Exchange students huddle

Thirty-five exchange students from 18 countries crowded into Jay and Stassa Phillips’ home on Washington Street in Marietta Sunday. The group was in town to participate in a local American Field Service Exchange Program mid-winter orientation.

“They’ve been in this country since August, and we bring them all together for a mid-year orientation where they’ll learn some of the more subtle skills of communication as well as talk about cultural differences,” said Nancy Wadley of Circleville, support coordinator for the AFS Exchange Program.

The students, who are spending the current school year with host families in southeast Ohio and the Mid- Ohio Valley, were also in the area to give presentations about their home countries at several schools in Washington County in addition to Wood and Ritchie counties in West Virginia Thursday and Friday last week.

Ana Jang, 16, of Paraguay, spent the weekend with Wendy and Todd Myers of Marietta, whose daughter, Maddie, is leaving in a few weeks to spend six months as an exchange student in Uruguay.

“Ana was born in Korea, but has lived in Paraguay since she was a year old,” Wendy Myers said. “They don’t have snow in Paraguay, so this winter has been a different experience for her.”

Ana is attending Williamstown High School and spends most of the school year with her host family in the Walker area. While she’s enjoying her time here, Mid-Ohio Valley winters aren’t her cup of tea.

“It’s very cold here,” she said. “In Paraguay the temperature is mostly above 80 degrees-it was 113 degrees on Christmas Day.”

But Erik Derkes, 16, of Germany, who’s attending Marietta High School this year, has no problem with the cold.

“Snow is awesome,” he said. “As long as there’s snow it’s OK with me.”

Erik and Yoon Chang, 17, another MHS student who lives in Norway, both said schools in their countries never close because of snow.

“We get much more snow than here. Even if there’s a foot of snow on the ground we still go to school,” Yoon said. “And the snow you have here would be like perfect springtime Easter weather for us.”

Ana Peon, 17, also attending Marietta High, lives on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula where the weather is nearly always warm.

“But we do have snow in our mountains, and I really love it,” she said.

Her sentiment was echoed by Iftikhar Ahmed, 16, from Chennai, India.

“We never have temperatures under 80 degrees,” he said. “This was the first winter I’ve ever seen snow, and on my Facebook page I wrote that I wanted to have snow every day. I think my body is getting used to the cold now, I really love it. We went sledding yesterday.”

Iftikhar is among around 35 students from India who came to the U.S. through the AFS Exchange Program this year.

“There were 20,000 students who applied for a scholarship to take part in the program, but only 40 were able to go,” he said. “A few of them went to other countries like England or Spain, too.”

Iftikhar is living with his host family in Mount Vernon, Ohio, where he attends high school. He said living in small town Ohio is definitely a new experience.

“In India the city where I live on the eastern coast has 7.6 million people. Mount Vernon only has 15,000,” he said.

During this school year Iftikhar, who speaks five different languages, said he decided to take a speech class to improve his speaking skills, although his English is already pretty good. He started speaking English in elementary school.

He wants to become a marine engineer, following in the footsteps of his uncle who serves in the Indian Navy.

Jay and Stassa Phillips are hosting Yoon Chang and Giulia Raparelli, 16, of Italy for the 2013-2014 school year at Marietta High, and have been longtime host parents for the AFS Exchange Program.

“We try to get American kids to go to foreign countries, too,” Jay said, noting his own children participated in the exchange program when they were younger.

“Our daughter was five years old when we hosted our first AFS Exchange student,” he said. “That student is 40 years old now.”

Jay and Stassa are among a group of volunteers and AFS host families who hope their efforts help build good relationships between the U.S. and other countries around the world.

“You can always change the world-one person at a time,” Stassa said. “And we have more kids who want to be part of the program than we have families to host them.”

Jay encourages other families to become involved with the program.

“And this is the time of year for new host families to apply,” he said. “It can take a year or two for many of these students to file an application and be accepted into the program, depending on the country in which they live. They put a lot of work into this.”

The 35 exchange students who visited the area this weekend went back to their regular host families Sunday. They will complete the school year in the U.S. before returning to their home countries in June.