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A Year in America, and Then Some

Exchange Students Reflect on Experiences in Local Schools

In his year of study at Wyoming High School, Triet Vu learned a lot of things about America and its education system that were much different from his home in Vietnam: the easier curriculum, the pervasive technology, the intensely controversial election. But what he valued most? His fellow students.

“I really like the people,” said Triet, a senior. “It’s so nice. I can just say hi to a random person, have small talk and we’ll be friends. I can feel like I’m getting more sociable and mature.”

Our Distinguished Panelists

  • Triet Vu, from Vietnam, senior, Wyoming High School
  • Elisabeta Karlin, Germany, freshman, Rockford Freshman Center
  • Natale Aurtenetxe, Spain, sophomore, Rockford High School
  • Ayaka Kawasaki, Japan, junior, Wyoming High School
  • Hang Thi Minh Ha, Vietnam, senior, Wyoming High School
  • Yuka Nagai, Japan, sophomore, Catholic Central High School

Triet is one of 57 students who attended Kent County schools this year through the Educatius Group, a foreign-student exchange program operating in more than 230 U.S. high schools. It also works with some 120 universities to help students like Triet access higher education here; he has been accepted by Grand Valley State University to study nursing next year.

The foreign-exchange experience has enriched the lives of students and their host families for generations, thanks to a variety of agencies. Boston-based Educatius has provided that experience for students from over 50 countries in the past 10 years, an increasing number of them in West Michigan. With an office in Grand Rapids, it has grown from 39 students attending area schools in 2014 to 92 this year.

School News Network invited a half-dozen Educatius students to come together in mid-April and compare notes on their school year, which just happened to coincide with one of the most divisive presidential elections in American history. Here they weigh in on that and other, less controversial topics.

Natale Aurtenetxe competed in tennis and basketball at Rockford High

What Was Weird?

“I’m really surprised by how much you guys eat fast food,” said Triet, who as he said has become very sociable. “We had a lot of pizza, like, a LOT of pizza.”

For Elisabeta Karlin of Wiesbaden, Germany, who goes by Lisa, it was what she called “spray cheese,” better known here as Cheez Whiz. “I haven’t tried it, but I thought it was weird,” said Lisa, who attends the Rockford Freshman Center.

Ayaka Kawasaki, a junior at Wyoming High School, thought it was weird that students eat in the classroom, something never done at her school in Tokyo.

“We don’t use so many cars as you,” said Natale Aurtenetxe, a sophomore at Rockford High School. “We use more public transport” back home in Bilbao, Spain.

For Yuka Nagai,a sophomore at Catholic Central, it was weird not having the steering wheel on the right side, as in Japan. But it was much easier to get to school than in Tokyo, where it took her 30 minutes by bike, 30 minutes by train and 30 minutes walking – yes, that’s 90 minutes total.

Hang Thi Minh Ha says making class presentations was good for her

What Was Hard?

Lisa and Natale were both thrown by how often classes change. Back home they spent most of the school day with the same students.

“I like that you switch and can meet new people,” said Lisa, whereas always being with the same group, “You get annoyed with some people.”

Just physically changing classes at 1,800-student Rockford High was a challenge, added Natale: “It’s like if your locker’s downstairs and you need to go upstairs, it’s really difficult. There’s a lot of people.”

Although he found his studies “pretty easy,” Triet also found the constant class changes at Wyoming High disconcerting. “Teachers ask us to pair up and I’m like, ‘Oh crap, I don’t know anyone!’”

Yuka was taken aback by how much American students discuss topics with their teachers, so unlike the sit-quietly-and-take-notes norm of Japanese students. “If I could speak English more, I’d prefer the American style,” she said.

Hang Thi Minh Ha was unnerved by having to give class presentations at Wyoming, which was way out of her comfort zone compared to students’ passive routine in Vietnam. “I was so scared,” Hang said. “I tried my best. It was good for me.”

Elisabeta Karlin hopes to return for the graduation of her host sister, Michelle Moore

What Did You Most Appreciate?

“The teachers were really nice to you and really helpful,” Lisa piped up immediately.

For Yuka, it was the ready availability of technology, whether working from an iPad, emailing a teacher or using Google Translate. “In Japan, we have to carry a bunch of textbooks every single day,” she said. “I thought my back was going to be broken.”

For Hang, it was being able to know more people and ask teachers for help after school. That’s not easy in Vietnam, where she said she attended school six days a week until 5:30 p.m., and sometimes evenings if she needed more help.

Ayaka appreciated the diversity of students in Wyoming. “Everybody’s different,” she said. “I like that. Japan’s so boring. Everyone’s the same.”

Triet Vu says “America has all the cool people. You guys are doing good”

And What about That Election?

To a person, the students were impressed with how intensely engaged the public was in the showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“It’s crazy how you guys have all different opinions,” Triet marveled. “American people kind of put me to shame. I know literally nothing about Vietnamese politics. We just can’t have opinions.” On the other hand, he saw here “so much protesting and so much hate. I don’t like that.”

Lisa was also fascinated by Americans’ “strongly different opinions of things. In Germany, you don’t have such a strong opinion about politics.” However, she also sometimes found the election “kind of scary,” like when she heard of people beating each other up.

Hang went to the polling place with her host father, Eddie Tauler, and was impressed. “I saw how Americans care about their government and their president. They have freedom to speak about what they think.” In Vietnam, she added, “You have to be careful what you say.”

“In Japan, I never saw government as interesting,” Ayaka said. Yuka agreed, adding, “I was so impressed that even younger people (in America) have interest in their government and politics.”

Yuka Nagai was impressed by the technology available in U.S. schools

What Was Most Special?

All agreed it was the people – new friends at school and at home, with their host families.

Lisa traveled with her host parents, Shannon and Sara Moore, to see their daughter Michelle compete in Color Guard. She and Natale played on the Rockford tennis team, and Natale went camping with her host family, Matt and Karyll Russell, and helped daughters Karys and Jocelyn with their Spanish Immersion studies.

Hang and Ayaka, who both stayed with Eddie and Jamie Tauler, laugh about eating Eddie’s macaroni and cheese – “The American food I will never forget,” Hang said.

Ayaka Kawasaki hopes to attend Grand Rapids Community College

And that’s definitely not all.

“It’s really tough on them to leave, and leave the friends they made,” said Laurie Ledesma, who hosted Yuka and helps coordinate Educatius locally.

Triet agreed. “Basically, friends is what makes the year really special.”


Educatius Group

Ayaka Kawasaki, left, from Japan, and Hang Thi Minh Ha and Triet Vu, of Vietnam, were impressed by how engaged Americans were in the election
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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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