Mariana and her host family

Exchange Students Experience Life in the US

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WASHINGTON — Esther-Marie Emslie of ASSE International Student Exchange Program is excited to proselytize about her organization.

The American Scandinavian Student Exchange (ASSE) was established in 1976 by the Swedish government but its roots go back to 1938 when the country’s Ministry of Education started a program with the goal of allowing Swedish and German high school students to spend a school year in another country.

Today, it has expanded around the world to 60 countries, from Australia to Italy and from Denmark to New Zealand. About 30,000 high school age students and host families participate annually around the world. The program also has 38 offices in 31 countries.

Students from the US go to 25 countries. The students, both the ones coming to the US and those going overseas, stay with host families for the entire school year.

This year there are two students from Armenia, Mariana and Anna, both of whom received a full tuition for the program. (Emslie asked that the girls’ last names not be used.)

Emslie is a volunteer with the organization. “There are representatives like me all across the US,” she said.

Anna and her host family

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The biggest part of her job at ASSE is finding host families in the US.

The host families are not paid, instead they are recruited through word of mouth at cultural events, through social media and mailings. However, to make sure that they are as compatible as possible with someone who will be living in their house, they are asked detailed questions about their preferences. They get the final choice regarding the student’s age, hobbies, country of origin.

“By choosing the student you want, you are more invested,” Emslie said.

The students typically arrive from mid-August to Labor Day and stay through the academic year, with many returning in May and June.

The students need to be at least 15 and at most 18 when they arrive here and maintain at least a C average. In addition, they have to be able to speak English.

“It is a fantastic opportunity for the kids,” she said. And it is not like a vacation. “They are expected to do chores and help with dinner or take out the trash, just like the natural kids in families.”

Of course COVID wreaked havoc on the program last year, with the majority leaving around Easter 2020.

The great majority of students pay for their exchange program, which costs around $8,000-$10,000 a year, but a lucky few get scholarships from the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), administered by the US State Department, including the two visitors from Armenia. In addition to the tuition payment, those with FLEX scholarships get a $125-a-month stipend.

Getting accepted into FLEX is very hard, with only 2.5 percent of roughly 45,000 applicants a year winning a scholarship.

Mariana

Said Mariana, “I’m so thankful to the FLEX program and my placement organization ASSE for organizing and placing me in this wonderful area. I’m living my best life here. I’ve already managed to experience a lot of new things and developed some new characteristics that will help me throughout my whole life. I’m doing my best to have a wonderful experience and fully enjoy this year.”

This academic year, about 500 students have come to the US, down from the pre-COVID numbers of 800 to 1,000.

Armenia has been participating in the program for several years; this year there are 11 students from the country in the US.

Emslie said that the experience was designed to give them a different experience. “They can gain insight into a different culture,” she added. “We hope they will leave with a better grasp of the language and an idea of the culture, politics and customs in the US.”

The group takes the students to different historic cities while they are here, including to New York and Philadelphia, and hosts cultural events for them. In addition, they visit the state capital of whatever state they happen to be in. They are expected to learn about the country’s political system and participated in holidays. In addition, they are to do three presentations about their own countries, presenting information about the culture, food and history at potluck dinners. “They are teaching us about their culture and food,” she said.

There are many, she explained, who did not know Armenia exited.

Emslie works full time at Penguin Random House books in customer service for Southeast Asia.

“I love working with our kids. It is a fun job,” she said.

Mariana, 17, from Gyumri, is a senior at River Hill High School and living with an Iranian-Armenian family in Clarksville, Md.

She said, “This is my very first time in the US, but before I have traveled a lot and have been abroad. I have been to Germany, Georgia and Russia. But the US has always been my dream country and I have worked very hard to make it here. This is a long-awaited achievement for me.”

She added, “My adjustment period has gone very well. From the very first day I was in a really good relationship with my host parents. They are also Armenians and we have the same last name (Just spelled differently). This is all a coincidence and I’m very happy and feel so lucky to be with them. I can say that I have found my second family here. They treat me like a family member and I appreciate everything they do for me and every moment spent with them. I know I’m going to miss them the most when I go back home.”

Anna

Of course, some difficulties are to be expected. “Like everyone else I also had some difficulties making new friends in the beginning. But there are people that are nice to me at school and now, I already have some friends that I can hang out and have fun with,” Mariana said.

Another difference for her is that between the educational system, and it is one she is enjoying now. “I really like that here students have a chance to choose the subjects they want to study. I already got used to my everyday life here and enjoy every moment,” she added.

The other Armenian student is Anna, from Stepanavan, Lori, who is also 17 and a high school senior, like her friend Mariana.

“At first it was not strange at all. I had talked to my host family on internet for a long period of time and when I came I can say I thought I knew them well enough and of course there were weird moments but not as many as I expected. When the excitement ended the cultural shock started but I can say I didn’t notice that I was having culture shocks until I got adapted,” Anna said. “It’s very nice that there are people who are so kind that are ready to accept you as a family member and I really appreciate my host family. Now I think I have a second home in the world where I can always return to. Of course there can be problems and misunderstandings from time to time but I think that those things can be even in your natural family so it’s totally normal. They’re like a family to me and I hope that they can say the same about me.”

Life is certainly different in the US than in Armenia. “Everything is different and by saying this I mean EVERYTHING. The way people who are friends to each other text, the topics they discuss, the way they hang out. I had some difficulties about making friends and I think it was because I had to step out of my comfort zone which wasn’t easy at all,” Anna said. “Now I am more aware of which level of knowing each other is considered being friends. It was funny because it’s like you’re friends with everyone but you are not really friends and it was the opposite back in Armenia – I was friends with a couple of people and knowing a lot of people didn’t mean they were my friends. I guess it’s just the difference between understanding the word ‘friend’ in two cultures and also how differently people build personal borders.”

Anna was also grateful to ASSE and FLEX which allowed her to come. “I love it. I can say that you must be a strong person to do an exchange year because besides the great experience, fun times and education it sometimes comes with a little bit of stress, homesickness and some hard times of adaptation. If I had to go back and choose I would surely choose applying again and again. I feel like in these 4 months I became such a strong and thankful person that when I look back I don’t even recognize Anna before this. Living with people who are just really different from me not only with cultural backgrounds but also with personalities helped me improve my communication skills which I am sure will help me during my whole life. To new generations I’d just advise to figure out why they want to do an exchange year, what expectations they have and talk to alumni and make sure this is what they want and they’re ready to come to a whole another continent without knowing anyone which now kind of seems scarier to me than it did before I came.”

To learn more about the organization or to participate as a student or host family, visit asse.com.

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