The AFS Exchange

AFS School Champions

May 25, 2021 AFS-USA Season 1 Episode 2
The AFS Exchange
AFS School Champions
Chapters
1:33
Ben McMurray
16:36
TJ Connor
30:11
Karen Gordon
The AFS Exchange
AFS School Champions
May 25, 2021 Season 1 Episode 2
AFS-USA

In this episode we interview three high school administrators from Ohio, West Virginia, and California. These educators provide insight about the value of welcoming AFS international exchange students into their school communities. We’ll hear about football games, hallway stampedes, lunchroom awkwardness, and… High School Musical? 

Guests: 
Ben McMurray, Ottawa Hills Junior/Senior High School (OH)
TJ Connor, Keyser High School (WV) 
Karen Gordon, Valley Charter High School (CA) 

Kristjan Gislason on Instagram: @slidingthrough 

Kennedy Lugar YES Program: yesprograms.org 

Contact us: [email protected]

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode we interview three high school administrators from Ohio, West Virginia, and California. These educators provide insight about the value of welcoming AFS international exchange students into their school communities. We’ll hear about football games, hallway stampedes, lunchroom awkwardness, and… High School Musical? 

Guests: 
Ben McMurray, Ottawa Hills Junior/Senior High School (OH)
TJ Connor, Keyser High School (WV) 
Karen Gordon, Valley Charter High School (CA) 

Kristjan Gislason on Instagram: @slidingthrough 

Kennedy Lugar YES Program: yesprograms.org 

Contact us: [email protected]

Kate M.
Hello and welcome to The AFS Exchange. My name is Kate Mulvihill. The AFS Exchange is a podcast by AFS-USA where we open the door to hear from members of our AFS family. This is a place to have conversations, or ya know, exchanges, with AFS host families, students, volunteers, and educators. 

During these exchanges, we will hear from our guests on how their lives have been impacted by AFS. What lessons have they taken away from their experience abroad, or their experience with hosted students in the United States?

In today’s episode, we’re going to check in on three schools across the US who have hosted AFS students. These schools have all seen how welcoming AFS participants into their classrooms can open the minds of their own students, and have a positive impact on the community as a whole.

Each of these schools provides a unique experience for the AFS students who come to town. We’re going to learn what life is like for an AFS student at one of these schools. You know/for example, what activities do they get involved in, how do they handle being the “new kid,” and what do they teach their fellow students to help make the world a bit smaller?

Also, to give you all some context about the timing- these interviews were conducted in July and August of 2020. Some things have really changed between that point and now. But… a lot of things haven’t. Namely, the effect that AFS students have on a community and what they bring to schools. 

Kate M.
I’m talking with Ben McMurray, the principal at Ottawa Hills Junior Senior High School in Ottawa Hills, a suburb outside of Toledo, Ohio. In Ottawa Hills, or, as the kids call it, “the Bubble,” the school is at the center of this small town. Ottawa Hills has a long history hosting students through AFS, including a former AFS student who rode his motorbike around the world- and wrote a book about it. 

So Ben, tell me a bit about yourself.

Ben M.
Sure. So I'm the principal at Ottawa hills junior senior high school. This is my 12th year. It's my 29th year in education. I started off as a social studies, science teacher. 
I've always been pretty passionate about being aware of the world, encouraging students to be active participants in society. 
I feel very fortunate to have a community that, you know, shares a lot of the same values I have in terms of education and supporting kids in terms of their journey.

Kate M.
So Ottawa Hills HS has about 500 students, but as the center of town, it holds an important role. 

Ben M.
I say to people, when I give them tours of the school, the main hallway is like Main Street. 
It's a pretty brilliant thing actually, that people would design the neighborhood, no businesses, but they plop a K 12 campus right in the middle of the neighborhood. So education is the epicenter of everything that goes on in the hills.

Kate M.
That really highlights the priority of the town- education.

Ben M.
We're a pretty, you know, hundred percent of our kids graduate. So it's sort of a college prep school. They have that in mind. They want to land somewhere. Our philosophy is, kids should be really well rounded. Students should have by the time they're getting ready to graduate, be positioned in a way to get into the school of their choice. That's a top priority and providing them at the school with educational opportunities is paramount.

Kate M.
And it seems like another one of those priorities is intercultural education. Ottawa Hills has hosted over 100 students since 1962, and 25 have been during your time as principal. So, why is this important to you?

Ben M.
You know, there's a whole world out there. Ottawa Hills is very small. Just 500 students at the junior senior high school.
I'm passionate about offering classes here at school, language classes or classes that can explore global issues. You know, that kind of education. Global Education is really essential to our students' growth and development as we launched them into the world.

Kate M.
So for a school that’s so small, what’s it like for AFS students arriving to Ottawa Hills HS?

Ben M.
New students, whether they're AFS students or not, you know, our students just glom on to them. They want to know more. They're very curious about them.

Kate M.
So AFS students arriving for the year generally arrive in August or September. What are those first few weeks like? I know the local volunteer team is really involved in the support of these students.

Ben M.
They really do a fabulous job of helping kids get their feet on the ground. They usually arrive before the start of the school year. They're making friends with their host family. Usually there's some gathering that's either organized by AFS or more informally by the host family to introduce them. So right from the start, they've got a group of friends.

Kate M.
You know, that’s great. The earlier the participants become involved in extracurricular activities, the better! We have found that participants who have more friends and acquaintances early on in the program generally have a more balanced social life! Obviously having a connection with the host family and maybe their extended family and friends, their circle, is important. But forging relationships independent of the host family, where they can practice their communication and social skills in unfamiliar environments, is one of the key learning objectives of the program. 

Well, so, do AFS students get involved with sports at Ottawa Hills? I’m sure some of these sports are new to AFS students! Lacrosse, cheerleading...

Ben M.
For a lot of students, it's the first time they might have played American football or field hockey or, you know, run cross country. 
 
And as you know, sports and other countries are very different. They're not really part of their school, but at Ottawa Hills they are, so there's this whole “becoming a Green Bear.” And you know, our school mascot is the Green Bear and, you know, wearing the spirit wear and the spirit gear and going games so that's sort of their orientation right from the start. 

Kate M.
It’s great that these students have an opportunity to learn about the importance of teamwork in American culture! Many high schools allow- and encourage- AFS students to participate in sports. Some states, though, do have restrictions about graduated students participating in any school sports. However, that of course does not prohibit students going to the games, or getting involved in other activities! So besides sports, what other activities do they get involved in?

Ben M.
Well, we let them do whatever they want, or we've had kids join the Model United Nations team, join Science Olympiad. AFS has a club, so that's something that we run, they do have semi regular meetings where they talk, they might do some sharing, they might go someplace to a local restaurant, we really encourage that.

Kate M.
Oh great! We love hearing when a school has an AFS Club. They’re great spaces for returnees, hosted students and their peers to examine their home culture while exploring other cultures, and their subconscious biases and assumptions about the world that go along with them. I know in many clubs, they center each week’s meeting around a discussion topic to encourage learning about other countries and cultures, as well as discussing the US and the variety of American cultures.

In addition to sharing in the AFS club, do AFS students have the opportunity during the year to share more about their home country?

Ben M.
Yeah, the students will communicate early on, “I'm happy to talk about my home country in any capacity.” So they have done things like host a little, like, cooking class in our Family and Consumer Science room. They've hosted like doing henna painting on their hands in the art classes. They have presented to our school board before.
By October, you know, we sort of worked it out, their language skills are pretty good enough, they’re confident,, they get up in front of the entire student body and present. They do a little five to 10 minute presentation about their home country and where they're from and about themselves. 
And, you know, we've had standing ovations for some of those presentations. And it's pretty magical. 
It's again, part of the fabric of the school, we make that important. We elevate them, we put them up in front of the student body, I would be terrified at 15 or 17 to present in front of you know, 600 people in our auditorium. But these AFS students are pretty incredible. Their slideshows are always well done. They usually teach them a little bit about themselves and a lot about their home country. And sometimes the observations that people already are stereotypes they might have about their home countries. And so they do a little debunking there. And set the record straight on what their countries are like and how much more complicated they are than what that people learn from television.

Kate M.
So back to school life. What is school like? It sounds like Ottawa Hills is an academically rigorous school. How do our AFS participants fit into that?

Ben M.
It can be overwhelming with a second language and just sort of managing all of what is new to them. So you got to, you know, you got to put that in perspective for them and and really create a schedule that's going to be manageable without overloading them and some kids, right, as you know, arrive with homework is not part of the experience at school.

Kate M.
It can be quite an adjustment for students when they come to the US! 

Ben M.
Yeah, I mean, there's always adjustments. I mean, really, those cultural differences are there and you know, people are in a strange land. And it's not always easy. But I think cultivating curiosity among our students here in the school, making sure that you know, our school climate is really positive, providing many opportunities to welcome them into the community. But also an opportunity to share. I know the AFS students really like to do that. 
It can be transformative, not only for them, but also for our students. So, you know, you can do that as best you can. What I love about AFS is really the active role that the liaison plays.

Kate M.
Yes, and you work with the Northwest Ohio Area Team, right? Linda Sherry is the Support Coordinator?

Ben M.
You know, Linda is absolutely incredible. She's there for them when there are hiccups that happen with the family or a teacher, you know, we just try to make sure everyone is all in when they come to make this a really powerful experience. 
Our community supports AFS, there's a real value in and having these students visit our school, it's not just for them, there really is a value to our community and learning about the rest of the world and it's more important than ever. So it's communicating that this is really important to everyone, their successes, and they have a lot to offer. Again, our school and community so their successes, our success, and it can turn into these lifelong friendships and these transformative experiences.

Kate M.
So Ottawa Hills has had a long relationship with AFS. Are there any students in particular that stand out? 

Ben M.
A little anecdote is we had a student from Denmark come and he was on the football team. Soccer player, never played American football. One of our students got in trouble actually, the kicker, and he had to step up and it was the, you know, the league championship and kick the winning point for the game. 

Kate M.
Wow, pressure!

Ben M.
A lot of pressure! I thought, Oh, my, here we go. You know, here's our exchange student, you know, and he kicked the field goal, won the game, and it was just a magical moment.

Ben M.
He ended up coming back to the school, the following summer with his whole family. Our coach gave him his football jersey to keep, and the look on his face receiving this football jersey, I'm sure it's framed in his house, back home. And again, a magical moment. And you could tell he really felt part of the school and part of his American experience being on the football team. So that was fun. 

And I had given them some Ottawa hills tshirts. When they came, when they got back home, they sent us a picture all wearing their Ottawa hills shirt. So it was pretty magical. They had a very strong connection with the school and the community. And he was so proud to show the rest of the family around the neighborhood. They came up to the school in the summer, I got to meet all of them. And you could just tell I mean, we're gonna have a lifelong friend there and a lifelong connection with that country because of that experience. 

Kate M.
That’s so great. You know, every once in a while, we will get an email from someone saying, Hi, we had an exchange student come to our school through AFS 10, 25, 40 years ago, we are planning a reunion. We would like to invite them. Could you get us in touch with this person who was an integral part of our school community for a year? Now we live in the days of Facebook, so it's easier to stay in touch. But it's great to know that years and years later they are still considered a part of the community.

Ben M.
You know, another little story about that is we have a scholarship named after a Kristjan Gislason from Iceland and he came in the mid 70s. And I didn't really know why we had the scholarship in all honesty, I knew he was an exchange student. We had the scholarship. I didn't know what happened to him, what the story behind the scholarship was. And, of course I did a little digging and found the family that hosted him. He was quite the rock star, as you said, when he came, he played on the football team. He had like a two or three page spread in the yearbook about him. And we've had the scholarship that his dad started when he left, because he was just so enamored with the community and son's experience and so the scholarship has continued. So I reached out to the family that hosted him, they said Well, yeah, he's still around. In fact, he rode his motorcycle around the world. 
So I did a little digging, you know, on YouTube and found these videos that were just incredible and yeah, he he did ride his motorcycle around the world. So I reached out to him and he responded right away and turns out he not only traveled around the world, he wrote a book about it and the photographs are just incredible. So he has the travel bug big time.

He's a quite a photographer and videographer but he has an Instagram too called Sliding Through. That's the name of the book. And his images that he's taken around the world are just amazing. So we've been back in touch now, I'm hoping to have him come to the school and give a talk about his book and his experiences. The students now who receive the award, I put them in touch with him. Social media has allowed all that sort of connection to happen to an even greater extent. 

And it's just amazing. I mean, he is really a story for AFS. I mean, you guys should reach out to him- Kristjan Gislason, is his name, from Iceland. In Iceland I know they did a little documentary about him and his experience and the book came out. Again, great connection. And I think, you know, his AFS experience was profound in shaping the rest of his life.

Kate M.
You know, maybe that book wouldn't be there if it weren't for Ottawa Hills and Ohio. 

Kate M.
(Aside) The AFS fact checkers have confirmed that this is all true. Kristjan Gislason from Iceland did indeed bike around the world in 2014, and then bike from Iceland to South Africa in 2018. His story can be found at slidingthrough, one word, on Instagram.

Kate M.
So, have there been other lasting connections between AFS students and Ottawa Hills?

Ben M.
In fact, one of our exchange students moved back here and married someone from our community. And now his children are going to school here. Emilio came from Spain. And so he's now a professor at Bowling Green State University. He adores the community. And he raised his family here. So those kinds of things can happen. And I think our school, our community, get that, I really do.

Kate M.
And we love seeing those kinds of things happen! Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Ben M.
I just hope that, you know, again, I speak to the mission of your organization, obviously, COVID-19 knows no boundaries. And there are so many complexities. So the way this unfolded, and it's, it's important more than ever to see the value in understanding that we're all part of a global community. And we've got to coordinate together to get a handle on things and programs like these, teach kids at a very early age, that these are important, these bridges, these connections, and, you know, there are going to be future scientists and politicians among those AFS students that understand how the world works. And there's some real value in that it's, you have taken a long view on things and I really appreciate that.

Kate M.
Well thank you, Ben!

--

Kate M.
Now we’re headed over to Keyser High School in West Virginia, and I will be speaking with TJ Connor, the Assistant Principal at Keyser. 

TJ started off in education as an art teacher, first at the elementary level then at the High School, before becoming the Assistant Principal. In addition to her role as an administrator, TJ has worked with AFS students in the art classroom and in after school activities.

Keyser has a long history with AFS. In fact, they hold the record for most consecutive years hosting an AFS student- they’ve hosted 90 students since 1966! 

So, TJ, tell me about life in Keyser, West Virginia.

TJ C.
So Keyser is a really small town in West Virginia, it was originally built around a railroad that came through the and then following the trains. There's a little Old Main Street. And then we, you know, expanded up towards the demographic changes up towards the mountain type areas. So, we've a little downtown and then a lot of people that like to live out in the country more than what you really think about West Virginia. 

Kate M.
Would you say that it’s a close community?

TJ C.
A lot of the kids that are born and raised here, oftentimes, more often than not, you hear that they stay around here, and just, then you'll want to raise their family here, which is not a bad thing, cause it is a very nice, close knit community. But there's not a lot of jobs or industry here that brings people to Keyser to live or move here for any specific reason, either. So, for that reason, I think, is the big reason why there's not so much diversity here. There's nothing really any reason that brings new families or new people to the area to live.
94% of people here identify as white Caucasian. So to be able to have that foreign exchange experience, our students learn just as much as the foreign exchange student does.

Kate M.
That’s great that AFS students can bring some cultural diversity to Keyser in that way. You know, it’s important to recognize that exchange students bring diversity to any school. Even a school with a very diverse population can benefit from the diversity of thought and perspective that students who have not yet lived, studied, and experienced education in that community. AFS-USA can help them be intentional with their diversity initiatives to ensure that their student body and local community have experience with a variety of thinkers and doers from around the world.

TJ C.
That's one of the reasons why AFS was started was because of the want to bring more culture and more diversity to have our students here experience a little bit more than what you realize there's more to the world and what Keyser has to offer.

Kate M.
Yes, Keyser has a long history with AFS! Could you tell me a bit about how you got so interested in this history?

TJ C.
When I got into the administration position here, there was this little wooden archway that I kept seeing in different places in the office. And on that little archway, were about maybe 20 little miniature flags as a display and I thought that this has to have something to do with foreign exchange, but it didn't have a home, everyone just kept moving this little archway around. So I thought I'm going to give that thing a little bit more attention and figure out what exactly it is and give it a proper place to live. So that's where my digging around started with this foreign exchange program. Once I realized what it was, and I thought there's so much here that we have to be proud of here at the school, we need to show it off. 

Kate M.
Hmm, what did you find with your digging?

TJ C.
So back in 1965, a man by the name of Harry Boggs was a member of the rotary… (fades out)

Kate M.
So Harry Boggs, part of a very involved family in town, was a member of the Rotary. Rotary International is an international service organization whose members complete service projects. Harry was interested in a project that could bring some diversity to the Keyser area. He started exploring different foreign exchange programs and in the end, he decided to go with AFS. Specifically what he liked was that the student could come for a whole year to experience what Keyser was like in all four seasons.  
So once Harry decided he wanted to get this started, he spent the rest of 1965 organizing all the paperwork and logistics for a student to come to Keyser High School. He recruited family, friends, and community members to support him with his project.  So in 1966, after a year of prep, Keyser High School hosted their first student- Hans from Germany.


TJ C. (Fades in)
...And since then we've had between one and four students every year. This year, unfortunately, it will be the first year we won't have one. I hate to break the consistency that we've had. That's something that Keyser really is proud of, is the fact that we have that long running history of having a student consistently every year. We've had students from 35 different countries, you know, you name it, we've had them.

Kate M.
Well fingers crossed for next year! I don’t think anyone can fault Keyser for not hosting a student in a year this crazy! But, well, I suppose if we’re talking about students from years past… what do you remember? What stands out as characterizing an AFS student?

TJ C.
Usually, you know, by nature, these students are open minded and pretty intelligent. Because just the fact that they're here to be part of that program, that's usually, they're just, their personality, usually very outgoing, happy, friendly. So in the classroom, that translates into very being very engaged in the class, wanting to get the most out of the class that they can. A lot of times when the students come here to get the year of school here, they are sacrificing a year of their school. So say if they come from Italy at the end of their 11th grade year, they come to us and their senior year here, they have to go home and repeat that senior year. 

Kate M.
Yes, for some students, they do not receive credit for this year back at home and have to retake the year they spent in the US. 

TJ C.
And I know that the travel, and the studying abroad, you can learn so much from that. So sacrificing that year, and versus being there at their home high school and repeating that whole year, you know, it could be looked at as a disadvantage. But I think there's so much to be learned in that year of travel from each other. It's just you can't, you know, you can't learn in high school, what you can from the content from what you can really living it and experiencing the different ways of life.

Kate M.
Absolutely. So we know the AFS participants at Keyser have been open minded, excited to have new experiences and really make the most out of their year. What are some activities they have gotten involved in during their time in West Virginia?

TJ C.
We really encourage from even the teacher perspective as well as the administration and the host families. We really encourage them to get involved as much as they possibly can, whether it be during the school day or outside. After sports extracurriculars, just to, you know, be part of everything they can when they're here.

Kate M.
Absolutely.

TJ C.
Well, something else that just comes to mind is football on the game, you know, traditional Big Friday night football games. We have a club here, it's the Keyser cCazies, which is basically a little fan club of our football team. And that's a quite an active club. So every Friday during their advisory time or you know, study hall type class we have there they are making big signs to hold up during the football game Friday night. So usually the foreign exchange students were part of Keyser crazies, because once you make your sign, then you go up to the game on Friday, you come back to the school to the stadium, and there's a section of the stadium as a student section. And there you can just let loose the kids just are so you know, supportive of each other in a positive way. I love going walking through the student section just to see everyone up there.
Just you know taking it all in. But that interaction with each other and you know, it's not really a school interaction, it's where they can just be loud and rowdy and Really no really just get into the spirit of the football. Um, and just the support system of each other. That's that always, you know, I like seeing that anytime I can.

Kate M.
That sounds like such a nice tradition! So when you’re chatting with these AFS students, what do they tell you about differences between Keyser and home?

TJ C.
Camila is the one student that I got to know a lot. And I one day, I just thought, I'm just going to sit down and interview with her because she just there's so much through conversation that comes up that I would just make me think well, what else is there that I don't know about? She was from Italy.

Kate M.
What did you learn?

TJ C.
So I just sat down with her one day and just went through the whole gamut of questions. And it was just so interesting because of the way that her day through school is set up compared to how we do it here and then in the United States. It really makes your question, well, what would it really be like that, you know, have that routine, she would go to school in the morning, spend a couple hours there and then go home for lunch and then come back for just a couple hours in the evening, but they would have to come on Saturdays as well. So their whole lifestyle is affected by their school day routine so much that you don't really think about. 

And then when they come here, it's like, wow, this is a really long school day when you start at eight o'clock in the morning, you don't leave until 330, no lunch for break. You know, they would have a whole afternoon basically the middle part of the day to relax, get lunch at home, they would none of their schools would serve lunch, they were, you know, to go home and get their own lunch.

Kate M.
So at Camila’s school they didn’t offer lunch, and most students would go home for a few hours in the middle of the day. How would they get back and forth?

TJ C.
Transportation was another thing that I thought was interesting, because there are no public school buses to go out and get these kids from their house and bring them to the school building. They were to get there on their own, whether it be walking, having a parent drive them in and or public transportation, they would pay for their busing. So it's just the things that we just take for granted. And we don't really think about what would happen if we didn't have that. Well, you know, in Italy, they figure it out.

Kate M.
And lunch? Sitting down in a cafeteria in the middle of the day is a new experience for a lot of our students, I’m sure.

TJ C.
You know, the lunchroom is a whole different practice that you have to learn about how the line works and what the lunch duty teacher expects, and oh my gosh, where do I sit? What table? Where do I sit? And you know, it's you know, you have to find that little niche of kids that you like to sit with at lunch and just kind of learn the habits of each other.

Kate M.
Learning the habits of the lunch room as a US student is rough, but made even more difficult when you don't necessarily understand the cultural context. Like, how do I decide who to sit with? What do I eat? Who do I talk to? Am I going to end up sitting in one of the bathroom stalls like you see on TV?

TJ C.
So sometimes it's just where am I? How do I get to my next class? So, you know, it's just, you know, things that liking it, like I said, the things that we don't even think about from day to day, it's a whole new world for them. So it can be quite intimidating to begin with.

Kate M.
Ah yes, changing classrooms. That could be a new experience for some of our students. And at the end of the day, everyone rushing out the door...

TJ C.
I, I use the term a stampede. So when 330 is the end of our day, so you better watch out, but the kids are coming through the hallway ways to get to the bus. And if you don't set that aside, you might be caught in a whirlwind of kids. They're anxious to get out. So in between classes, you know, with the 675 kids that we have here, there's a lot of bodies moving all different directions in that hallway. So it can be a little bit intimidating. 

Kate M.
Yes, absolutely! I remember that from my time in high school. Stampede is a good word for it.
So, well, TJ., is there anything else you would like to add?

TJ C.
A
nother thing we asked the students to do is have a speech during graduation. So they oftentimes reflect on what their experience meant to them. And a lot of times, it comes back to the friendships and these lasting relationships that they create with a really small knit group, but they appreciate the whole School is a whole understanding how the culture is. 

There's so much more to the ways of life and education specifically, what else is out there, I mean, who's who's to say who's doing it the right way, but it's just so many different ways to do it. It's just really impressive. And then, when the students reflect on their year and their speech during graduation, it's just always really touching the way that they really create another family here they have these relationships with these families. And it's almost like they're, they become the son or daughter of the host families themselves. So these relationships that they build, they really take to heart.

Kate M.
Well thank you, TJ! Here’s hoping Keyser will be able to welcome another AFS participant in 2021! 

That was TJ Connor, Vice Principal at Keyser High school in Keyser, West Virginia. 

---

Kate M.
We’re crossing the Mississippi and finishing up this episode on the West Coast. Our next school is in Modesto, a city in Northern California, about 2 hours east of San Francisco. I am chatting with Karen Gordon, Principal of Valley Charter High School.

Valley Charter High School is, well, a charter school. We will learn more about what makes Valley Charter different from a more “traditional” (quote unquote) high school. And also how AFS students can thrive in many different school environments!

Kate M.
So, Karen, could you tell me a bit about yourself?

Karen G.
I am the principal of Valley Charter High School. I have been at this school for many years to say, but relatively new in the principal position a couple years in the principal position, which is a big change, and I do miss being in the classroom quite a lot. I taught psychology, and English and film studies. Those are my three biggies, I guess you'd say.

Kate M.
What is your history with intercultural exchange?

Karen G.
I was at the University of Southampton and we were living in the dormitories and in England, and I studied art and archaeology. Got to trampse through fields and see things like the Roman walls and have a great experience. We did visit private homes but we didn't stay in private homes. And then we did a major tour of the Mediterranean.
It put in place a love for travel and cultural exchange and then as a teacher, back in the 80s, I took groups of students on tours in the summer. Another teacher and I put together our own tours. And we took groups of about a dozen students and spent, like six weeks touring around, and it was wonderful.

Kate M.
Hah, what is it like bringing a group of teenagers abroad?

Karen G.
It was very exciting. We did a lot of preparation before travel, to get their minds ready to be broadened to get them out of a mindset that things were going to be the same. We did everything from how the language would be different to, you know, trying to use the home language of the country we were and how respectful that was, we talked about how the food would be different. And that whining was not going to be allowed, and to be prepared.And they were great students, very open, very excited. 

Kate M.
Hah, “whining is not going to be allowed!” Just put it out there right from the beginning. Short trips like that can be exhausting! So much amazing stuff to see, so little time.

Karen G.
One powerful experience was when we went to Versailles. And we would learn about the history of how that was built, and then state of the country and the connection to the French Revolution to the American Revolution. And they were beginning to make all these global connections of history and being rather shocked by the amount of money gold spent on it. Well, you know, so many of the people were starving, but, you know, they really brought to mind the division of wealth, and we were able then to connect it back to our country.

Kate M.
Well that’s great, those experiences are so valuable. And I understand that this was at a different school, before you came to Valley Charter. Could you tell me a bit about Valley Charter High School?

Karen G.
So in talking with any potential foreign exchange student, I want to make clear that we are not High School Musical. No, we are small and unique. We use the word funky a lot. 

Kate M.
Hah, alright, small, unique, not High School Musical. You’re not going to see any choreographed dance numbers on cafeteria tables here.

So Valley Charter is, indeed, a charter school. So for anyone who may be unfamiliar with charter schools, they are state-funded schools that exist independent of a local school district. They can’t charge tuition, and they can’t be affiliated with any religious institution. Charter schools are open to any student who wishes to enroll, on a first-come, first-served basis.

Karen G.
We are a small, early college high school, and early college high school means that we are located adjacent to our community college. And a good percentage of our students are dual enrolled there and take classes both in the high school level on the college level. And so some of them actually finish their AA degrees, before they finish from us.

Kate M.
AA degrees? What’s that? 

Karen G.
Associate of Arts degrees. Before they graduate from us, their two year college degree that would be the end result of a community college or junior college. So that's kind of our identity that we are small, very personal and early college high school promoting that, those pathways to that.

Kate M.
How great that students have the opportunity to get a head start on college classes in high school! While our AFS students likely would not be able to receive college credit, they can still benefit from going to two schools, two types of schools, during their time in the US. They are seeing more of the education system and meeting different people than they would otherwise.

Hmm, so, what else could an AFS student, or their host family, expect at Valley Charter?

Karen G.
I want to make sure that students know we don't have sports. We don't have Friday night football games. We don't have basketball teams. We don't have those things. We have dances, yes. And we have a very small student body, 150 kids typically. 

Kate M.
Wow, I assume it must be a very close community. 

Karen G.
We are very family oriented in that we see ourselves as a family. Every teacher knows every and recognizes every student. Every student, whether you have them in your class or not recognizes all the teachers. We have a lot of communication with the families. Our class sizes are significantly smaller than in the larger typical high schools. So classes stay typically below 20, sometimes 15, you know, so there's a lot of awareness and a lot of opportunity for students to grow and share in those smaller communities, in big, big classes, sometimes, you know, there's always those kids that get dropped in the back row and never emerge. And so we try to avoid that. And so we are very unique in that sense. 

Kate M.
So last year you had a student named Huzaifa from Pakistan at your school. How did things start out?

Karen G.
From the moment he arrived, he was nothing but a bright light in our midst. Energetic, enthusiastic, intelligent perspective, communicative just more than I had, could have ever hoped for such an interesting young man who was instantly involved and wanted to share and he asked me over and over again, what else can I do? What else can I do? So he was involved in ASB, the student body, and became a part of that planning activity. And he was a presenter at our assemblies. And so he would give cultural perspectives on his country and introduce practices and explain how he came to be at our school. He was involved in quite a lot so but being involved in student body then by default he was involved in all the activities that were put on by the student body.

Kate M.
So Huzaifa was a participant of the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program, or YES Program for short.

The YES Program was established by Congress in October 2002 in response to the events of September 11th. The program provides full scholarships for high school students from countries of strategic importance to spend up to one academic year in the United States. Since 2003, nearly 13,000 students from over 45 countries have participated in YES

Recipients of this highly selective scholarship, like Huzaifa, also participate in enrichment activities and community service during their time in the United States. But, well, when he wasn’t doing that, what else did Huzaifa get into at Valley Charter?

Karen G.
So the other things that Huzaifa did was he was a member of our Academic Decathlon team. And he participated in all the competitions. And in fact, he was the high point team scorer. And he got an awarded medal, he earned enough points to get a medal in both the speech and interview categories. And it was terrifically fun to see him engage in that.
He took a class at the community college, he missed playing soccer, and so he signed up for a soccer class and played soccer at Modesto Junior College and took that that class which was wonderful, and he would go in the morning and I'd see him you know, get ready to go just across the street. He did that. He also spoke and was introduced at our County School Board meeting and was presented with some acknowledgement there.
He, he wasn't lost in the shuffle. He had a chance to really meet and get to know a wide range of people you know, and from different cultural backgrounds, even in our community.

I also arranged a meet and greet with our congressman Josh harder. And so he was able to meet and have a brief chat with our congressman. And he was very interested in government and politics and world matters.

Kate M.
Is Huzaifa interested in getting involved in politics in the future?

Karen G.
I see him as a world leader honestly. 
I can see him going that route, that he had visions and ideas and wanted just to learn more and more and more about government and issues and our society and how things worked. And he really evolved in grew as a young man and a speaker and a presenter.

He wanted to stay and that he hopes to come back and do some either college work or graduate work in the future. And he had a wonderful host family, they became very close I know with his two younger brothers became brothers to him in that family.

Kate M.
So, what sorts of things did he teach the students of Valley Charter High School?

Karen G.
Very interesting was the kids learning about how Pakistan came to be? Because you know, honestly, many, many kids even though we teach it, don't always absorb it and learn it and hang on to it did not know that, you know, the history of how Pakistan came to be, and then the internal strife that and the border issues that Huzaifa was very knowledgeable about and would share, you know about that and then the kids would talk about our our challenges in this country, our racial discord and our political discord and, you know, they would have exchanges about that. 

Kate M.
Would you say that your students were pretty open-minded when it came to listening and learning about different ways of life?

Karen G.
What I find more and more is more typical of adults, which is “I've already got my idea I'm not really listening to you. I'm just waiting for me to be able to say what I want to say” The kids listened. And they learned. And they absorbed, I think quite a lot. And I hope it was a great experience for Huzaifa. But it was an equally great experience for our school in what we gained on that.

Kate M.
Yes, and it’s good to remember that these moments of cultural exchange, including these impromptu conversations that happen between classes, during student body meetings, on the soccer field, these all should be considered when thinking about the impact of an AFS student on a school community. It’s not just speeches during an assembly, or presentations to the school board where this transfer of knowledge happens. 

Well, is there anything else you would like to add, Karen?

Karen G.
And even though I realize how for your organization, and how disappointing it is, for those thousands of students, I think that we are going to get through this and that at some point, those kids hopefully will have the experience of travel and cultural exchange that you know, they justly deserve. Every child deserves that.

Kate M.
Okay well. thank you, Karen.

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Kate M.
Thank you to Ben McMurray, TJ Connor, and Karen Gordon for speaking to me about their experiences working with AFS students in the school community. All three of these schools provide unique opportunities for our students, and we have learned today how AFS students can really give back to the communities in which they are hosted. 

Well, thank you for listening to The AFS Exchange! Let us know what you thought of this episode by sending a message to [email protected]

If you enjoyed this show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, and subscribe on Spotify.

You will be hearing more from The AFS Exchange soon! And until then, this is Kate M. Mulvihill with AFS-USA. 

This podcast was created, produced and edited by Kate M. Mulvihill. Social media by Julie Ball. Special thanks to Renee Hayes, Jill Woerner, Mary Porterfield and Sarah Radermacher. 

Ben McMurray
TJ Connor
Karen Gordon