Exchanging culture in state's high schools
Pacific Intercultural Exchange (PIE) is a non-profit international student exchange organization that was established in 1975 in San Diego, Calif. It has been active in Maine for eight years, during which it has brought hundreds of students from countries all around the world including Thailand, Korea, Norway, Brazil and Colombia, to Maine public high schools.
There are currently 15 students living with host families in Maine and attending local high schools this semester, and PIE looks to increase this number each year. As part of their application, students rank geographic areas within the United States by order of preference, though they are generally placed according to their compatibility with host families.
But for many like Kristoffer Martinsen, a current senior at Maine Central Institute who hails from Trondheim, Norway, location within the U.S. is not important. Martinsen was primarily interested in experiencing American culture and attending an American high school for an academic semester. He didn’t care what city he lived in.
“I didn’t choose Pittsfield, Maine, as my destination,” Martinsen said. “I knew that I didn’t matter where I went, because it’s the people who live in a city that really make the difference.”
Before arriving in the States, students participate in an orientation in their home country through local organizations that partner with PIE, as well as a three to four week post-arrival orientation on site in the U.S. Still, the transition is not always easy. “It can be hard to adjust in the beginning,” Martinsen said. “I’m from a big city, so it’s very unusual to me to be in rural Maine. There isn’t as much to do.”
Many PIE exchange student become active in their communities by volunteering, participating in extracurricular activities or attending local churches. They also connect to their new home through the friendships they forge in school. “My favorite part of being here is meeting so many amazing people,” Martinsen said.
A student’s host family also plays a crucial role in their cultural exchange experience. “Host families provide the caring environment, room and daily meals,” Charity Webster, a regional manager of PIE, explained. Host families receive support through a network of community area representatives and regional managers. A pre-arrival orientation for families helps them learn how to best act as support systems for their students. Area representatives regularly check in with students and their host families and are available to answer questions.
“Good communication skills and common sense are really the most important [qualities in a host family],” Crystal Richard, an area representative for PIE and Martinsen’s host mother, said. A genuine desire to host a student is also a necessary requirement.
“You’re not expected to take them on a 10-month journey around the country—the exchange experience is a journey in itself,” Richard said. “Your responsibility is simply to welcome and absorb them into your culture and your home for the time they are with you.”
“Students all have their own medical insurance, their own spending money for expenses outside the family home and the host family’s commitment does not go beyond the six to ten months they sign up for,” Webster explained.
For most hosts however, the relationships their families form with their exchange students last a lifetime. “This is our second year hosting an exchange student, and both have been great additions to our family,” Richard said. “We still Skype, e-mail, chat and send packages back and forth with our exchange student from last year. She is very much a part of our family.”
Host families vary in size and kind, and there is no such thing as a “typical host family”: host parents can be married, single, retired, with children or without or anything in between. Students sometimes request to live in big families, while others want to experience living as an only child.
“My husband and I started hosting four years ago because we can’t have kids, and every experience has been different but has given us a family,” Webster said. “I have learned a lot from every student: they are so smart and have so much culture and knowledge to share.”
As a representative of PIE, Webster is hoping to increase the number of host families in Maine and eventually expand the reach of the program to incorporate all of New England.
“The first time your student experiences apple pie, or their first lobster, or snow storm, is such an amazing experience,” Webster said. “We really want to get as many families involved in our program as we can so that we can welcome more students and share with them what an amazing place Maine is.”