ago, during the 2012-13 school year, BEA had a total of nine students visiting from other countries. After that, it was eight students. Then five students, then four students, then only two students in 2017-18, and just one student last year, Rita (Ying) Wu.

And United South Central is seeing somewhat of an opposite effect. While there have been about 10 exchange students in the last six school years, this year the district is host to three exchange students.

There are two sides to the process of an exchange program first there is a need for students overseas and naturally, a need for host families stateside.

It seems either one or both of these necessities have been in flux the past few years in the Faribault County area.

Both Travis and Tami Armstrong and Peggy and Perry Olson have served as host families in the past for Blue Earth Area, and say their experiences have been a pleasure for both hosts and students.

“We were empty nesters at 39 and 40,” says Peggy Olson. “I needed something to keep me busy, so I contacted Vicki Boeckman in July of 2005 and our first student arrived that August. Our students were all pretty apprehensive about coming to the Midwest. We told them small towns are the best and everyone knows everyone. In the end, they still call Blue Earth home.”

Vicki and her husband, Eugene, have hosted 19 different students for the Blue Earth Area exchange student program, and now Vicki even assists organizations with placing students in American homes.

“When Gene and I originally discussed becoming host parents, we had interest in doing it since we were in high school,” says Boeckman. “We had a German exchange student in our class that we really connected with. After that, we just loved doing it and expanding our family. That’s what happens these students become members of your family. We just returned from Germany over the summer where we went to two of our students’ weddings. It’s an experience of a lifetime.”

Travis and Tami Armstrong found the venture to be a great experience to share with their children. The couple have hosted seven exchange students so far.

“For us it was a decision that Tami made right after our daughter Addison was born. It was a great decision by my wife,” says Travis Armstrong. “It certainly was a culture shock for many of our students, especially those that came from larger urban settings in Europe. Our own children, as they grew older, were active enough with their activities that we were often traveling to larger towns for tournaments and games. That seemed to help, as well as having my younger brother living in St. Paul.”

These host families shared the process on how they became hosts to exchange students. Host families have to fill out a lengthy application, go through a background check, and regularly communicate with their student, among other requirements.

“We had to send photos of our house and the room the student would be staying in,” remarks Armstrong. “The basic expectation was room and board for the student, but we tried to go beyond that. Obviously, they were included in Christmas and birthday celebrations and the like. We try to always make it an enjoyable year in Blue Earth. One of the reasons I was okay with the decision to host was that I’d spoken to previous exchange students and heard some stories that saddened me.”

The process of becoming a host family is a fairly lengthy one, as putting some stranger’s student in the care of a stranger should come with a thorough process.

“If anyone is interested in hosting a student, it’s important to start the process of applying early, like right now,” says Boeckman. “It’s not a short process by any means. We, as placement specialists, want to make sure the student and the host family are a good match for one another.”

Whether its a student shortage, a host family shortage, or a multitude of other reasons for recent foreign exchange numbers being the way they are, sometimes, the fit just isn’t right.

“We had a dry spell for two years in the 2016-17 school year and the 2017-18 school year,” says USC’s high school counselor Kayt Klemek. “I don’t know what caused that, but we have had a rough couple of years with students and families not meshing well, or students didn’t do well in this rural of a setting.”

Klemek says she spoke with some host agencies, like Ayusa, a program schools use to connect host families with exchange students, to see if there were obvious reasons these visiting students had for their experience.

“I asked what they did to prepare students to come to a rural area,” said Klemek. “They said basically students have to be open to go wherever they are placed. We really want our students to enjoy their time here and have a great overseas experience.”

To say that economics or the current political climate is not a factor in the exchange student program, according to Boeckman, would be false.

“There is unrest in the world currently, we can’t deny that. With the way the immigration system is right now in the United States, parents overseas are on high alert as to whether or not their child will even make it back to their own country,” says Boeckman. “Our immigration issues in our nation are causing some pretty big rifts that are hard to ignore.”

Another factor is economics. Boeckman says students usually are told they will have to have $200-$300 per month for expenses, not to mention the initial travel expenses.

But Boeckman, as well as other local host families, hope this is merely a bump in the road for the foreign exchange program.

“We really hope BEA bounces back,” says Boeckman. “But you just never know. It’s important to not be afraid or hesitant with this kind of experience because it truly can change your life. These children become your own children. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a different experience all together.”

For now, the county has three guests attending a local school district, and the Faribault County Register hopes to introduce you to those students in upcoming issues. Stay tuned.